Imposters in history: 16 famous con-artists and pretenders
Author and journalist Eugene Byrne explores 16 of the most daring, notorious – and downright bizarre – imposters through history
The footnotes of history are scattered liberally with individuals who pretended to be people they were not.
Once in a while, they even made it as far as history’s headlines. Think of Perkin Warbeck, put up by opponents of Henry VII as Richard, Duke of York (the younger of the two princes in the Tower) and therefore the rightful king of England.
In the early 17th century, Russia saw no less than three 'False Dimitris', all claiming to be the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. The first of them even made it to the throne, but all three met violent ends.
More recent centuries have seen dozens of colourful imposters, and while their adventures might simply be seen as interesting yarns (many have been fictionalised on film), they are often worthy of serious historical study because of what they tell us about the times and places in which they lived. Indeed, many imposters got away with it because people wanted to believe them.
Here are 16 famous imposters through history…
The Captain of Köpenick
Wilhelm Voigt (1849–1922) had spent much of his life in prison for theft, burglary and forgery before gaining notoriety with his ‘criminal masterpiece’ in October 1906. Dressed in the uniform of a German army captain (which he had assembled from various second-hand purchases), Voigt played on the unquestioning obedience expected of Prussian/German soldiers.
Voigt commandeered two small groups of soldiers (dismissing a sergeant who might have queried his credentials as an officer) and occupied the town hall in Köpenick, near Berlin. Claiming that town officials were suspected of fraud, he got the soldiers to guard the building while he “confiscated” just over 4,000 Marks. He then left, telling the troops to wait half an hour while he disappeared, changing back into civvies.
Voigt was later apprehended and served some of a four-year sentence before being pardoned by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Voigt was now an international celebrity who had delighted Germans and foreigners alike with the way in which he had highlighted the absurdity of German militarism. Voigt made lucrative personal appearances and retired in some comfort, but was financially ruined by post-First World War inflation. Several films, plays and TV dramas have been produced about his story.
In 1817 a young woman appeared in Almondsbury in Gloucestershire, speaking a strange language and wearing exotic clothes. Over the coming days it transpired that she was a princess from the East Indies and had been kidnapped by pirates but had escaped by jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel.
‘Princess Caraboo’ (c1792–c1864) proved to be a great novelty for the local gentry, with her curious language and habits, and she greatly impressed people when she visited the fashionable resort of Bath.
But the so-called princess was eventually exposed as Mary Willcocks, a cobbler’s daughter from Devon. After being found out she travelled to America, where her fame enabled her to make a modest living exhibiting herself, and at one stage she made money by selling leeches for medical purposes. She eventually returned to England, where she ended her days.
The story that she stopped (or was shipwrecked) at St Helena en route for America where the exiled Emperor Napoleon fell in love with her is, sadly, without foundation.
Phoebe Cates played Willcocks in the 1994 film Princess Caraboo.
T Lobsang Rampa
Lobsang Rampa penned several books on the occult and eastern religions, which were eagerly bought by people in 1950s and 60s Britain. The first such book, The Third Eye (1956), purported to be the memoirs of a Tibetan monk, and was published despite the publishers’ reservations about their authenticity.
Rampa was later exposed as Cyril Hoskin (1910–81), a plumber’s son and school dropout from Plympton in Devon. When confronted he did not deny this, and explained that he had consented to his body being taken over by the spirit of Rampa after he fell out of a tree in Thames Ditton while attempting to photograph an owl.
Hoskin/Rampa wrote several other books that did much to popularise Buddhism in Britain and America. One of them, Living with the Lama (1964), was, Hoskin claimed, dictated to him by his pet Siamese cat, Mrs Fifi Greywhiskers.
Said to possess an extremely high IQ and a photographic memory, Ferdinand Demara (1921–82) was born into a well-to-do Massachusetts family but left home at 16 to become a monk before joining the US Army in 1941. This was the start of his career in imposture.
