The Man Who Sold The Brooklyn Bridge Twice a Week for 30 Years

38 Intelligent Opinions, Leave Yours.

Brooklyn Bridge Sunset HDR / SML

Hello, sir. Would you like to buy this lovely bridge here? Its on sale for today only. Think of all the money you could make from tolls.

Are you sure its for sale mate?” replied the confused old man.

Why else would it have a ‘For Sale’ sticker on it?!” came the reply.

George C. Parker was the greatest con man in American history managing to sell landmark items like Madison Square Gardens, the Statue of Liberty and, you guessed it, the Brooklyn Bridge.

In fact, he sold the Brooklyn Bridge at least twice a week, one time for as much as $50,000. Sometimes the police would have to stop the “new owners” from setting up toll booths in the middle of the bridge.

So what can we learn from this great con man? Well, for starters, I learned that my girlfriend wasn’t impressed when she found out I’d be studying con-artists until 8pm at night, skipping dinner.

But there is also a lot more we can learn – and its not unethical. So let’s dive in. Oh, and stick around to see what happened to ol’ George in the end.

Why the heck am I writing about con artists?

My absolute favorite comedians in the world are a couple of Australian’s called Hamish and Andy who have the world’s most successful Podcast. They are consistently brilliant (currently they are trying to sue Steven Segal) and recently they moved to New York to do a 10 week series. It was them who discovered George Parker.

If I was a betting man I’d guess that they were going to try and sell the Bridge too.

So I got to thinking: how can someone be convinced that the Brooklyn Bridge is for sale, that this guy in front of them owns it, and that it is only going to cost between $50 and $50,000? What part of the human brain is failing here?

Human nature and the art of selling

Afghans teach American Air advisor life lessons
Photo credit: DVIDSHUB

George C. Parker was a successful con artist because he knew how to sell to people based on emotions, logic and be exploiting several human traits. For example, to sell items like the Brooklyn Bridge he would have had to exploit people’s:

  • Greed
  • Compassion
  • Irresponsibility
  • Vanity; and
  • Honesty

And let’s be clear here. To manipulate someone like this you need to conceal your own motivations of aggression or greed and as such it is never an ethical behavior. Sure, it is illegal (swindling/theft) but it is also extremely unkind leaving your mark (that is the victim in con artist speak, told you I was studying) feeling used and debased.

I am not discussing confidence artistry with the hope that you will defraud someone. I am doing it so you will learn about what makes people tick so you can use it on your own blog or website, which I assume is an ethical and helpful service.

Doing your research
The first thing that George Parker did was his research. He knew what made people tick and he knew how to get them motivated.

He also knew a lot about what was involved in a major transaction. For example, he even set up a fake office and had fake contract papers drawn up so people didn’t suspect that he was doing something shady.

If you want to sell more on your blog you need to know what makes moves your readers’ waters. Are they trying to make more money? Are they lonely and want to feel part of a group? Are the scared and are looking for protection? These are things you need to know.

And let me reinforce this point: we only use this information in order to help people and improve their lives and thus grow our business. I find the idea of using human weakness or gullibility in order to rip someone off quite disgusting.

Some things are universal
Now, once you know what makes your readers tick you need to realize that some things are universal. I have written about that here, here and here.

I am also writing about this in a new book about how to grow an audience from scratch that I have been asked to feature in. Leave a comment if you want details.

So what is universal? Well, for starters, people need to feel part of a group. And they want things to be exclusive. If you can merge the two of these things you have a very powerful sales tool. For example, I bet one of the reasons you read this post was because you, somewhere deep down, wanted to know this story so you could tell it to others. That is a kind of exclusive form of power.

George Parker would have undoubtedly used this in his con pitches. Imagine the drivel you could tell people about the unique and rare lineage of people who owned Madison Square Gardens or the Brooklyn Bridge. Sure, people could make money from tolls, but they also become part of a historically elite group of people. And that would have been exciting as hell.

So what happened to George?

George Parker got caught, sentenced to life in prison and was sent to Sing Sing where he eventually died. Not a glamorous ending. Not worth it at all.

So I’d like to know: what emotions or logical arguments get you ticking? What motivated you to buy? Think about the last thing you signed up for online and leave a comment letting me know what it was that pushed you over the edge. Hopefully we can learn a lot about online conversions.

