3 – George Parker & The Brooklyn Bridge Scam
Parker probably inspired Lustig because his career consisted of ‘selling’ landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, Grant’s Tomb, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Madison Square Garden. However, it is his daring escapades with the Brooklyn Bridge which are the hallmarks of his swindling career. Indeed, his antics have even resulted in a new entry in the English lexicon: “If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.”
Parker was born in New York City in 1860 and specialized in selling property he didn’t own. His masterpiece was the sale of the Brooklyn Bridge; the famed landmark was completed in 1883. He saw its opening as a chance to make easy money and devised a simple scheme which he used time and again to great effect.
To begin with, Parker would place official looking ‘For Sale’ signs on the bridge where everyone could see. He would carefully choose his victim who was usually someone from outside the city. Parker approached his marks and explained that he owned the Bridge and wanted to set up a toll booth to charge people who crossed. He said that he needed a person to work in the booth and continued his spiel by suggesting he would make a fortune from the new charge.
Parker told his mark that he wanted to build new bridges and landmarks in different cities, so he didn’t have much interest in overseeing the creation of toll booths. As a result, he was keen to sell and offered the Bridge for a knockdown price (this could be anywhere from $50 to $50,000). Parker set up a fake office complete with forged documents, so the mark didn’t suspect anything was amiss. Most victims paid in cash, and some even paid in installments.
The mark did not know he was the victim of a scam until he tried to set up the toll booth. The police would arrive, much to the embarrassment of the new ‘owner.’ Unlike Lustig, Parker was able to sell the Bridge on a weekly basis for decades. Eventually, his criminal past caught up with him and Parker ended up in Sing Sing prison in 1928 for fraud. He died in prison in 1936 but was apparently very popular with inmates and guards as they enjoyed hearing about his legendary career.