Demara ‘borrowed’ the name of a comrade, deserted, became a monk again, then joined the US Navy, faked his suicide, and under another name became a psychology teacher. After being caught and serving time for desertion Demara joined another religious order before ‘borrowing’ the name of a young doctor of his acquaintance: as ‘Dr Joseph Cyr’ he was a surgeon on a Canadian destroyer during the Korean War. When 16 combat casualties were brought to the ship he speed-read some medical textbooks and operated successfully on all of them.
The mother of the real Dr Cyr read about the operations in a newspaper and complained, but the Royal Canadian Navy opted not to press charges and Demara returned to the US, where he worked in various jobs under various aliases. This included working as a hospital chaplain in California – but when this fraud, too, was exposed, he was nevertheless allowed to remain in post, as he was popular with patients and staff. He administered the last rites to actor Steve McQueen when the latter died in 1980.
The Great Impostor (1961) starred Tony Curtis as Demara.
Canadian-born Elizabeth Bogley (1857–1907) was, under various names (she married a number of times), a clairvoyant, brothel-keeper and fraudster. She was already an extremely accomplished impersonator, with a long criminal record hidden by changes of identity, when she claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919). The fabulously wealthy steel magnate, she claimed, had given her a number of promissory notes worth millions of dollars, and she was to receive a fabulous sum upon his death.
This meant that banks were willing to loan her very large sums. She calculated, correctly, that none would embarrass Mr Carnegie by asking him about her. Furthermore, all the loans were extended at absurdly high rates of interest – a fact the banks would not wish to be publicised.
Over eight years Bogley borrowed between 10 and 20 million dollars and lived in great luxury, buying herself several diamond necklaces and living in a home graced with 30 wardrobes' worth of clothes and a golden organ.
When Bogley was finally brought to book, Andrew Carnegie attended her trial. Such was the sensation of the case that she was permitted to take many luxuries to her jail cell, where she died on her 50th birthday.
Scots-born MacGregor (1786–1845) joined the British army at the age of 16 and served without distinction until leaving in 1810. He then travelled to South America to fight with the anti-Spanish rebels in Venezuela and New Granada (modern Colombia), where his military record was patchy.
Returning to Britain in 1821, MacGregor claimed he was ‘Cazique’ – ruler – of the state of ‘Poyais’, a land with a healthy climate, fertile soil and an established British colony. Through an aggressive and astute PR campaign, MacGregor drummed up a large amount of investment and sent out groups of colonists who met with severe disappointment. When the scandal broke, he tried to carry out a similar scheme in France, followed by lesser scams, none of which resulted in his imprisonment.
Moving to Venezuela in 1838, MacGregor demanded citizenship and the honorary rank of general, and was eventually recognised as a hero of the liberation. When he died in 1845 he was buried with full military honours and with the president and cabinet following the coffin. ‘Poyais’ on the maps he used, is in modern Honduras and remains mostly a wilderness even today.
In 1704, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa went on sale in London bookshops. The author was George Psalmanazar, who claimed to be a native of the island (today’s Taiwan) which very few Europeans had visited. He accounted for his pale European skin (he was probably French) by saying that upper-class Formosans like himself lived underground.
The book sold well; it was packed with all manner of detail about the lives and customs of the people of Formosa: he claimed that eating human flesh was considered vulgar but not sinful; and that 18,000 boys were sacrificed annually. The book was illustrated with pictures of Formosans of various class and occupation and also described the Formosan language, grammar and alphabet.
Psalmanazar gained much credence and sympathy in Protestant Britain by claiming he had been run out of his country by Catholic missionaries. It was a few years before cracks started appearing in his story thanks to accounts from people who had actually been to Formosa. By 1710 Psalmanazar was a laughing stock, and had to take a job as a clerk.
Psalmanazar lived for another 53 years, the rest of his life being "a long atonement" of tireless hack writing and conscientious scholarship. In 1749 he contributed an article on Formosa for a geographical reference book in which he pointedly ridiculed his own account.
