Between fake news, fake products and fake identities, our world has no shortage of con artists. Many use versions of tried and true scams that are hundreds of years old. Late nineteenth-century con artist George Parker sold real estate. Most famously he sold the Brooklyn Bridge but his portfolio also included multiple New York monuments.
Like many others of his time, con artist George Parker preyed on the vast waves of immigrants arriving in America, hungry for their piece of the American Dream. He paid stewards working on ships coming into Ellis Island to identify potential “customers.” During the journey to America, they scoped out passengers with plenty of cash, an interest in owning real estate and gullible spirits.
According to Carl Sifakis in Hoaxes and Scams: A Compendium of Deceptions, Ruses and Swindles Parker’s swindle became relatively sophisticated over time. Parker reportedly opened real estate offices. He even produced authentic looking documents to prove that he owned the bridge. He convinced his buyers he enjoyed building bridges, but operating them was too stressful for him.
Parker convinced his buyers that they could make a fortune by controlling access to tollbooths. According to Sifakis, “Several times, Mr. Parker’s victims had to be rousted from the bridge by police when they tried to erect toll barriers.”
While some historians say he sold the Brooklyn Bridge only a few times Parker himself claimed to have sold it twice a week for several years The sales price varied, but supposedly went as high as $50,000. The facts are difficult to verify. Is it possible that con artist George Parker hoaxed the world about the success of his own hoax?
David McCullough, author of The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, says that the bridge was a natural target with both Manhattan and Brooklyn claiming its ownership. That left just enough of a crack in the fake news of the day for swindlers to slip through. The bridge was also geographically desirable given its proximity to the port. The Brooklyn Bridge was one of the first things visitors saw.
The Brooklyn Bridge Wasn’t The Only Real Estate Parker sold. In addition to the Brooklyn Bridge, Parker was also known to sell the Statue of Liberty, the original Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He even sold Grant’s Tomb, claiming to be the general’s grandson.
Parker was convinced of fraud three times. His third conviction resulted in a life term in Sing Sing where he was said to be enormously popular. Prisoners and even the guards and warden loved hearing Parker retell the stories of his career.
Brooklyn Bridge’s “Seller” Sent To Sing Sing For Life.
George C. Parker who startled the world by “selling” the Brooklyn Bridge to a “hick” and as a trustee 20 years ago, walked out of the Raymond Street Jail, fooling the guards by using the coat and hat of Sheriff Finherty, was today sent to Sing Sing for life by County Judge Alonzo G. McLaughlin.
Parker, who is now 68 years old and gave his last address as 103 Quincy St., was not in his usual role. He was a little despondent and offered no fight when Assistant District Attorney William Kleinman prosecuted him on a charge of having cashed a worthless $150 check…
The swindler who years ago performed the epic of the confidence world by disposing of Brooklyn Bridge was a meek lamb as he faced Judge McLaughlin. He pleaded guilty to grand larceny in the second degree.
Parker has established a record of crime and prison sentences. His manner and means of deception were studied carefully by the underworld.
Twenty years ago on New Years Day, Sheriff Flaherty, who had just taken office, arrived at Raymond Street Jail to greet the workers and prisoners. He took off his overcoat and hat. Parker, a trusty then, donned them. One of the guards actually salaamed him as he walked unmolested out of the jail, bidding all a Happy New Year.”
While Con Artist George Parker made a name for himself, America did not hold the exclusive on monumental swindles. “Count” Victor Lustig earned a reputation in the early 20th century for selling, the Eiffel Tower. In India, a master criminal known as Natwarlal used a variety of disguises and at least 50 aliases to sell monuments including the Taj Mahal, and the Parliament House of India.
New York World newspaper’s star female reporter, Nellie Bly, also used aliases and disguises, but she was hoping to flush out the cons. Although she never wrote about con artist George Parker, she covered many real estate hoaxes. She also exposed fake dating services, haunted houses and fortunetellers.
According to The New York Daily News “In 2006, someone sold pieces of the Brooklyn Bridge for $14.95, along with a certificate of authenticity to prove that the lumber was from the bridge. In fact, the lumber was picked from the construction site of another bridge. The modern day con artist received thousands of orders.
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