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FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

BUYING THE FARM

I have a bridge for sale, if you happen to know a fish. In exchange for a small taste (bribe), boatmen working the ferries between the immigration station on Ellis Island and Manhattan would alert ropers (outside men) when they spotted a rube with a crowded oakus (a new immigrant with a full wallet). After befriending the Bates (victim), the rope would allow himself to be convinced to share his inside info on some of the fabulous business opportunities available for any America with a little ready cash. And, as evening settled in, the rope might even be induced to introduce the fish to Mr. George Parker, the fabulously wealthy but temporally distressed owner of the Brooklyn Bridge.
George C. Parker (the inside man) confessed that during the early 1880’s he sold the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week. He had documents showing he owned not only the bridge, but also Grant’s Tomb, the Statue of Liberty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He sold them all, over and over again. According to historian Carl Sifakis, “Several times Parker's victims had to be rousted from the bridge…when they tried to erect toll barriers.” George’s fame stems not just from his invention of this classic American scam, but for his part in creating that other American institution, The Three Time Loser. After his third conviction on December 17, 1928, George received a life sentence in Sing Sing, where the old man was very popular.
George Parker was followed by Reed (The Kid) Waddell, Charles and Fred Gondorf (whose name was used in “The Sting”), William (“I.O.U. O’Brian) McCloundy, and finally, Peaches O'Day, who was convicted of selling the Brooklyn Bridge in 1901. By the time Peaches worked the scam, the bridge had been devalued down to $200, and the very idea of selling the Brooklyn Bridge had become a joke. And if they are laughing at you, they sure don’t have confidence in you. But before them all was Gregor McGregor, a Scotsman who managed to not only sell what he did not own, but he sold what did not even exist.
Everybody in England knew who Gregor McGregor (above) was. In 1820 the tall, thin Scotsman in a tight uniform, was welcomed home by the Lord Mayor of London, as a hero. He had spent the last three years laying waste to the Spanish Main, fighting in various South American armies. He’d been made a general by Simon Bolivar, himself. And now Gregor McGregor walked into the British Foreign Office and announced that he had been made a prince (or Cazique) of the principality of Poyais. Everybody from Land’s End to Inverness was absolutely gobsmacked.
Poyais was a gift from George Frederic Augustus I, King of the Miskito Sambu tribe, who gave their name to the Mosquito Coast of Central America. It was quite a gift; 8 million acres of virgin rain forest, chocked full of lumber, or, if cleared, crop land perfect for growing sugar cane, cotton or tobacco, according to McGregor. A small group of British adventurers were already at work, overseeing natives constructing the new capital city of St. Joseph. What was needed now, explained hero McGregor, were settlers not afraid of hard work and sacrifice, and, of course, a few patriotic investors willing to fund another expansion of the profitable British Empire.
McGregor secured his “in” with English social circles when in 1821 he named the very proper Major William John Richardson as his legate. Together they opened an embasy in London, and in Scotland they began offering Poyais farmland at bargin prices, as “…an asylum only for the industrious and honest.” Almost overnight they sold some 200,000 pounds worth of Poyais bonds.
The publics’ hunger for information on Poyais was fulfilled by Captain Thomas Strangeways, who penned a book describing the Mosqito Coast as free from tropical diseases, and blessed with fertile soil, which lay atop uncounted veins of gold and silver. In September of 1822, the Honduras Packet set sail for Poyais with 70 settlers, and a chest loaded with new Poyais currency. This was followed, in January, by the ship Kennersley Castle, with another 200 settlers, this time mostly doctors, accountants, and lawyers. Ah, if they only knew that Captain Strangeways was actually the non—plume of Gregor McGregor.
On March 20, 1822, the Kennersley Castle arrived off the mouth of the Coco River, dividing modern day Honduras and Nicaragua. What they found were survivors of the Honduras Packet. There was no city of St. Joseph, under construction or otherwise, and no farm land. However there was malaria, and plenty of it. The Kennersley Castle dumped the settlers on the beach with the first bunch and sailed away.
Many of the white collar crowd refused to even help build their own shelter, because they had been lied to. The remainder tried to scratch their survival out of the unhappy land. One, a shoemaker, just lay down on his cot and shot himself. And everybody began to suffer from malaria. A month later who should arrive but King George Frederic (yes, he was real) aboard an English ship. He now admitted he had signed away the land after Gregor McGregor had gotten him drunk. But he now announced that he was revoking his gift. And that was the end of Poyais - in reality. In October 50 survivors made it back to London, and reported the story in full – sort of. Some of the returning survivors even signed a letter saying that after it all they still believed in Gregor McGregor. Human beings are such messy creatures. However Mr. McGregor was not there to defend himself. He had already moved on to Paris, where, in August of 1825, he issued a new constitution for Poyais, and secured a new 300,000 pound loan through a British bank. He immediatly started selling more farms in this tropical paradise that sounded too good to be true. The non-existant citizens of Poyais must have been thrilled to learn they now lived in a Republic.
In December of 1825 Gregor McGregor (above) was arrested by French authorities. In January 1826, from his Paris prison cell, he issued a proclamation to his fellow South American potentates. It took two trials, but in July Gregor McGregor was found… not guilty. Only his compatriots in crime were convicted. I guess it always pays to hire the best lawyers, particularly when you pay them with other people’s money.
By the fall of 1826 Gregor McGregor was back in England, and he spent the next decade selling Poyais in one form or another. In 1836 the nonexistent residents of Poyais got yet another new constitution, a flag with a green cross on a white background, and some competition. Two other companies started selling Poyais bonds, but found it not profitable enough to press the scam. In 1839 an almost destitute Gregor McGregor left England and sailed for Venezuela. They granted him a modest pension, and he died there in December of 1845.
And if it seems that Gregor McGregor’s lonely death in Venezuela offered a moral to close out our tale, allow me to point out that most people die feeling bitter and feeling alone. It has something to do with age. At least Gregor McGregor got his name on a monument outside of Caracas. Still, I have to agree with Will Rogers, who once said, “They may call me a 'rube' and a 'hick, but I'd a lot rather be the man who bought the Brooklyn Bridge than the man who sold it.”
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