George C. Parker – The Man Who Sold the Brooklyn Bridge

Since opening to international fanfare in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge has been so much more than a modern marvel of engineering.

From Court Street out to Coney Island, as children whenever we did something we weren’t supposed to, our mothers would set the same snare before the scold.

“Well if he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?”

Then there’s the age-old litmus test of gullibility used to dismiss our childhood tall tales.

“If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.”

This wasn’t just a Brooklyn thing, but adages appropriated coast-to-coast, even showing up in a 1949 Bugs Bunny cartoon. Even back then the nation was enamored with everything Brooklyn.

Remarkably, though, there were people gullible enough to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.

In fact, it was sold many, many times.

Just not legally.

A “Confidence Man” usually specializes in a specific scam, perfecting the con over time. You’ve got your Spanish Prisoner (today’s reader may recognize this updated as the Nigerian Letter Scam), your Fortune-telling Frauds, your Gold Bricks, and your False Injury Insurance Swindles.

George Parker’s swindle was selling property he did not own during the early 20th century, often to unsuspecting immigrants or tourists. Parker sold Broadway theater shows, the Statue of Liberty, Madison Square Garden, even the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When selling Grant’s Tomb, he drew sympathy posing as the heartbroken grandson of the famed Civil War hero and former U.S. President.

Yet Parker is best known for selling the Brooklyn Bridge, several times.

Image this man’s powers of persuasion, to convince someone he not only owned a New York City landmark, but was willing to part with it at a discount.

Then imagine the shock on the faces of his victims, the mornings they showed up on the bridge with their work crews attempting to set up toll booths, only to be unceremoniously booted off the span by smirking local police.

Like most successful Confidence Men, Parker tinkered with his sting over time. He rented offices to establish a legitimate setting for negotiations. He produced high-quality forgeries of all the necessary legal documents. And he targeted recently arrived immigrants coming through Ellis Island who appeared to be men of means.

Some of his sales were for up to $5,000, a massive sum at the time. However, he accepted far less in most instances, given that he kept selling it, reportedly twice per week for up to two years.

Alas, like all lawbreaking, there is no perfect crime. As persuasive as he was, Parker was fallible.

Arrested on fraud charges multiple times, on December 17, 1928, right before Christmas, Parker was sentenced to life in prison in Kings County Court in downtown Brooklyn.

Packed off to Sing Sing, Parker spent nearly nine years in prison until his death, enjoying minor celebrity status, impressing prisoners and guards alike with tales of his outlandish capers. It seems cons and corrections officers are especially taken with creative criminality.

Parker was not the first, nor the last, to sell the Brooklyn Bridge. There were other imitators, such as William McCloundy, a.k.a. I.O.U. O’Brien, sent to Sing Sing for a two-and-a-half-year stretch for the crime.

Yet no one before or since ever approached the sales volume achieved by Parker and his wonderful con.

Advertisements