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Impostors

Why not, just for a lark, be somebody else for a while? Well, for starters, it’s often illegal, and it’s not always as simple as it sounds. But there is a certain class of person who remains undaunted in the face of these problems.

I’m thinking of folks like Joice Heth, who made a career (under the direction of P.T. Barnum) out of impersonating George Washington’s childhood nurse. Or George DuPre, who got his amazing story of being an intrepid World War II spy published by Readers Digest and by Random House books before he was discovered to be a phony.

Or Stephen Weinberg, who deserves some sort of award. He posed as the U.S. Consul Delegate to Morocco, as a Serbian militia attaché, an American navy lieutenant, the envoy of the Queen of Romania, an army air corps lieutenant, a doctor (on several occasions), as head of protocol for the U.S. State Department, and (after serving some time for these put-ons) as an expert on prisons.

His title as Impostor King is challenged by one Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr., whose life was the basis for the movie The Great Impostor. He was a few doctors as well, and the assistant warden of a prison, and a surgeon in the Royal Canadian Navy, a schoolteacher, a college dean, and who knows what else. He is legendary for his ability to perform admirably whatever he was doing with whatever credentials he had assimilated.

I wonder if anyone ever saw those two in the same place at the same time… In any case, the torch has been taken up more recently by one Steven Jay Russell who has taken the legal system for a ride by impersonating a judge, a lawyer and a doctor to talk his way out of custody. His trademark is to escape on Friday the 13th.

Frank Abagnale made a jump for the big leagues by trying on the hats of a pediatrician, lawyer, university professor, stock broker, F.B.I. agent, airline pilot and motivational speaker.


Wilhelm Voigt gets bonus points for putting on the uniform of a Prussian military officer in 1906 and using this ruse to gain the allegiance of a pack of soldiers, then raiding the treasury of Köpenick on the pretense of investigating tax irregularities. Well done, Wilhelm! The Kaiser was so embarassed at the ineptitude of his military that he pardoned Voigt (who’d been caught trying to flee with the cash), who later made a career out of reënacting the adventure on the American stage.


On Feburary 10, 1910, six friends (including the young Virginia Woolf) boarded the H.M.S. Dreadnought disguised as the Emperor of Abyssinia, his Abyssinian cohorts, and an interpreter. The proud members of the British Navy came out in full colours to receive their distinguished guests, who were dressed in costumes, with dyed skin and hair, and speaking a language they were inventing on-the-fly.


The Tichborne Claimant was a notorious imposture in the 19th Century British Empire. A nobody (almost) became a blue-blood heir by exploiting the unreasonable hopes of a mother for her lost son.


Without guns, hacksaws, or hostages, three German radicals managed to liberate one of their number from the clutches of the “justice” system in the middle of a court hearing. The three were on trial for various charges (including arson and assault) resulting from their activism against the capitalist/military establishment. Two of them, Michael “Bommi” Baumann and Thomas Weisbecker, were expecting to be released on parole, while the third, Georg von Rauch, was going to be sentenced to at least ten years in prison, when the court adjourned for an afternoon break.

Thomas and Georg both had long hair and beards, and looked quite similar to each other in the unsophisticated eyes of the police and lawyers; so before reentering the courtroom, Georg gave his spectacles to Thomas. When Thomas and Bommi were given parole and declared free to leave, Bommi and Georg leaped up and made quite a commotion, hugging and shaking hands with everyone and shouting. Both then quickly exited the building and disappeared, leving Thomas, whom everyone had assumed was Georg. When the marshal came to lead Thomas away in chains, he protested that he had just been released on parole and the frustrated guards had to let him go, too.

Days of War, Nights of Love: Crimethink for Beginners


Ordinary schmoes get into the impostor act when it’s convenient and easy (or when they’re driven by some poorly-understood compulsion). A web search gives me the case of Ron Weaver, who at age 30 was no longer qualified to play college football, but as the younger Ron McKelvey he was able to fulfill his pigskin dreams. Even more recently, 31-year-old Michael Backman posed as a high school student while the law in three states tried to track him down for other frauds.

Some poor schmuck created an email account in the name of Britain’s Prince William to confuse a friend, and was soon flooded by fanmail.

Regina Danson of Ghana sought asylum in the United States and beat the INS by claiming to be one Adelaide Abankwah, a tribal “queen mother” fleeing the threatened genital mutilation allegedly associated with that office. She was supported in her claims by members of the U.S. Congress, as well as then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, Julia Roberts and Gloria Steinem.

