Skeptic History: Can I sell you a bridge?

Can I sell you a bridge?

When faced with somebody who is being a tad gullible, a common tongue-in-cheek refrain that is often deployed by many is to say “Can I possibly sell you a bridge, I have one for sale?”. Meaning of course, if you believe whatever is being discussed, then you are being incredibly gullible.

Did you ever wonder if this actually happened?

The answer is that indeed yes, it did, hence the turn of phrase.

George C. Parker

The infamous, but perhaps not so well-known now, George C. Parker, was well renowned as a con artist. He is perhaps best known because he did actually manage to successfully “sell” the Brooklyn Bridge. What is perhaps truly surprising is that he managed to sell it, not just once, but several times.

Born in 1860, he would target unwary immigrants by convincing them that the right to charge a toll was up for sale and so they could earn a good income by buying the right to run the toll booth off him.

He had a gift when it came to persuasion and selling the bridge was perhaps the ultimate test of this. Often his victims had no idea they had been conned until the police came and removed them and their tool booth. Apparently they were called multiple times to do just that.

Parker did not simply restrict himself to the Brooklyn Bridge. He sold many famous landmarks to unsuspecting marks. This included, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Statue of Liberty and Grant’s Tomb.

You might think that nobody could possibly be that stupid, but he was well versed in the craft and utilised some very impressive documentation that he forged as “proof” that these were his to sell.

William McCloundy

Parker did not have an exclusive claim on bridge selling. A rogue named William McCloundy also managed to successfully sell Brooklyn Bridge in 1901.

Least you wonder, yes, he was caught and did several years in sing sing.

Many others

Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, who is described as “probably the greatest con man of the 20th century,” also ran the bridge con. Other con artists, such as Reed C. Waddell, had perhaps set the stage by running the Brooklyn Bridge swindle in the 1880’s and 1890’s, and Charles and Fred Gondorf also are reputed to have also run the same scam as well.

How did the Con work?

A New York Times article from 2005 explains …

Perpetrators such as Mr. Waddell and the Gondorf brothers were savvy. They timed the path of beat cops working near the bridge, and when they knew the officers would be out of sight, they propped up signs reading “Bridge for Sale,” showed the edifice to their targets, and separated them from their money as quickly as possible. “The Gondorfs sold the bridge many times,” Mr. Nash said. “They would sell it for two, three hundred dollars, up to one thousand. Once they sold half the bridge for two-fifty because the mark didn’t have enough cash.”

You do have to wonder why it was so popular.

The article goes on to explain a bit about the abundance of “suckers”. Basically people who have a sufficient amount of cash, yet were also very gullible …

“The oddity of the thing today,” said Luc Sante, author of the book “Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York,” “is not that there might have been con artists ready to sell the bridge, but that there would have been suckers both gullible enough and sufficiently well-heeled to fall for it.”

By all accounts, the bulk of the suckers were greenhorns, fresh off the boat. Swindlers used to approach the stewards of international vessels docked at Ellis Island and pay them for information about passengers who might have money and be interested in buying property. “They didn’t understand the country,” Mr. Nash said of this population. “They didn’t understand the law. But they understood that this was supposed to be the land of opportunity.”

Since Brooklyn Bridge was near the port, the inevitable is history with a constant stream of immigrants.

By about the 1920s the con more or less lapsed because the potential marks had wised up, and so beyond that date no more bridge selling happened. They did try, but failed.

The concept itself lived on in both movies and even cartoons, and so became entrenched as part of folklore.

What happened to Parker?

He was caught several times, but even then plied his trade. When arrested in 1908, he escaped by putting a sheriffs hat and coat on, and simply walked out. His day of reckoning came in 1928 when he was sentenced to life in sing sing. He then spent his remaining days entertaining both guards and other prisoners with stories of all his exploits.

One last word of caution

Running a con persists to this day. It simply manifests in different ways.

So far today I have personally received two calls supposedly from the tax man advising that unless I press 1 and talk to them right now then a warrant for my arrest will be issued.

I pressed 1 and advised them that I was the tax man (yes, I lied … gasp!), so could they hang on while I traced their call because they were going to jail. They quickly hung up.

Meanwhile, I was also contacted by Microsoft and advised that my broadband was faulty. Before they got much further I advised them that they had a wrong number because I don’t have a phone. After a stunned silence, the guy who called hung up.

To be honest, if I had a bit more time I would try to keep them on the line as long as possible as a public service. I have a friend who fakes being a very elderly person who is slightly deaf and so gets them to keep repeating things. He also gets them to hang on and wait because he needs to go find his credit card and it is upstairs, and just leaves them hanging. His record is almost an hour.

I do wonder if I could possibly sell any of these callers a bridge, I should give that a go sometime.


If you do think that people these days are a lot more sophisticated and not as gullible, then I’d hit pause and look around you. How many have been conned by something from this list …

  • QAnon
  • The Cult of Trump
  • The supposedly Stolen Election
  • The idea that Climate Change is a Hoax
  • TV Evangelists who advise that if you send them seed money you will get rich
  • etc…

We live in an age where the con reigns triumphant.

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