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Wilhelm Voigt: Captain von Köpenick

One of the oldest, most frequent and most successful devices of the hoaxer is imposture, the acquiring of undeserved prestige by which to make easier the attainment of his ends. Wear the proper clothes, assume the correct “airs,” and your awestricken victims will not detect the joke, swindle, or fraud.

As a master of bluff none ever excelled Wilhelm Voigt, a cobbler remembered by the sobriquet of Captain von Köpenick (after the small suburb of Berlin where, October 17, 1906, he executed his famous coup).

Masquerading in the uniform of a Prussian army captain, Voigt, an ex-convict, placed himself at the head of a detachment of grenadiers, marched to the town hall, arrested the burgomaster, examined the municipal accounts, seized ready cash to the sum of £200, commandeered telephone and telegraph services “for state business,” and sent the burgomaster in custody to Berlin military headquarters.

When, nine days later, Voigt was arrested and, within six weeks, sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, the attention of the entire world was directed to alleged abuses in the German prison system. Either because of the tremendous public opinion which was aroused or, as some say, because of being amused, Kaiser Wilhelm pardoned Voigt by imperial edict despite the impostor’s record of twenty-seven years in prison for petty offenses.

Six years later, according to an Associated Press dispatch which appeared in the Atlanta Constitution, German newspapers received notices of Voigt’s death. In orthodox fashion they reviewed his life and unwittingly gave valuable publicity to a vaudeville company to which [the quite alive] Captain von Köpenick belonged. In 1932 a motion picture, Der Hauptmann von Köpenick, starring Max Adalbert, was based on Voigt’s escapade.

Excerpted from Hoaxes by Curtis D. MacDougall, Dover Publications 1958.

Alas, this wonderful book is currently out-of-print.



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