Wanna Buy The Brooklyn Bridge

Wanna Buy The Brooklyn Bridge

Hey, Wanna Buy the Brooklyn Bridge? ~ The Craziest Real Estate Scams of All Time

By Eric Alt

Selling the Brooklyn Bridge

Salesman: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images; Brooklyn Bridge: George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

Odds are you’ve heard of a few real estate scams. Maybe you’ve even fallen for one yourself. Well, don’t feel bad: The dustbin of history is littered with fools (and, yes, nonfools) and their money being casually liberated from each other in the name of real estate, mostly thanks to a few infamous characters and their nefarious schemes.

If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

How do you know you’re a legend in the con game? When your schtick becomes so well-known it evolves into an idiom used to describe gullible people. That’s the legacy of George C. Parker, who set the standard for New Yorkers bilking tourists back in the late 1880s when he “sold” the Brooklyn Bridge, sometimes twice in one week.

Targeting fresh-off-the-boat immigrants who traveled with cash in hand, Parker would sell the iconic structure for pretty much whatever he could get—from $75 to several thousand. He forged documents that the bridge’s new “owners” would then try to use to make their money back—by, say, erecting toll booths on their new purchase. Parker ran similar scams selling people rights to the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and even Grant’s Tomb (he pulled that one off by pretending to be the grandson of the late Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th U.S. president.).

How did it end? Not well. He was arrested a handful of times, and the last, in 1928, landed him in another New York landmark—Sing Sing prison—where he was given a life sentence. He died there eight years later, allegedly one of its most popular inmates. After all, he always did have the gift of gab.

… or an Eiffel Tower

It seems absurd now, but when the Eiffel Tower was unveiled at the 1889 Paris Exposition, people scorned it as an eyesore. That’s when counterfeiter “Count” Victor Lustig saw his chance. Faking credentials, he convinced people he was authorized to sell the tower for scrap. His first mark was so embarrassed when it became clear he’d been duped, he didn’t even report it to the authorities. So Lustig sold the tower again to someone else. This time, the victims were not shy about calling the cops.

How did it end? In 1935 Lustig was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and died after serving 12. Some claim that fake bills known as “Count Lustig Money” are still floating around out there.

… or a country

When some men return from war, they’re usually forgiven if they stretch the truth here or there about their heroic exploits. But when Scottish-born Gregor MacGregor (a descendant of the famous Rob Roy) returned to England from the Peninsular War in 1814, he wasn’t content to whip up a few exaggerated tales of adventure. Instead, he invented an entire country.

MacGregor claimed he’d been named prince of a nation called Poyais (in modern-day Honduras), a fertile land filled with chunks of gold and friendly natives. He then persuaded people to invest all of their savings to emigrate to this would-be paradise. Somehow, MacGregor managed to get seven boats filled with 250 settlers to Poyais, where they encountered a land that was almost nothing like what MacGregor had described—but by then, he’d returned to Europe and started his scheme up again in France.

How did it end? In 1823, the French authorities decided to try some radical investigative work—namely, verifying facts and asking questions—and eventually MacGregor was imprisoned on fraud charges. Upon release, he spent the rest of his life ducking his bilked investors, eventually fleeing to Venezuela to avoid them.

… or the Taj Mahal

Who wouldn’t want to own the Taj Mahal? That was the logic used by a former lawyer in India known as “Natwarlal”—real name Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava. Using his forgery skills, elaborate disguises, and over 50 aliases, the wily Natwarlal “sold” the Taj Mahal not once, but twice. Other landmarks of note he pawned off to the gullible and unsuspecting: the Rashtrapati Bhavan (that’d be the presidential mansion) and the Parliament House of India.

Wanted for over 100 cases of fraud, Natwarlal was arrested and jailed numerous times, but never for long thanks to his other special talent: He escaped from prison eight times. Even when he was last arrested in 1996 as an octogenarian in a wheelchair, he gave the cops the slip in a New Delhi train station.

How did it end? Natwarlal died in 2009, but people weren’t quite certain he was dead despite his advanced age. That’s probably because Natwarlal had already officially “died” once, in 1996. He has since become something of a folk hero in India, where there are multiple films and TV shows inspired by his exploits. And we kinda get it—that is, if it weren’t for those poor souls who thought they owned the Taj Mahal.


Eric Alt has been a writer and editor for outlets as diverse as Maxim, Fast Company, Men's Journal, Cosmopolitan, Mental Floss, Inked, "Attack of the Show," and Spike TV, among others. He lives in New Jersey, where he tries desperately to keep his two children from tearing the state to pieces.

 Follow @Eric_Alt

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