Reporter Andy Mills tries to sell the Brooklyn Bridge, while the hosts place America’s biggest scam in context.
BRIAN BALOGH: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED AYERS: Hello.
BRIAN BALOGH: And Peter Onuf’s with us.
PETER ONUF: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN BALOGH: And we’re talking about deception in American history– cons, swindles, hoodwinks, scams.
ED AYERS: In the history of American swindles, there’s one in particular that seems to loom a little larger than any other swindle. And it goes like this–
ANDY MILLS: All right.
ED AYERS: A man makes his way out to the Brooklyn Bridge.
ANDY MILLS: There’s plenty of people out. It’s a nice, warm night.
ED AYERS: This is reporter Andy Mills. He’s going to help us out on this one.
ANDY MILLS: The sun is currently setting over the city. The lights are just now starting to come on. This is prime time for people to just be snapping photographs.
ED AYERS: And this guy, as he’s walking across the bridge, he’s on the lookout.
ANDY MILLS: I’m seeing a lot of athletes, a lot of runners. I’m seeing a lot of people who are carrying merchandise.
ED AYERS: He’s looking for a particular kind of person.
ANDY MILLS: I’m keeping my eye out for people who look like they may be suckers.
ED AYERS: Because this man is about to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge.
ANDY MILLS: All right, I may have some people here. They look really nice. They look well dressed. They look like they got the money.
ED AYERS: Newspapers reported that soon after the bridge was finished in the early 1880s, suspicious characters started trying to sell the bridge to some of the immigrants who were flooding into New York City.
ANDY MILLS: Hi, ladies. How are you doing? I’m sorry to interrupt you. I see that you’re here enjoying this lovely bridge. And I was just wondering, would you be interested in buying this bridge?
FEMALE SPEAKER: Where are you going with this?
MALE SPEAKER: No, not interested.
FEMALE SPEAKER: I don’t want to own anything.
ANDY MILLS: You don’t want to own the bridge?
FEMALE SPEAKER: No.
MALE SPEAKER: No, what would I do with it? I don’t know.
ANDY MILLS: I’ll ask this lady. Hi, there. How are you? She just ran away. She literally ran away from me.
PETER ONUF: In 1928, the New York Times finally caught up with a couple of these con men who had been trying to sell the bridge. The first, George Parker, was a notorious con man who is said to have sold the bridge multiple times. The second, William McCloundy, was known by the police as I.O.U. O’Brien.
MALE SPEAKER: It depends how much you’re selling for.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Is there a payment plan?
ANDY MILLS: Oh, a payment plan? Yeah, we can setup a payment plan. How much money you think you’d be willing to throwdown though?
FEMALE SPEAKER: I have like $20 in my wallet.
ANDY MILLS: $20? Look at this– turn around and see that view.
CHAN: I don’t think so.
ANDY MILLS: Why not?
CHAN: I think it costs more money to maintain it rather than earning money.
ANDY MILLS: Just think, you could rename the bridge. You don’t have to call it the Brooklyn Bridge. If you own it– what’s your name?
ANDY MILLS: Chan?
ANDY MILLS: This is the Chan Bridge from now on.
ED AYERS: So Brian, I find this a little hard to understand. People look around, they see this enormous thing and think that it could be sold to them. What kind of logic, what kind of con could somebody actually make that would work?
BRIAN BALOGH: Well, half of the con is what’s in the mind of the people you’re going to con. So first of all, you to understand, these are people arriving knowing that this is the land of opportunity. Secondly, these were not just a bunch of saps, even though some of them were my relatives, Ed. These people arrived here knowing that they needed a job. And those cons all started with a tiny realistic possibility.
Would you like a job on this bridge that I own? I’m about ready to build a toll booth. Immigrants would have seen toll booths back in the old country. They understood that people owned bridges, not the government. Individuals owned bridges. And yeah, that’s just what they needed, a foot in the door. A job.
MALE SPEAKER: I just don’t have the capital.
ANDY MILLS: If that’s your problem, then we’ve got no problem.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Are you also selling the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal?
ANDY MILLS: Well, no. The Eiffel Tower you’re going to have to talk to somebody else about. And you know what? Towers, they crumble and fall. Bridges, they bring people together.
FEMALE SPEAKER: I could not pay more than a thousand euros– dollars, sorry.
ANDY MILLS: Thousand dollars? Sold. Sold.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Yes!
ED AYERS: Well, has this opportunity already been taken, Brian? Because this actually sounds like something I could do in my spare time.
BRIAN BALOGH: Well you know, Ed? In the 1920s, on Ellis Island, they started posting signs and handing out pamphlets saying all bridges are owned by the government. Do not buy a bridge.
So at least if you came through Ellis Island, you would be warned in very explicit terms that you should not buy a bridge.
PETER ONUF: Yeah. Now, tunnels on the other hand–
PETER ONUF: Special thanks to the ever-cunning Andy Mills for helping us on that one.
ANDY MILLS: Now, there’s the woman who ran away from me. I’m not going to ask her again.
PETER ONUF: And what about you? Have you ever been conned in a foreign land? Have you ever found yourself being taken advantage of in a completely unfamiliar environment? Let us know at backstoryradio.org.