Brooklyn Bridge Scam
The suspension bridge that links Brooklyn to Manhattan was opened in May 1883. It cost $15.5 million (that’s a bit over $400 million in today’s money) and the lives of 27 workers to build.
Almost immediately after its completion, confident tricksters saw a potential money-making venture. A cottage industry grew up among people selling the structure to credulous dupes. Despite the inventive genius of many con artists, the Brooklyn Bridge remains, as it always has been, in the ownership of the public.
The Brooklyn Toll Booth
The idea behind selling the Brooklyn Bridge is that the new owner could erect toll booths and charge people for access to Manhattan and then hit them once again on the way out.
The obvious question to ask the seller would be: why are you unloading such a goldmine? The scammers had a plausible answer ready for every question; these were superlative salespeople skilled in manipulating the greed and dishonesty of their targets. One of the favourite comebacks was “I am a bridge builder not a bridge owner.”
An impressive file of forged ownership documents was enough to convince a patsy he was about to close the deal of the century.
The Inventor of the Swindle
There’s some murkiness around who first tried to sell the bridge.
According to Elliot Feldman, a writer who specializes in exposing hoaxes: “The supposed originator of this 19th century scam was George C. Parker, although others have also laid claim to it . . .”
John Gordon (Maxim), says Parker “sold Brooklyn Bridge to tourists up to twice a week for many years.” Apparently, his best score was $50,000.
Carl Sifakis wrote about Parker in his book Hoaxes and Scams: A Compendium of Deceptions, Ruses and Swindles. He noted that the silver-tongued rogue also sold the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Statue of Liberty, and Grant’s Tomb.
Sifakis points out: “Several times Parker’s victims had to be rousted from the bridge by police when they tried to erect toll barriers.”
Parker got away with his swindles for almost 30 years until 1928 when he was locked up in Sing Sing Prison to serve a life sentence. He died there in 1937, and it’s said that during his stay he was treated like a king by other prisoners.
The Gondorf Brothers
There were many colourfully named practitioners of the Brooklyn Bridge sting, such as William McCloundy, also known as “I.O.U. O’Brien,” Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, and a couple of audacious brothers.
In his book Hustlers and Con Men: An Anecdotal History of the Confidence Man and His Games, Jay Robert Nash wrote about Charlie and Fred Gondorf.
Nash notes: “The Gondorfs sold [Brooklyn] Bridge many times. 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.”
They carefully timed police patrols; as soon as the beat cop had rounded the corner, they would put their “For Sale” sign up on the bridge. They would find their sucker, close the sale, and disappear before the police officer returned.
The Brooklyn Bridge Swindle Gets Stale
By the 1920s, greenhorn targets were getting harder to find and the endlessly creative crooks moved on to other schemes for fleecing the public. The stock market then, as now, was very popular among swindlers.
However, writing for The New York Times, Gabriel Cohen tells of a recent reverse twist in the fiddle; the delicious irony of a scam artist being scammed.
He writes that “One particularly memorable attempt to sell the bridge is documented on Scamorama.com, a website that presents email exchanges between would-be scammers and their not-so-gullible targets.”
A con artist in Liberia was trying to pull off the “advance-fee swindle” over the internet. But the target was able to win the trust of the Liberian and offered him shares in the Brooklyn Bridge.
Cohen writes that emails from the man in Liberia started to show real interest in the scheme “before the scammer finally realized just who was being conned.”
The Death-Defying Leap of Steve Brodie
The details of this story change depending on the source, but the core elements remain the same.
Not all ripoffs tied to the Brooklyn Bridge involved selling it.
Three years after the bridge opened, a Brooklyn bookmaker named Steve Brodie conjured up a scheme that fooled a bartender named Chuck Connors. Brodie is said to have laid a $200 wager (about $5,200 today) with Connors that he could jump off the bridge and live to tell the tale.
It seemed like a good bet to Connors because in 1885 a swimming instructor named Robert Emmet Odlum had tried the stunt and had not lived to tell the tale.
