Meet the Conman Who Sold the Brooklyn Bridge — Many Times Over

By: Yves Jeffcoat  | 

People walk the pedestrian pathway of the brooklyn bridge
People walk the pedestrian pathway of the Brooklyn Bridge. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

The 21st century is a scammer's paradise. The internet has made it easy to snatch any dewy-eyed person's dollars or identity – we're only one phone call, malicious link, or credit card swipe away from fraud or extortion. But scams aren't a modern invention. Unfortunately, plenty of people in the past fell victim to the whims of unscrupulous snake oil salesmen and smooth talkers. It took a bit more effort to swindle people out of thousands of dollars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it was possible. And longtime con artist George C. Parker was a pro at it.

At the time, millions of immigrants seeking better lives entered the United States through the "Golden Door," better known as New York City. Largely impoverished and hopeful, these immigrants were perfect targets for opportunistic tricksters like Parker. Cunning and ruthless, Parker took advantage of naive immigrants and tourists by selling them buildings and monuments that he had never even owned. In the end, his misdeeds got him a life sentence at Sing Sing Prison, where he died – but not before he made a pretty penny by evading the law and duping impressionable strangers.

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The Grift and The Grifter

Parker's Brooklyn Bridge grift likely began in the 1880s. The ruse was relatively simple: Parker would scout out marks who'd recently arrived in New York City, convince them that he owned the Brooklyn Bridge, and sell it to these eager investors for as much as $50,000. He charmed his victims into thinking they would easily profit by charging people for access to the bridge. Soon, they would try to set up toll booths on the roadway. But their new venture – pitched as a lucrative business and promising start to life in the Big Apple – was destined to fail. Police would shut down their attempts to control the road, and all their dreams of getting rich off of drivers' pocket change were dashed. Eventually, processors at Ellis Island started handing new arrivals cards warning them, "You can't buy public buildings or streets."

Parker was a career criminal by any measure. At times, he posed as a prison warden or the captain of a ship. He had at least six pseudonyms, including James J. O'Brien, Warden Kennedy, Mr. Roberts, and Mr. Taylor, according to an article in the Olean Evening Times. In 1928, The New York Times reported that a man named William McCloundy, also known as I.O.U. O'Brien, was arrested. As it turns out, this was just another one of Parker's aliases – in this case, one he used to sell Max Schmeyer 10 lots that he did not own. Detectives found Parker measuring a backyard in Asbury Park. "Only that he was captured, he told the police, he would have been able to sell the place for $17,000," said another New York Times article.

Parker was so good at his job that he managed to "sell" the Statue of Liberty, Madison Square Garden, Ulysses S. Grant's tomb, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as four lots in City Hall Park for $25,000. But he couldn't avoid getting caught, and he went to jail several times for larceny, forgery, and impersonating a police officer.

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Parker's Downfall

It's unlikely that Parker sold the Brooklyn Bridge as many as two times a week for years, which some sources say that he claimed. After all, he lied for a living – how much stock could anyone put in his claims? But his Brooklyn Bridge con was successful many times, and he had contemporaries who were just as willing to rip off unsuspecting newcomers for a quick buck, including Reed C. Waddell and the Gondorf brothers.

However, after decades of scheming, a $150 check sent Parker to prison for good. According to the Olean Evening Times article, the check "bounced back with startling elasticity." Under New York's Baumes Laws, people convicted of a fourth felony had to be imprisoned for life. So in 1928, Judge Alonzo G. McLaughlin in the Kings County Court sentenced Parker to life in Sing Sing. Parker died in 1937 and was buried at the prison cemetery.

The Brooklyn Bridge racket lost steam after the 1920s, since more people were aware that it was fraud. But Parker's infamy lives on in a phrase you might have heard: "If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you."

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