Is there any truth to those old stories about unscrupulous New Yorkers attempting to "sell" the Brooklyn Bridge to hapless tourists and/or newly arrived immigrants? Where'd that come from? Did anyone really want their own bridge? Smells fishy to me. But then again, so does the Brooklyn Bridge from time to time.
It depends on whom you ask. The earliest known cite, dug up by Barry Popik, legendary amateur etymologist and Straight Dope friend of science, is from the June 16, 1914 Lincoln (Nebraska) Daily Star, curiously enough:
A St. Louis man has bought part of a bridge across the Mississippi. We can’t help wondering if this is the same westerner who used to buy the Brooklyn bridge every season.
Two different New York Times stories from 1928 report the legal problems of veteran con men said to have fraudulently sold the Brooklyn Bridge earlier in their careers. The first was William McCloundy, who “sold the Brooklyn bridge in 1901, for which he was convicted of grand larceny and served two and a half years in Sing Sing,” according to detectives. The second was con man George C. Parker, also alleged to have sold the bridge at an unspecified time.
The idea isn’t as crazy as you might think. The stock in the bridge, built between 1870 and 1883, was originally privately held, and it wasn’t until 1875 that all of it was acquired by Brooklyn and New York.
Still, let’s not forget that the alleged 1901 McCloundy sale was being reported on 27 years after the fact, by which time fraudulent transactions involving the Brooklyn Bridge had attained mythical status. If McCloundy had really been convicted of the crime the fact ought to be readily checkable, but we’re not aware of anyone having done so. Too little detail is provided about the claimed sale by George C. Parker to warrant giving that tale much credence.
In a 2005 Times article on the subject called “For You, Half Price,” Gabriel Cohen cites a book called Hustlers and Con Men: An Anecdotal History of the Confidence Man and His Games by Jay Robert Nash (1976). Cohen writes:
Nash interviewed an elderly swindler named Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, who said he had known several criminal vendors of the bridge. Mr. Weil, whom Mr. Nash visited in a Chicago nursing home and described as “probably the greatest con man of the 20th century,” recalled a swindler named Reed C. Waddell, who worked the bridge swindle in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Mr. Weil also claimed to know Waddell’s successors in that trade, the notorious Charles and Fred Gondorf.
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” … 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.”
Maybe. But Nash is relying on a second-hand account from an elderly con man about events alleged to have occurred more than 75 years earlier. These circumstances that invite some skepticism, to say the least. Historian David McCullough, in an interview with Michael Pollak of the Times, said nobody really knows where the story comes from. And Richard Haw, in The Brooklyn Bridge: A Cultural History (2005), says it’s a myth.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.