Photo credit: See-ming Lee

 

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38 Comments... Leave yours.

  • Andrew

    I enjoyed this, the story of George made it compelling but I like the moral about integrity and ethics. It’s something I also think is hugely important yet sadly many are happy to make a living by unethically exploiting others (or attempting to).


    1. the Blog Tyrant

      Agreed.


  • Diggy

    Hey Tyrant,
    Things that motivate me to buy are greed, sex, adventure and egotistical reasons (besides the obvious practical reason of needing the item to get something done).

    A real solution to a problem is probably one of the most convincing reasons to buy, but the issue is always presenting the fact that you have a solution for a problem, and then making it convincing enough that you’re the real deal and not some scam.

    Cheers
    Diggy


    1. the Blog Tyrant

      Solution to a problem. So simple but so rare these days.


  • Jen Whitten @ The Positive Piper

    *hangs head in shame* I already knew too much about con men. :S

    Book details please.

    Last thing I signed up for (besides my daily horoscope that I wanted in my email since I’m too lazy to remember to visit the site without it) was an ebook about working with Kindle – formatting, uploading, marketing, etc. My motivations were:

    1. I’m impatient/busy and didn’t want to deal with trial and error in formatting.
    2. It was the pre-release price that was more than 50% off.
    3. I’m familiar with the seller so I knew the ebook would deliver what she said it would and that the price truly would more than double on the date she said it would. (Which it did.)

    Since I value time over money, it made sense to pay a little green for something that would save me time in the long run.


    1. the Blog Tyrant

      Thanks Jen. Perfect.


  • Carol McIntyre

    I am old school – I buy something because it solves a problem or fills a need. Sometimes I buy something because I want to be up to date on current technology. Is that vanity?


    1. the Blog Tyrant

      Don’t think it’s vanity at all. Just smarts.


  • David Bennett

    I am subscribed to your blog and I read the whole of your article in my email. Had I not wanted to leave this comment I would not have needed to even visit here today.

    So I wonder, why do you publish the whole of the article by Mail or RSS rather than just an extract?

    Looking out for the book you are going to feature in. :-)


    1. the Blog Tyrant

      Hi David.

      I used to publish exerpts only on another blog but got so many complaints and unsubscribes. Full feed really seems the only way to go for most of the time.


  • Michael Robinson

    I implemented this advice: http://bitoftech.mkronline.com/2011/08/18/someone-will-try-to-ruin-your-life-make-sure-they-fail/

    And it seems to be working. Two comments (on the Google+ post) and quite a few hits from everywhere I posted it after only 30 minutes.


    1. the Blog Tyrant

      Man that stuff is scary.


  • Leigh

    Pride, ego – lucky for me hardly anyone has the marketing skills to hit those buttons just right – but person to person interactions… when they do… when I’m caught off guard… it’s a disaster.

    On another note, I think this kind of question requires a certain degree of introspection – I’m not sure everyone is able to privately think about, let alone publicly reveal their weaknesses – and that in itself has given the con man loads of ammo over the years.

    Seriously, who wants to say: I’m vain, I need a sh*t load of attention, and I often make really bad decisions?


    1. Jen Whitten @ The Positive Piper

      *raises hand* I’m vain and I need a sh*tload of attention.

      Just to put the record straight. :)


      1. the Blog Tyrant

        Ha ha ha. Good point Leigh. And Jen.


  • Patrick

    Well I went to comment, after reading the email and got “Error establishing a database connection” and Safari can’t connect to the server “www.blogtyrant.com” for a while (around 16:15 UK time)
    .
    Time to stop using BlueHost, their reputation isn’t good for uptime and it can cost visitors! Maybe switch to a more reliable host like Hostgator, I use them just for this reason. Hope this helps, as you probably don’t realise this is going on.

    Anyway, back to your article. Intriguing title and writing, reinforces what you were saying previously about telling a story … it works :-)

    I completely agree with the exclusive group view. I’ve just become a member of a fairly exclusive forum (less than 200 members) through purchase of a product, even moderating it at the moment. But exclusivity isn’t everything, even if the information or product is valuable there needs to be a rapport (even the virtual online kind) with other members and this isn’t the case for me with this group, so will probably move on elsewhere.

