Brooklyn Bridge for sale — a true story

When Sinatra sang: “I’ve been tryin’ to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge,” he meant it metaphorically. The Bridge, however, had been a commodity on the swindlers marked ever since it opened in 1883. Other sale items included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grant’s Tomb, and the Statue of Liberty, but nothing sold as well as Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge Promenade taken facing Manhattan. Arthur Vitols, Byron Company, 1903, via MCNY

The buyers were the newly minted Americans who literally just stepped off the boat to the land of opportunity. The opportunity came in the shape of well-dressed, presentable gentlemen who approached the newcomers with a proposition. The fatigue of the long trip, enhanced by a desire for instant success, didn’t help in the decision-making process. Since the Bridge was one of the best-known symbols of America, acquiring it seemed the quickest shortcut to the American dream. The fresh-off-the-boat immigrants were gullible but not stupid and, when buying the Bridge, didn’t expect to have it wrapped up and delivered. They were buying legal rights to erect toll booths at the Bridge. The seller often presented himself as the builder of the Bridge who had bigger endeavors to pursue than collecting tolls. The lucky buyer could ensure his family’s future with a steady income from the constant pedestrian and vehicular traffic through the Bridge. To make the affair look official, buyers received and signed the necessary legal papers in an office located in the vicinity of the Bridge. The luck seemed to have run out for the poor trusting bridge buyers when they were stopped by police while attempting to erect a toll booth.

Man of Many Aliases Faces Charge of Selling Land He Did Not Own. NYT, July 7, 1928

Since selling Brooklyn Bridge was a lucrative business, it attracted a few con artists, but George C. Parker was the most successful. He kept selling Brooklyn Bridge over and over again for 30 years; the price tag varied from just a few dollars to one thousand.

Parker was convicted of fraud and arrested multiple times. After his arrest, around 1908, he pulled off the smoothest prison break in history: putting on a sheriff’s hat and coat that a sheriff had set down for a moment, he calmly walked out the door. After his final arrest in 1928, he was convicted and sent to Sing Sing. One of the most successful con men in history, he spent the last eight years of his life entertaining prisoners with his colorful stories.

The Bridge sales dwindled by the 1920s when the buyers grew more sophisticated. The Ellis Island officials gave out booklets explaining that one cannot sell public buildings or streets and warning immigrants against scams.

It must have been awful for poor victims of the hoax, but one has to admit, it was brilliant, and admire the attention to detail: when the police were out of sight, the con artists even placed the sale signs on the bridge reading “Bridge for Sale.”

Selling Brooklyn Bridge sounds like an urban legend, but it’s not — this story is absolutely true.

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