George C Parker
Selling the Eiffel tower certainly marked a high-water-mark in the world of confidence tricksters, but selling Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for thirty years trumps that in sheer audacity.
New York in the 1880s was a melting pot of immigrants arriving in the New World from all corners of the globe. Most came in impoverished, but there were some who arrived with investment capital, eager to exploit on the American dream. A hapless newcomer might notice as he looked around the city a ‘For Sale’ signed pinned to a pillar of the majestic, recently completed Brooklyn Bridge.
Likely then he would have been approached by a well-dressed man wearing a bow tie and a flat cap who would introduce himself as the owner of the bridge, and in casual conversation, reveal that he, George C Parker, proposed to erect a toll booth on the bridge, from which he anticipated accruing a fortune. He also happened to be searching for a reliable person to work in the booth, and since the ‘mark’ was new to New York, Parker would, of course, be happy to offer him the job.
Then it would follow that the Bridge was in fact for sale, hence the ‘For Sale’ signs pinned against the brickwork, and if our credulous immigrant really wanted to make a fortune, he could purchase the bridge for a very reasonable sum and erect a toll booth himself.
How many times this ruse worked is anybody’s guess, but the George C Parker myth will have it that Parker sold the bridge twice a week for thirty years. Prices paid vary from $50 to $50,000, depending on who. Once an agreement was struck, the mark would be guided to an official looking office, presented with very authentic looking paperwork, after which the money would change hands and Parker would never be seen again.
On days that business selling the bridge was quiet, Parker busied himself selling other major New York landmarks, at various time disposing of the original Madison Square Gardens, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grant’s Tomb and the Statue of Liberty.
He operated successfully for over forty years, before, on December 17, 1928, he was finally tried and convicted of three counts of fraud. His crimes earned him a mandatory life sentence in New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison.
Life, however, proved to be just eight years, and George C Parker died behind bars in 1936. His legend, however, lives on in the popular idiom, ‘if you’ll believe that, then I have a bridge to sell you!’