For Sale: One Brooklyn Bridge
If you listened to this week’s episode than you know that a con man once sold the Eiffel Tower. You might ask yourself has there any other public building that have been the target of cons? The answer is lots, but the most popular target of con men seems to be the Brooklyn Bridge. This was sold so often and by so many con men and women that it was used as a plot device in the 1937 Mae West movie “Every Day's a Holiday.”
Since the bridge was completed in 1883, the idea of illegally selling it has become the ultimate example of the power of persuasion. A good salesman could sell it, a great swindler would sell it, and the perfect sucker would fall for the scam.
Can I Interest you in a Toll Booth?
A turn-of-the-century confidence man named George C. Parker actually sold the Brooklyn Bridge more than once. Parker posed as an architect that preferred building bridges to owning them. He would produce impressive forged documents to prove that he was the bridge's owner, then convince his buyers that they could make a fortune by controlling access to the roadway. Many times, the new “owners” had to be rousted from the bridge by police when they tried to erect toll barriers. Parker also successfully sold the MET, the Statue of Liberty, and Grant’s tomb.
The American Dream
He was not the only one to sell the bridge, other con men such as William McCloundy, Reed C. Waddell, and the Gondorf brothers (Charles and Fred) also ran the scam from the 1880 until the 1920’s. As you can tell this was a profitable scam with the bridge selling for anywhere from $250 to $50,000 (that’s all in 1890’s value), but you might be wondering: was there really enough people in New York that would fall for this scam? Most New Yorkers wouldn’t, so the mark for this scam was new immigrants. The con men would pay the stewards of international vessels docked at Ellis Island for information about passengers who might have money and be interested in buying property. These new immigrants didn't understand the country, or the law. However they did understand that it was the land of opportunity, where they could change their status and become someone of wealth and privilege.
The bridge was perfect because it was close to the port so very visible to newcomers, large enough that you could show it off without being to close, and second only to the statue of liberty as the most famous American landmarks in the late 19 century. The scam was still being run until the 1920’s however, less successfully, as immigrants had become more knowledgeable and officials started handing out booklets to newcomers stating things like you can not own public building or streets.
Even though we might not fall for this specific con, there are still lots of scams and con men and con women out there trying to make a fast buck.
Have a (legally) profitable week, everyone!
George C. Parker (Wikipedia)