Everyone has heard the expression, “If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.” What most people don’t know is that there was a man who sold the Brooklyn Bridge…over and over again. George C. Parker was a con man extraordinaire in a city full of con men. In his book, The Modern Con Man: How to get Something for Nothing, Todd Robbins write, ““He was one of the ballsiest grifters ever.” So who was George C. Parker and how did he get the guts enough to think up and execute these cons?
Born in 1870, not much is known about his early life. New York at the turn of the century was growing and teeming with immigrants right off the boat. Parker saw the opportunity for a quick buck and took it. He bribed men working the ferry boats on Ellis Island bringing the new immigrants to New York to tell him who was “with a crowded oakus”, or had a lot of cash on them. The ferrymen would cozy up to the marks and tell them of the amazing opportunity they had just heard about. Then they would be referred to Parker.
Parker would then take over with what could only be described as a well rehearsed smooth con. He did his research and had stacks of forged documents and deeds showing him as the owner of the Brooklyn Bridge. He convinced the marks the government was just on the verge of passing a law to make the bridge a toll bridge, and he was looking for investors to to set up booths to collect the tolls. The investors would keep a percentage and would in effect be part owner of the bridge. It was a can’t miss proposal. He was so convincing that many of the marks didn’t know they had been had until they were trying to build their toll booths on the bridge.
How successful was Parker? According to Parker, he claimed he sold the bridge twice a week for years. He made up to $5000 on one sale, but usually it was for however much he could talk you into. The scam worked so well, Parker expanded it to selling the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Statue of Liberty, and Madison Square Gardens. His biggest scam was posing at the grandson of former president, Ulysses S. Grant. He went to wealthy investors pretending to be the former president’s next of kin lamenting he could not complete repairs on Grant’s Tomb. Grant was revered as the Hero of the Union, and investors flocked to give money to ensure his tomb was kept in good order.
Parker would have gotten away with it, however, he was caught on a fraud charge of passing a bad check in 1928. This was his fourth fraud charge, and under a new statute, it was four strikes and you’re out. He was sent to Sing Sing prison and died behind bars in 1936. However, his cons brought a new expression into the American vernacular.
Sources available on request