According to Psalmanazar’s friend and regular drinking companion Dr Johnson, Psalmanazar was a kindly, respected and much-loved member of the community in his old age.
Archibald Belaney (1888–1938) was abandoned by both parents as a child and brought up in Hastings by a domineering and snobbish aunt he grew to detest. It may be that this unhappy home life led him to live in a fantasy world in which he became obsessed with Native Americans and would spend many hours practising his skills as a knife-thrower and marksman.
After being fired from his job at a local timber company when he almost destroyed the firm’s premises (his other hobbies included practical jokes and manufacturing home-made explosives), he emigrated to Canada where he worked as a guide and fur trapper in Northern Ontario. During this time he took on the identity of Grey Owl and began claiming that he was the child of a Scots father and Apache mother.
Serving with the Canadian army in the First World War, Grey Owl’s identity was readily accepted by his comrades, who noted his skills as a sniper and knife-thrower and his ability to remain motionless in No Man’s Land, as though stalking prey, for very long periods.
Under the influence of a Mohawk woman named Gertrude Bernard (one of several wives or common-law wives), Grey Owl gave up fur trapping and became a conservationist instead, and between the wars published several books and articles which made him famous. More than a quarter of a million people heard him speak when he made a lecture tour of Britain in the 1930s. Across the English-speaking world Grey Owl was a pioneer of the modern conservation movement.
Belaney was not exposed until after his death in 1938.
His exploits featured in the 1999 biopic Grey Owl directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Pierce Brosnan.
Harry Domela, born in Latvia in 1905, passed himself off as an aristocrat in Germany in the years after the First World War. Though the Weimar Republic had stripped the aristocracy of titles and political power, many remained wealthy and influential. Domela styled himself ‘Prince Lieven of Latvia’, but did nothing to discourage rumours that he was, in fact, Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
This enabled him to travel the country being entertained and feted by wealthy monarchists eager to curry favour with the incognito ‘prince’. Once the press started taking an interest in him, he resolved to flee to the hazardous anonymity of the French Foreign Legion.
Arrested as he was about to leave Germany, Domela was held in prison for seven months pending trial. There he wrote an account of his adventures (A Sham Prince, 1927). The court found that Domela had not committed any crime and soon after his release he played himself in a silent film of his story.
Domela fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and was interned by the Vichy regime during the Second World War but escaped to Mexico. Little is known of his subsequent life or the date and place of his death, although it is thought he may have worked as a schoolteacher in Venezuela.
In the decades following the Russian Revolution, a number of individuals came forward claiming that they were members of the Russian Royal family who had somehow escaped. Anna Anderson (1896–1984) was easily the most famous.
Anderson first entered the public sphere in the early 1920s after spending time in a Berlin mental hospital following a suicide attempt, when she began claiming she was Tsar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Anna Anderson, as she called herself, lived in the US and Germany with various friends and supporters and later married an American historian.
Most surviving members of the family were certain she was an impostor, and investigations at the time (and more recent DNA testing) suggest she was in reality a Polish woman named Franziska Schanzkowska. DNA tests on the remains of the Tsar, Tsarina and their five children in 2007 confirmed their identities and established that Anastasia’s was among the bodies.
However, whether Schanzkowska was an impostor or simply delusional, her story captured the imaginations of numerous writers and filmmakers (there have also been at least two ballets) and kept her case in the public eye right up until her death. (And indeed beyond. See, for example, the 1997 animated film Anastasia, which impressed viewers and critics but made historians very cross.)
The Irish-born Barry (c1795–1865) was a surgeon in the British army who rose to the rank of Inspector General of Hospitals, in charge of military medical facilities. Barry campaigned tirelessly for improvements to medical care, diet and sanitation and did much to improve the welfare of soldiers and their families. He was said to be irascible, difficult and frequently disrespectful towards superiors and had a famous spat with Florence Nightingale, who described him as “the most hardened creature I ever met”.