Brodie never announced the date of his 41-metre (135 feet) plunge, so witnesses were accidental and few in numbers. In 1986, John Hopkins of the Brooklyn Historical Society told The Associated Press:
“There are as many stories as there are witnesses. Some of them swore he jumped. Some of them swore he didn’t.”
The most widely accepted account is that a dummy was thrown off the bridge and Brodie swam from the shore and surfaced next to a barge whose crew fished him out of the water.
Steve Brodie became an instant celebrity; he opened a bar that carried his name and became a sort of museum in honour of his feat. It was highly successful, as was the acting career that followed. He starred in a Broadway show On the Bowery, which was loosely built around his supposed jump. But he did not live long to enjoy his fame; Brodie died of tuberculosis in 1901 at the age of 39.
The Gift to Swindlers That Keeps on Giving
If anyone has been sold the bridge in recent years, they have wisely kept quiet about it, but it can still generate ill-gotten gains.
On the centenary of the opening of the bridge in 1983, squares of the wooden walkway were lifted and sold to the public as souvenirs. They carried official authentication.
According to The New York Daily News “In 2006, someone picked up lumber from another bridge construction site, had it cut into small pieces and sent out a press release stating that he was selling the Brooklyn Bridge for $14.95, along with a certificate that the lumber was from the bridge. He received thousands of orders.”
Brooklyn Bridge Lottery
In March 1992, artist and social activist Joey Skaggs sent the media a tantalizing nugget of information. It was a “leaked interoffice memo” from New York mayor David Dinkins. It looked official and a handwritten Post-it note was attached that read “Thought you might be interested in seeing what the Mayor’s up to! ‘Mayor to Sell the Brooklyn Bridge!’ ”
The media jumped all over the story believing they had found a whistleblower in the mayor’s office. Before it was exposed as a gag, the story went around the world. A newspaper in Italy thought it was such a good idea it suggested the municipal officials in Florence should do the same with Ponte Vecchio.
- The swindle started even before construction of the bridge began. The famously corrupt William “Boss” Tweed had a hand in financing the Brooklyn Bridge and managed to raise an estimated $65,000 in bribes to city councilors to get them to vote for a bond issue. Tweed also held stock in the bridge-building company but never profited from it—he was arrested in 1871 and his theft of public money came to an end.
- John A. Roebling was the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge but he never got to see it. In June 1869, he was standing near the edge of a dock trying to decide on the location when his foot was crushed by a ferry. His toes were amputated but he refused to have any further medical attention. He died of tetanus three weeks later. His son, Washington, took over the project but was injured during construction and confined to bed. His wife, Emily, started out relaying messages from her husband’s bedside, but eventually took over running the venture. She was granted the honour of being the first person to cross the bridge.
- The bridge didn’t get its current name until 1915. At first it was the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. Then it became the East River Bridge before settling on the name it goes by today.
- “Hoaxes and Scams: A Compendium of Deceptions, Ruses and Swindles.” Carl Sifakis, Facts on File, 1994.
- “Hustlers and Con Men: An Anecdotal History of the Confidence Man and His Games.” Jay Robert Nash, M. Evans & Co., 1976.
- “For You, Half Price.” Gabriel Cohen, New York Times, November 27, 2005.
- “Brooklyn Bridge Brings Out the Gullible.” New York Daily News, May 16, 2008.
- “Did Saloon Owner Actually Pull a ‘Brodie?’ ” Larry McShane, Associated Press, July 24, 1986.
- “Brooklyn Bridge Lottery.” Joey Skaggs, undated.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
S Maree on September 21, 2017:
I love stories about bridges! My family spawned many road construction people, myself included for a time. Anything concerning the byways of mankind, their fabrications and stories, intrigue me!
The selling of the Brooklyn Bridge idea spawned many spoofs. Many of my generation who watched cartoons probably saw a version of it.
I can picture a shady guy in a trench coat, Fedora hat pulled low & lapels turned up. He approaches some poor rube saying, "Hey Mac, wanna buy the Brooklyn Bridge? My Ma's sick in Poughkeepsie an' needs an operation. I kin let ya have it for a steal at $_____(name a price)."
Oh! What fun when the cat was out of the bag! Thank you for the memories & information! Bravo!