    By contrast, another group I belong to and moderate (around 1500 members) is extraordinary, everyone is helpful and there is no abuse or spamming etc, it feels good to be a part of this.

    Patrick


    1. the Blog Tyrant

      Hey Pat.

      Thanks for the server heads up. Has that happened before?

      Good point about the human interaction too. Very true.


      1. Rachelle

        Last time I checked bluehost and hostgator are run by the same conglomerate.


  • Jean Gogolin

    I think you left out “stupidity” in the list of things old George had to exploit. Plenty of that going around.


    1. the Blog Tyrant

      True.


  • Marcus

    Ah con artists! I’m a big fan of true crime books. Another great scammer you’d want to check out is Victor Lustig. He sold the Eiffel Tower–twice! He also codified his cons into an art form by creating the “Ten Commandments for Con Artists.” Well worth reading.

    For entertaining “case studies,” there’s a cool BBC TV series called “Hustle” where con artists scam bad people who deserve it: greedy CEOs, corrupt cops, and the like. They explain everything they do, almost like training films. A lot of their preparation time is studying the mark and trying to figure out his psychological weakness.

    I remember one episode where they had to take down this tough gangster. But he didn’t seem to have a weakness. He couldn’t be bribed, bullied, or seduced. Then they noticed that he bought a movie magazine every day, without fail. After realizing he was a film fan, the gang concocted a scheme where they got him to invest in a fake movie production.

    As for the last thing I signed up for, just this morning I subscribed to the e-mail list of Derek Halpers at SocialTriggers.com.

    A friend of mine who’s an SEO expert shared a video on Twitter. It’s of a professional blogger at ConvinceandConvert.com who hired Derek for a consultation to evaluate his blog and suggest ways of boosting conversion rates. The post was called “Conversion Optimization School is in Session.” I followed up by visiting Derek’s site.

    What got me to sign up at Social Triggers was the social proof. At the bottom of Derek’s “About” page, he has the logos of more famous websites that he’s been featured in, like Copyblogger and Problogger. So my reaction was, “If they think this guy is good, he must be good.”

    I noticed that Derek’s About page is like a landing page–the menu navigation disappears and it’s a lot more bare than his regular pages. He really practices what he preaches: that About page is designed for conversion.

    It was a combination of factors that drove me to sign up: the personal recommendation of a friend, the friend has authority (he’s an SEO expert), and the social proof on the About page. All I can say is that those methods worked on me.


    1. Jen Whitten @ The Positive Piper

      There’s a show on TNT called Leverage that sounds like the one you’re describing. Basically, everyday people come to this team of ex grifters, hackers, thieves and thugs to tell their sob story about how a person or corporation screwed them over. Then the team goes after them and takes them down in a way they can’t ever report to the cops. Like the show you’re talking about, they also explain what they’re doing and make a point to go back at the end to show the parts of the con you might have missed during the episode.


      1. Marcus

        Hey Jen, thanks for the tip on “Leverage.” The story structure is like a dead-on match for “Hustle.” I always loved trying to guess how the team succeeded, then being surprised during the flashback scenes near the ends of the episodes that revealed the trick. Lets the audience get conned too, all part of the fun.

        I haven’t been able to find “Hustle” on TV, I watched it years ago. Looks like “Leverage” will be a good replacement!


        1. the Blog Tyrant

          Great comment Marcus. What an interesting topic for a show.

          Great tip about ST as well. I’ll check that out.


  • Parley

    Ok. So the last thing I bought online was Running QuickBooks in Nonprofits: 2nd Edition by Kathy Ivens. The motivators follow in this order:
    1. Honesty – If I tell people I specialize in something, I’d better get crackin’ on specializing.
    2. Greed – Happy clients spread the word. Get happy clients by knowing your craft and doin’ it right.

    While I had found this book in an advertisement and read several reviews, the real tipping point was when I realized the author and I are members of the same group on LinkedIn. Basically, easy access the the source in case I need clarification on something.
    The book will be at my house this evening.


    1. the Blog Tyrant

      Its interesting how important the human aspect is, despite the goodness of the offer.


  • TouchGamer

    I’m a huge sucker for sales. That and stuff with limited time on the market. An example would be a limited time offer for a bundle of video games that also happens to be on sale. I couldn’t resist that.