James Barry had, in fact, been born Margaret Ann Bulkley and had masqueraded as a man from the day she entered the medical school at the University of Edinburgh until her death in 1865.
Worcester-born Snell (1723–92) is one of many women who masqueraded as men in order to become soldiers. Under the names Bob Corigan and then James Gray, Snell supposedly enlisted in order to find the man who had fathered her child (a daughter, who had died) and served in India where she had a groin wound treated by a local woman to avoid exposing her imposture. She later opted to reveal her sex to comrades and was given an honourable discharge and a pension. She went on to marry twice.
For other women fighting as men, see Christian Davis; Phoebe Hessel (“the Stepney Amazon”); Deborah Sampson; Nadezhda Durova and many more.
Erich von Stroheim
The pioneering film director (1885–1957) is mostly remembered nowadays as an actor who frequently portrayed stiff-backed aristocratic Germans and army officers. He emigrated to America in 1909, claiming to be Austrian nobleman Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall.
Stroheim was indeed Austrian, but born in Vienna as plain old Erich Oswald Stroheim, the son of a Jewish middle-class hat-maker and his wife.
Confidence trickster, forger and impostor, Abagnale (born in 1948) claims that at various times he assumed the identities of a lawyer, doctor and, most famously, airline pilot – all before he was 22 years old. He served prison sentences in France, Sweden and, later the United States. Once in the US penal system he secured more commodious living quarters, and then effected an ingenious escape by persuading the prison authorities that he was an undercover prison inspector.
His semi-fictional book Catch Me if You Can (1980) was adapted for the big screen by Steven Spielberg in 2002, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale. Abagnale later got a job with the FBI and set up a fraud consultancy firm.
Roger Charles Tichborne, heir to the Baronetcy of Tichborne, was aboard a ship which disappeared off the coast of South America in 1854. His younger brother succeeded to the title in his place, but his mother hoped Roger might still be alive and years later placed newspaper advertisements asking anyone with information about him to step forward.
A man named Thomas Castro – who purported to be a butcher from Wagga Wagga in New South Wales – did just that. He travelled to England where Lady Tichborne and some family servants immediately recognised him as their relative Roger (notwithstanding his coarse manners), but other family members were equally certain he was an impostor.
A long court case ensued; the jury dismissed Castro’s claim and he was arrested for perjury and identified as Arthur Orton, a butcher’s son from Wapping who had emigrated to Australia where he had worked as a butcher and labourer and had probably been a petty criminal as well.
Released after 10 years’ imprisonment, Castro/Orton maintained to the end that he was Tichborne, only briefly and temporarily recanting for a newspaper article because he desperately needed the money he was offered in return.
The case transfixed Victorian England and remains an enigma to this day; after all, Lady Tichborne and some servants recognised him. And what would have prompted a petty criminal in Wagga Wagga to travel to the other side of the world to risk a near-certain prison sentence if he was an impostor?
Queen Elizabeth I
Many people in Victorian Gloucestershire believed that Queen Elizabeth I was a local boy. Some still do.
According to this legend, the young princess died suddenly at the age of 10 while staying at Berkeley Castle. Her attendants, terrified of Henry VIII’s likely reaction when he learned that his daughter had died on their watch, decided to replace her with a boy from the nearby village of Bisley who bore a strong resemblance to Elizabeth. The boy was sworn to secrecy and in due course inherited the throne, by which time it was too late to back out. The Virgin Queen never got married lest ‘she’ be found out.
The story, which was first written down as The Bisley Boy in Bram Stoker’s Famous Imposters (1910), can be traced to the early 19th century as a yarn made up by Thomas Keble. The fun-loving rector of Bisley, Keble is credited with having made up the story and telling it to his relatives as a joke after the discovery of a girl’s body. So it has no foundation in truth – does it…?
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in August 2018