We do like our bridges in Ireland. One of our very best and most popular Presidents, Mary McAleese, had bridges of the metaphorical kind, at the centre of her election campaign. A book of her selected speeches even contains the word in its title. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was all about building bridges between communities in Northern Ireland.
But once you get beyond metaphor and into the realm of engineering it’s a different matter. We have a few fine Calatrava’s, a bendy toll bridge that opens in the middle to allow ships up the Liffey, and an interesting span across the Boyne near the site of King Billy’s apparent triumph over someone called the anti-Christ [more about that encounter on our 12 July broadcast]. This just happens to have been named after … Mary McAleese. But, let’s be honest with ourselves, we don’t have nearly as many cool bridges as they have on the far side of the unbridgeable Atlantic Ocean.
In America it’s different. Everything is bigger. Even the rivers are wider. So, they need really impressive physical links between each bank, with not a screed of metaphor in their superstructure. One of the earliest of what is described, in technical terms as ‘really big bridges’ is the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened today, one hundred and thirty-six years ago, in 1883. It is, in what is a genuine technical term, a hybrid cable-stayed suspension bridge, and it linked the New York boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, whether the posher inhabitants of the former wanted it or not.
Now, as bridges go my personal preference would be for the Golden Gate over the Brooklyn equivalent, but that merely masks a strident prejudice in favour of San Francisco over New York, one that, I acknowledge, would not be shared by very many fellow countrymen, or weekend shoppers and trippers, acquainted with both cities.
No sooner was the bridge finished than one of its major purposes instantly became clear. It had, obviously, been built so that daredevils could show off, by jumping from it into the waters of the East river eighty-four metres below, and survive. For them, surface tension was just something you showed before you jumped, not the phenomenon that was going to kill you. The first to make this leap was a swimming instructor Robert Emmet Odlum, on 19 May 1885. Sadly, he was even less successful than his famous Irish namesake. He somehow managed to forget about the second bit, survival. He died from catastrophic internal injuries, including a ruptured spleen. He was followed a decade later by another Irish adventurer, James Duffy from County Cavan. Duffy recruited a small crowd to watch him jump. He may have been more successful than Odlum, we don’t know, because he was never seen again.
One of the enduring myths about this iconic hybrid cable-stayed suspension bridge is the notion of the out-of-town hick being conned into buying the Brooklyn Bridge from an able grifter. Legend has numerous gullibles falling for this scam. Some even attempted to erect toll booths on the Bridge after the cheque cleared.
Except it’s actually not a myth at all.
Doubtless, your hearts will swell with national pride when you discover that the two best exponents of this particular con were Irish Americans. First into the field was one William McCloundy, who also revelled in the alias I.O.U. O’Brien. He spent two and a half years in jail for selling the bridge to an unsuspecting tourist in 1901.
Even more successful was George C. Parker, son of two Irish immigrants, who was also known to use the name O’Brien as an alias. Parker also successfully sold Madison Square Garden, General Grant’s Tomb, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, wait for it, the Statue of Liberty. Though, I suppose if you can sell the Brooklyn Bridge you can flog just about anything.
Sadly for Parker, he spent the last eight years of his life in Sing Sing Prison, where using one of his more imaginative aliases, Warden Kennedy, would have been inadvisable. He died there in 1936. The familiar American phrase ‘and if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you’ could have been devised just for George Parker.
So, when it comes to the myth that people went to jail for selling the Brooklyn Bridge, it turns out that it wasn’t a myth at all. It’s true, and verifiably NOT fake history.