    Nice article by the way. It was a fun read.


    1. TouchGamer

      Actually a really good example I just thought would be: I just bought the Nintendo 3DS because there was an offer to get 20 free downloadable games if I bought it before the systems pricedrop.


      1. Marcus

        That “available for a limited time only” tactic is so annoying, but so effective. I was checking out airfares on the Internet for my mother, and some of the flights would say, “3 seats left.” Then I’d worry about not booking fast enough to lock in the low price.

        Amazon.com does this really well too. Like I’ll be window-shopping for DSLR lenses, and it will say, “Only 5 left in stock.” Playing on people’s aversion to loss is a powerful sales tool.


  • Paula

    The last thing I bought online was Garrett’s popcorn from Chicago for my husband’s birthday because he loves it and they took Amex!

    Great post.


  • Rachelle

    The last thing I bought online was a very well reviewed book called Landlording, it was reviewed by John T Reed a man I admire who outs these fake real estate guru’s.

    http://www.johntreed.com/Reedgururating.html

    No study of con men would be complete without a serious evaluation of Real Estate Guru scam. Here’s some people who rarely own real estate, have often gone bankrupt a few times, who rely on the income of selling their books and courses on how to be successful at real estate.

    Too many people get taken in by these rip off artists.

    A great read on John’s site is the
    http://www.johntreed.com/BSchecklist.html which is geared to real estate Bull S*it but certainly can be applied to most schemes and scams.

    Not to mention the persuasive power of psychopathy, an interesting study in itself. Normal people are incredibly vulnerable to people who are psychopaths because they are charming, persuasive, believable and manipulative. I’ve met a few and they are almost impossible not to like.

    Oh and the book is impressive!


    1. Marcus

      I remember the John T. Reed website. He wrote an expose-type post about Robert Kiyosaki, the author of all those “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” books. Good reading.


      1. Rachelle

        Yep,

        He pretty much hates Kiyosaki, and just tears his book to shreds. Points out where following his advice could land you in jail.

        I feel like writing him again to tell him about the trademark case I’m fighting. I wrote him before and he told me never be afraid to speak truth to power. Really nice guy.


  • James Hussey

    There’s so much in this post that it’s now bookmarked and will be read three more times…I’m an internet marketer, live off a passive income – and it’s the con artist side of marketing that I’m always wary of. It’s tempting – because it’s actually easy to write a story, get sales, etc…and it’s also something I don’t want to do.

    Then again…for $50k…hm…(slaps himself)

    On a serious level, I’m here reading this post because you just emailed your list and this is a ‘controversial’ post. I’m disappointed…I don’t see the controversy unless I’m without a moral compass, blind or…well: there just isn’t a controversy.

    Getting back to your post, though – I always buy based on my own grid of trust signals. If a friend recommends something, and the product or service fills a need of mine (usually I buy in a utilitarian fashion: have problem, buy solution) – then I’ll buy.

    The last thing I bought was Mark Shaefer’s ‘The Tao of Twitter,’ since I’m usually a link-builder and not someone who leverages social media well. Un-learning bad habits and learning better marketing skills is where I’m currently at, and this book and author has a lot of credibility to it (from various people I trust to the Amazon sales page to Mark himself: he bleeds trust).

    Credibility will always lower my sales resistance. (That and the cash in hand of course!)


  • peter davies

    To be honest this is something Ive always struggled with in online marketing. Through all the noise you need to try to convey a message in order that people will notice you and feel confident enough to buy from you

    A very difficult art indeed. An excelent article and anyone sad enough to be offended by this clearly haven’t read the article properly or don’t get what your trying to say.

    I get that the odd You Tube video


  • Susannah Wollman

    I’m commenting on today’s email, about losing readers over the Brooklyn Bridge scam. Controversy is often a grab, and most people like to read both sides of the argument. Revealing your own position is the risk you take. Evaluate it. Do you want to tell it so badly that you are willing to lose readers over it? Reminds me of a quip from “Out of Africa” where they are discussing whether or not to lend books, and what to do when the borrowers don’t return them. “You wouldn’t lose a friend over a book, would you?” “No,” he answered, “but he has.”

    BTW, if a headline doesn’t deliver, I probably will just quit reading that person’s blog. After all, no one likes to be scammed.


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