Today in History: Con Artist Who Sold the Brooklyn Bridge Was Born

Today in History: Con Artist Who Sold the Brooklyn Bridge Was Born

by M.C. Millman

Swindler George C. Parker, born to Irish parents on March 16, 1860, is best known for repeatedly selling the Brooklyn Bridge to unsuspecting immigrants.

Parker admitted he sold the bridge as often as twice a week for up to forty years. Some people are doubtful and believe he may have exaggerated that number. He took advantage of the vast waves of immigrants arriving in America, hungry for the "American Dream."

According to Irish Central, Parker's scheme involved approaching unsuspecting immigrants, engaging them in casual conversation, and introducing himself as the owner of the Brooklyn Bridge. He would then lead the discussion to propose putting up toll booths, explaining that he was looking for a trustworthy worker for the booth. He would offer the job to his eager target and escort them to the bridge.

Parker would have a "Bridge for Sale" sign posted at the bridge upon arrival. He would then reveal that the bridge was for sale for a reasonable price and told his victims they could earn a fortune by charging as much as they wanted by the toll booths. Parker had offices set up near the bridge. He would sell the bridge from anywhere between $75 to $50,000 each time. 

The oblivious "new owners" would set up their toll booths, only to be completely crestfallen when the police showed up, letting them know they could not set up the booths and that they did not, in fact, own the bridge.

The New York Times explains that Parker chose the Brooklyn Bridge for this endeavor because it was close to the port and highly visible to newcomers. Its size was also helpful because it allowed Parker to show the bridge off while avoiding the police. But perhaps most critical was its considerable fame. 

"In the 19th century," said Kathleen Hulser, the public historian at the New York Historical Society, "the bridge was one of the two best-known symbols of America," the other being the Statue of Liberty.

In addition to the Brooklyn Bridge, Parker sold many other landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty, Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Grant's Tomb.

Times Herald newspaper published in 1928 reported Parker used various names as a con man, including James J. O'Brien, Warden Kennedy, Mr. Roberts, and Mr. Taylor.

Parker was convicted of fraud three times. His fourth conviction, which involved cashing a worthless $150 check, sent him to prison for life because of the Baumes Laws. The law states that people convicted of a fourth felony must be imprisoned for life. 

Parker was sent to Sing Sing Prison, where he spent his eight remaining years. He was said to be extremely popular among guards and inmates, who loved hearing Parker's stories of his career. 

Parker's infamy lives on today with the oft-repeated phrase, "If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you."

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