If a stranger approached you, saying, “Hey, Buddy…. I have a bridge to sell. Are you interested?” Odds are that you would quickly put your hand over your wallet and hurry away. Anyone who falls for a scheme like that is so gullible that they’ll fall for anything. This principle is so ingrained in the culture that the phrase, “If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you,” is used to describe someone who will believe anything.
The reason selling a bridge to unsuspecting rubes is synonymous with the practice of con artists is because of one man who did exactly that. He didn’t sell just any old bridge; he sold the Brooklyn Bridge. He was so good at the practice that he made a living out of it, selling the bridge twice a week for over thirty years.
George C. Parker was born in New York City in 1860. His childhood gave little indication of his future notoriety. Born to Irish parents, he was one of eight children. The thing that distinguished him initially was the fact that he graduated from high school — something of a rarity for those of his class in that day. At some point, he decided to use his intellectual gifts in a less-than-admirable manner.
Parker drew on the immigrant roots of his family to exploit the multitude of immigrants who flooded New York in the 1880s. While most arrived with scarcely two coins to rub together, there were a few who had investment capital and wanted to get a quick start on the American dream.
Parker had an eye for spotting the perfect “mark.” He would hang out near the Brooklyn Bridge and look for someone who might be gullible enough to fall for the con. Parker approached his victims, appearing to be anything but a nefarious ne’er-do-well. He was well dressed, decked out in a bow tie, and a flat cap. He introduced himself as the owner of the bridge and revealed that he planned on erecting a toll booth. In the course of the conversation, he would casually suggest that he was looking for someone to hire to work the toll booth for him.
By assessing how much the intended mark believed this story, Parker would know whether to reel the victim into the bigger con. Parker would guide the individual toward the proposed site for the toll booth where, conveniently, he had placed a “For Sale” sign on the bridge itself.
When asked about it, Parker would say, “Well, as it happens, I am planning on selling the bridge. I hate to do it because the tolls will bring in a lot of money, but I am strapped for cash now and need to liquidate it. You wouldn’t happen to know anyone who is looking to make a good investment, would you?”
This may sound like an unlikely scenario, but it was quite profitable for Parker. He used the ruse to sell the bridge twice a week for over thirty years. The price of the bridge varied from $50 to $50,000, depending on the circumstances. $50,000 in 1925 would be worth $744,000 in 2020. No matter the price, Parker guided the “buyer” to an official-looking office where the money would be exchanged for the paperwork that would prove ownership of the landmark.
Invariably, the victim would go straight from the office to the bridge, set up a toll booth, and try to collect money from passing vehicles. That person’s dreams of quick wealth always came to a crashing end when a police officer would show up and explain that the bridge was never for sale and had not changed hands.
Parker did not limit himself to the Brooklyn Bridge. On days when he needed to keep his distance from the recently-sold bridge, he peddled other New York City landmarks. Over his three-decade career as a grifter, he sold Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Statue of Liberty, and Grant’s Tomb. His technique for selling Grant’s tomb was to impersonate the grandson of Ulysses S. Grant and explain that the Grant family was destitute and desperately in need of money.
Parker’s grifting career came to an inglorious end on December 17, 1928, when he was convicted of three counts of fraud. He received a life sentence in New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison, where he died in 1936.
The editorial staff at Commonplace Fun Facts is admittedly conflicted in presenting the story of George C. Parker. We are firmly committed to the principles of law and order. At the same time, the sheer audacity and skill of this master criminal just beg for applause. Perhaps his achievements will one day be memorialized if someone dares rename the Brooklyn Bridge in his honor.
And if you believe that will happen, we have a bridge to sell you.