Sunday, April 14, 2013

And If You Believe That, I Have A Bridge To Sell You

The Brooklyn Bridge can be described in many words: Iconic, Awe Inspiring, Timeless, Engineering Genius, For Sale...Wait, For Sale? Yes, the Brooklyn Bridge has been sold many times over throughout it's history. But no one sold it as often as George C. Parker, perhaps the greatest con man in New York City History. Parker was not the first person to try and sell the bridge but he went the extra mile to really sell his con. So lets examine the art of the con which Parker perfected and the landmarks he sold to the gullible.

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George C. Parker was no dummy and his con was not just some "fly-by-night" operation. This man had a calculated scam which could rouse almost anyone in New York City, then and perhaps even today as well. So how did he do it? He targeted the immigrants coming to New York through Ellis Island. Parker would bribe men working the boats that would ferry the newly arrived immigrants from Ellis Island to New York. On the boats they would target immigrants who seemed to be "with a crowded oakus" or in 21st century terms, carrying a lot of cash on them. The men on the boats would then befriend the new arrived immigrant and share with them the opportunity of "purchasing" the Brooklyn Bridge or Grant's Tomb or Madison Square Garden and so on. It was from that moment that they would be sent to Mr. Parker, the proud yet desperate to sell owner of any and all the major landmarks of New York City. Aside from immigrants focused mainly on tourist visiting the city, talk about a souvenir that could last a lifetime. Both groups were the easiest targets and most gullible. But just how successful was Parker?

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Parker claimed to have sold the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for several years. The price? Well sometimes $5,000 dollars, other times $75 dollars but most of the time it was whatever Parker could talk you into spending, which was pretty much every penny you had. How did he make such a sale? Well he played the role of an over stressed bridge owner who just could handle it anymore. He then went on to explain to his marks how they could make millions by setting up tolls on the bridge. It was at that point that the NYPD would step in and break the bad news that they've been had. The police would have to remove gates, tollbooths and other home made structures all implaced by the bridges new "owners." However, Parker's scam wasn't perfect. He was arrested three different times for fraud and that third and final time landed him in Sing Sing. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1928. In Sing Sing, Parker was perhaps the most popular man in the joint. Prisoners and even the guards and warden loved hearing Parker retell the stories of the times he sold New York City's most famous landmarks.

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 George C. Parker would die in 1936. His legacy though is as timeless as the Brooklyn Bridge. He is one of the most successful and notorious con men in American History. Today millions of people visit and travel across the Brooklyn Bridge everyday. Many of its frequent visitors have no clue about Parker and his exploits. The same can be said for the other great landmarks that dot New York City. Parker could have been a ruthless business man, but instead found a market that was untapped. Sure, it was illegal and immoral, but still very impressive. Aside from his selling of the Brooklyn Bridge there is one other story about Parker that may be my favorite story about Parker. Once, when selling Grant's Tomb, Parker played not the role of a salesman but of President Ulysses S. Grant's own grandson. Sure enough after enough of the ol' Parker charm, he sold Grant's Tomb.

Is George C. Parker the greatest con artist in History? Perhaps, he did what Ponzi and Madoff could have only dreamt about. Sure he did not make the money those two did, but still was more successful. So next time you're in New York City and walk past the Brooklyn Bridge or Grant's Tomb or the Statue of Liberty, just take a second and think, how many times did George C. Parker sell that?

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