History

America's Greatest Conman Sold the Brooklyn Bridge Twice a Week for Years

Have you ever heard the phrase, "If you believe that, then I have a bridge to sell you?" You've got to be pretty gullible to fall for some stranger's offer to sell you one of the most trafficked bridges in the world for cheap. But in the 1800s, a surprising number of average joes fell for scams just like this — and the king of the bridge-sellers was George C. Parker.

A Pro Con

In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge had just opened and New York's population of con artists smelled a ripe scam. It worked like this: First, you convince your mark that you a) own the bridge and b) want to get rid of it, quick. That sounds like a tall order, but George C. Parker had it down to a science. One of his favorite cover stories was that he preferred building bridges to owning bridges — but even in 19th-century dollars, it seems like his $75 asking price would be a red flag. Of course, it's all about knowing your marks, too. He was also known to have gotten as much as $5,000 for nothing but a set of falsified documents.

The trick worked because Parker (and other con artists who pulled similar scams, like William McCloundy) tended to target recent arrivals to Ellis Island. He'd pay off ships' stewards for information about which families had money to spend and might be looking for real estate opportunities, and assail them with a get-rich-quick scheme that was literally too good to be true. It also didn't hurt that there really was some confusion over ownership of the bridge, as both Manhattan and Brooklyn laid some claim to it. In any case, Parker pulled his scam so often that New York City police regularly had to clear the bridge of toll booths set up by hapless "owners."

National Con-uments

Parker's schemes weren't limited to the Brooklyn Bridge. In one of his other high-profile cons, he sold the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant by claiming to be the general's grandson. He also pulled the old "I just build it, I don't want to own it" trick with the Statue of Liberty and the Met. Eventually, he was caught and sentenced to life in prison. He died behind bars, but he earned a reputation as everyone's favorite inmate before he did.

Of course, other countries have their own monuments and their own tricksters looking to make a buck. In France, "Count" Victor Lustig earned a reputation throughout the early 20th century for selling, you guessed it, the Eiffel tower. And in India, a master criminal who went by the alias Natwarlal used a variety of disguises, forgeries, and more than 50 aliases to sell such landmarks as the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, and the Parliament House of India.

Arm yourself against the tricksters of the world by learning how they work. Pick up "The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time" by Maria Konnikova (free with a trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

How Do Con Artists Fool People? They Listen

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 13, 2018

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