Whether duping others for money, a crown, prestige or simply for an adrenalin ride, meet the impostors that have made their own mark on history…
1) Ferdinand Waldo Demara. Jr (USA, 1921-1982)
Con: He saved lives as a doctor during a war – but had never trained
As far as those who met him were concerned, Ferdinand Waldo Demara had impressive credentials. A one-man Who’s Who, he was, at various points in his life, a surgeon, teacher, Navy officer, assistant prison warden, hospital orderly, lawyer, editor and a cancer researcher. He was a Trappist monk, and a Benedictine monk as well. And so much more besides.
To land his demanding roles though he told a string of lies. During the Korean War, he assumed the identity of the Canadian doctor, Dr Joseph Cyr, and in 1951 he worked on the destroyer Cayuga for several months. He successfully performed surgery on soldiers with the aid of a medical textbook, even going as far as extracting a bullet from a man’s chest in a major operation. Astonishingly, he saved 13 lives and was hailed a hero but the subsequent press coverage caused him to be unmasked as the impostor he was. Even so, Demara’s story was so mind-boggling and intriguing that he was impersonated himself – by actor Tony Curtis who played him in the film, The Great Impostor, in 1960.
2) Victor Lustig (Czechoslovakia, 1890-1947)
Con: He sold the Eiffel Tower – twice
In 1925, Lustig noticed that the Eiffel Tower, which had been erected in 1889, was costing a fortune for post-war France to maintain. So he invited five scrap metal dealers to visit him and pretended to be the deputy director-general of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. Offering to sell the Tower to one of them and urging his assembled team to keep quiet to avoid a public outcry, Lustig pinned his hopes on one man in particular – the upstart André Poisson who was desperate for kudos in a city in which he felt sidelined. Poisson handed over a bag of cash and went to collect his 7,000 tonnes of steel. But the authorities said they knew nothing about the deal and Poisson was too embarrassed to inform the police.
Buoyed by his success, Lustig, who had taken a train to Vienna, returned a few weeks later to try the trick on another group of scrap dealers. This time, however, the victim went to the police and Lustig only just managed to get away before he was arrested.
3) Frank Abagnale (USA, 1948-present)
Con: He posed as a pilot to aid his life of crime
After leaving home at 16, Frank Abagnale began cashing personal cheques to fund his independence. He opened new accounts at other banks, realising that using the same one would lead to him capture, but he figured cashiers would eventually grow suspicious unless he looked respectable. So, using fake ID, Abagnale called Pan American Airlines and told the company he was one of their employees. In claiming he had lost his pilot’s uniform and asking for a replacement, it wasn’t long before he was given a new one.
With a forged pilots license and identification, Abagnale immersed himself in his new persona, finding out as much as he could about the process of flying to make himself appear more genuine. At first, he pretended he was conducting student research into Pan Am and he later dated stewardesses. He became so convincing that he was able to persuade other pilots to let him ride on their planes to far-flung destinations for free during the time he wasn’t “working”. Before he was 18, it is estimated he had flown more than a million miles to 26 countries on more than 250 flights. Pilots even asked him if he fancied taking the controls. He did – but he flicked the plane into autopilot without being spotted.
4) Anna Anderson (Poland, 1896-1984)
Con: She claimed to be the daughter of Russian’s last Tsar
As a young woman, Anna Anderson tried to end her own life in 1920 by jumping from a bridge into the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. She was rescued but refused to divulge her name so, having been sent to a mental hospital, she was given the name Miss Unknown. Two years later, she claimed that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia.
This was a surprising declaration, not least because, in July 1918, Anastasia was presumed to have been shot dead by Bolshevik revolutionaries along with other members of the exiled Royal Family and their staff. It was only in the 1990s, when the bodies of the Tsar, his empress and their five children were found, that the myth was debunked. DNA taken from the Russian Royal Family and from Anderson proved once and for all that there was no match.
5) Lambert Simnel (England, 1477-1535)
Con: Aged just 10, his identity was faked to challenge the English crown
Lambert Simnel was the son of an Oxford joiner, and an innocuous 10-year-old. But a priest called Richard Symonds believed he closely resembled the two sons of Edward IV, both of whom had disappeared at the time Richard III took the throne. Although they were possibly murdered, rumours persisted they were still alive and so the intention was for Simnel to be passed off as one of those sons, Richard of York.
Symond’s plan changed when he heard false rumours that the Earl of Warwick had died in the Tower of London. He figured he could pass off Simnel as Warwick instead so promptly took him to Ireland, a hotbed of Yorkist support, where he was crowned in Dublin as King Edward VI in 1487. Henry VII was astonished and angry, and paraded the real Earl of Warwick through London’s streets. Thankfully, he was lenient on Simnel, possibility because he was a child and most likely unaware of the true situation. Simnel was pardoned and given a job in the Royal kitchen.
Read about more audacious crimes in the latest issue of All About History, on sale now from all good newsagents or the Imagine Shop.