The greatest grifter ever — from Brooklyn, of course

May 13, 2022 William A. Gralnick
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It’s a line everyone in Brooklyn knows. Probably everyone in greater New York knows it. Maybe most everyone in the country as well. “If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.” 

Here’s a question. Why the Brooklyn Bridge? Some speculate that its location near the port brought visibility to new immigrants that couldn’t be missed. It was also tremendous. For someone thinking the streets were paved with gold, why couldn’t you buy the bridge? Famed comedian Myron Cohen told the story of the newly rich man who buys an estate in Westchester and invites his friends for a party. One asks, “Why do you have three swimming pools?” The answer? “I got some friends, they only like to swim in warm water. I got other friends, they like the water, it should be cold.” The friend says, “But why the third?” “Well, I got some friends who don’t like to swim at all.” Ba da boom.

It was kind of grandiose thinking that could lead to someone thinking, “Hoo Ha!” I’m right off the boat and look at me now. I own the most famous bridge in the world!” Wasn’t it PT Barnum who said, “There’s a sucker born every minute—and two to take’em in?” For this, it is an apt equation. The Brooklyn Bridge was sold dozens of times by dozens of people. Men, women, anyone who had the touch of a grifter. It really takes some chutzpah. The grifter timed the patrols of the beat cops who walked the bridge. Since it was 6,016 feet long, when they were out of sight, the grifter sent his minions into the crowds to draw them in close. He would make the pitch about what a wonderful country this was and how quickly one could become a hotshot. Sometimes there was a bidding war; sometimes it was a flat fee. With it, you got a genuine deed, a bill of sale. One said, ‘Received for $200. One bridge. Good condition.”

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This was a phenomenon that had a long shelf life. Its prime time was between 1880 and 1890 when the bridge turned hands x times. As times progressed, immigrants arrived here a bit more worldly-wise, it became a harder sell. Yet it was still going into the 1920s. You’re probably scratching your head in disbelief. Think about it this way.

Ever been walking in Manhattan and come across a kid with a card table hawking to the crowd to come play Three-Card Monty? We’ll give you that you’re too smart to play. You watch. Within minutes several people pick a card and they win, win big. Some win repeatedly. They look just like you, on a break from the office, hanging around until it’s time for the train home. They aren’t just like you. They are shills. They are playing with the house money. Their winnings go from the table to their pockets, and later back into the kitty. It’s only when enough bystanders get hit with the rush of realization that makes them think, “this game is beatable” that things take off. Suddenly it’s loss after loss after loss, but with the dealer commiserating, urging “just one more try” or “your numbers gotta come up,” reminding the players of the winners they just saw pocketing the money, surreptitiously salting in another winner or two to keep the players’ juices going. Skillfully he plays the players. The dealer is raking in the dough, which goes on until one of the lookouts spies a beat cop. Suddenly the table collapses, is folded under the dealer’s arm, and all the players scatter like mice who have seen a cat. Loser or just watcher, you feel the fool.

Or to update it, look at what scams are played out—successfully—on the internet. You won the Irish Sweepstakes and only have to pay the taxes upfront. A sad letter from a woman who lost everything in Europe and only needs money for a ticket home. A child’s voice, late at night, claiming to be your grandchild who was mugged (pick a country), and needs money wired to Western Union to get home. A Nigerian prince who has discovered a small fortune of money that belongs to you, and you only need to pay the processing fees to have it winging your way. The scams are legion. Also, legion is the number of people who lose everything. Ever hear of Bernie Madoff? How about the tragedies of young girls, promised a job in America that turns out to be prostitution as they get trafficked from one louse to another.

In 1860 was born into this world a baby who would grow up to be known as the greatest grifter of them all. His name was George C. Parker, also known as JJ O’Brian, Warden Kennedy, Mr. Roberts, and Mr. Taylor He was a man who perfected his craft. He sold the Brooklyn Bridge more times than anyone and for the largest sum. ‘you remember our $200 sale a few paragraphs up? Well George’s number, as they say in Brooklyn, was “fifty large.” Yes, that is fifty thousand dollars, which today would equal one million, four hundred and nine thousand, three hundred and thirty-three dollars and, to be exact, thirty-three cents ($1,409,333.33). That would be an increase of almost 3,000%.  Rumor has it that when things were going well, he’d sell the bridge twice a day. Yes, twice a day. He also had success selling Madison Square Garden and Lady Liberty.

All things, good and bad, come to an end. Parker finally began to wear the nerves thin of local law enforcement under whose noses he was grifting. He was sold a nice room in Sing-Sing…where in 1930 he died, leaving a bridge still titled to the New York City Transportation Authority.


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