Five times Gerald Barnes has been imprisoned for impersonating a medical doctor: “Over the years, he worked at community clinics treating poor patients. He flew volunteer medical missions to Mexico. He worked as head doctor at a well-regarded Los Angeles clinic performing employment exams on FBI agents, employees of the Federal Reserve Bank and other major corporations…”

Christopher Rocancourt went from jewel thief to get-richer-quick investment con man, hustling around the Hamptons in his limo and helicopter with his Playboy playmate consort while impersonating a member of the Rockefeller family.

Alan Young poses as a living legend of the Motown or Jazz world. “For nearly the last twenty years, Young has wined and dined his way through the [San Francisco] Bay Area by posing as a variety of musical celebrities and convincing the starstruck to pick up the tab for lavish meals, designer clothing, luxury cars, booze, limousine rides, and stays in elite hotels.”

Clifford Garrison juggled and stole from nine wives by juggling at least as many stories until the law caught up to him in early 2003.

And there’s the impostor named Lewis Morgan who’s been pretending for years to be Randy Meisner, the bass player for the Eagles, and has been using this ruse to scam folks along the way. Ditto for Anoushirvan Fakhran a.k.a. Johathan Taylor Spielberg, not the nephew of Steven.

While we’re on the theme of Musical Mayhem, we can mention the fantastic case of Milli Vanilli, a musical act in which two dancers lip-synched to pre-recorded vocals by more talented singers, while maintaining the conceit of a live vocal performance. They won a Grammy award for their highly successful act, but people jumped on the bandwagon once the first few rats stopped consenting to the shared illusion, and they were exposed to enormous public ridicule.


A couple of radio hosts in Miami managed to trick the president of Venezuela into taking an on-the-air phone call by pretending to be Fidel Castro. “We still can’t believe it — he fell for it!” Then, not much later, they fooled Castro by pretending to be Chavez.


Robert Hendy-Freegard impersonated a secret agent in order to convince people he met to do ridiculous things (and to give him large sums of money):

One involved going to Manchester to buy a £1.25 can opener from a particular shop. Mr Young was given detailed instructions about which buses and trains to catch, the doors and escalators to be used, and warned he would be under constant surveillance. Next he was ordered to buy a copy of the Gay Times and read it openly on the train to London. Sheffield coach station had sold out of the magazine — but Mr Young headed for the capital anyway — armed with the can opener.

Following his orders to the letter, he went to a West End pub and asked the barman for a particular person. Told there was no one of that name there, but thinking it was all part his MI5 evaluation, Mr Young handed the surprised barman the can opener and said: “Well, when you see him, give him this.” His suspicions were only aroused when Hendy-Freegard failed to hide his amusement on hearing Mr Young’s account of his mission.


Charlie Varon impersonated a genetics expert and spoke at a California Medical Association luncheon to present his findings that there was a genetic flaw that led to “insensitivity and rudeness” in doctors and lawyers.


A British college student was surprised to find himself invited to China to deliver a series of economics lectures. Especially surprised since he’s an engineering student. But he carried on, delivering the lectures based on a book he’d read during the flight over. He guesses that maybe they thought he was a New York University professor with the same name who is a leading authority on international financial markets.


Related, but not quite as daring, is the act of résumé-padding or exaggeration by which U.S. President Clinton’s ambassador to Switzerland Larry Lawrence claimed to be a World War II hero, Congressman Wes Cooley claimed to be an Army Special Forces veteran (emulating but not surpassing Representative Douglas R. Stringfellow’s fictitious war record), U.S. Federal District Judge James Ware posthumously adopted a victim of a racist shooting as his brother, and Fox News consultant Joseph A. Cafasso leveraged 44 days in bootcamp into a Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel’s résumé. There’s a lot of this going around.

And, predictably, after the 9/11 attacks, a number of people came forward falsely claiming to have been victims.

As the Times put it, Unhappy with your past? Make it up!


With a little imagination and panache, you can be anyone you want. Or you can not be someone you are. Or, with a little luck, someone else may decide to be you. Good heavens, the options are many! You could even be someone entirely new.

Milli Vanilli
Milli Vanilli

Frank Abagnale
Frank Abagnale

Ferdinand Waldo Demara
Ferdinand Waldo Demara

Joice Heth
Joice Heth

Wilhelm Voigt
Wilhelm Voigt

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On This Day in SniggleryApril 16, 1964: Non-person Joseph David Oznot is admitted into Princeton. (See Campus Pranks for more info)