For some reason, the world is enthralled with the idea of the
impostor. They’re sneaky, deceitful, and devoid of morals—but dang
it, they do it with style. For example, one of the most famous
impostors in recent history is Frank Abagnale, inspiration for the
Spielberg/DiCaprio film Catch Me If You Can. He robbed,
cheated, and lied his way into a fortune, but no matter how many
checks he forged, you just can’t help rooting for the guy.
In the past we’ve talked about some of the greatest
impostors in history, but here’s another installment for your
viewing pleasure. These are 10 of the greatest impostors and con
men of the 20th century.
Our first entry begins in the final years of the 1800′s and
carries over to the leading decade of the 20th century. Cassie
Chadwick was born Elizabeth Bigsley in 1857, and it wasn’t long
before she embarked on a long and incredibly successful con career.
It only took fourteen years to lead to her first arrest—she was
picked up after forging checks in Ontario under the claim they they
were inherited from a long lost British uncle. The court released
her shortly, claiming her to be insane—a dubious accomplishment for
As the years progressed, so did Cassie’s schemes. In 1882 she
married her first husband, masquerading as a clairvoyant named
Madame Lydia DeVere. The high profile wedding, however, brought her
past victims out of the woodwork and to her front door, demanding
payment for the money she had stolen from them. The marriage lasted
less than a year.
Fifteen years and three husbands later, Cassie Chadwick embarked
on her most ambitious scam to date, and the one that turned her
into a legend—she convinced the world that she was an illegitimate
daughter of Andrew Carnegie, the ludicrously wealthy steel and
railroad mogul. Over the next eight years, she scammed up to $20
million in bank loans under Carnegie’s name—while the banks
themselves were too afraid to ask Carnegie to vouch for the loans
for fear of stirring up controversy over his “illegitimate
daughter.” The entire scheme collapsed around her in 1904 when she
arrested after one bank called her bluff. She was given 14
years in jail, but in 1907 she died due to heart complications.
Stanley Clifford Weyman
It’s hard to fault a man for trying, no matter how devious their
intentions may be. And it’s hard to find a man who tried harder
than Stanley Clifford Weyman. Unlike most impostors, Weyman wasn’t
in it for the money—he wanted the adventure, famously stating: “One
man’s life is a boring thing. I lived many lives. I’m never
In between impersonating navy and military officials,
journalists, and the actual U.S. Secretary of State, he also
masterminded a meeting between an Afghani princess and Warren
Harding, the President of the U.S. See, in 1921, Afghanistan and
Britain were in talks to negotiate a peace treaty, and Princess
Fatima, of Afghanistan, was visiting the U.S. However, the U.S.
government wasn’t acknowledging her official presence.
So what did Weyman do? He visited Princess Fatima under the
guise of a Liaison Officer for the State Department and promised
that he would arrange a meeting between her and President Harding.
All he asked was that she supply $10,000 as a complimentary present
to the State Department. But here, where most con men would have
taken the money and run, Weyman actually followed through on his
promise—he used the $10,000 for first class transport and
accommodations for the princess, then lied his way up through the
chain of command at the White House until he got to the president
himself. When the press released his photo beside the princess and
the president, he was recognized and arrested. Why did he do it?
Just to see if he could.
Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr.
It’s rare that an impersonator will manage to make a positive
impact on the world and save the lives of the people who come to
depend on him. Most impostors are after money or, in the case of
Stanley Weyman, excitement. For Ferdinand Demara, impersonation was
about filling in gaps, picking up the pieces where a job was
needed, whether he had the training for it or not.
Early in his “career,” Demara was a soldier in the military. Not
happy with where that was taking him, he decided to fake his own
suicide in 1942 and assumed the name of Robert French, then began
teaching college psychology at a Pennsylvania university. Every now
and then he would move to a different university position under a
variety of names. Eventually, though, he was caught and given
jail time—not for impersonating anyone, but for deserting the army
Out of jail and with the headlines of the Korean War plastered
across newspapers, Demara decided to assume the name of an
acquaintance, a surgeon named Joseph Cyr. Under his new identity he
got a job on the Canadian destroyer HMCS Cayuga and shipped off to
Korea. Unfortunately, he turned out to be the only surgeon on the
ship, and ended up performing more than sixteen major
surgeries—with no formal training. All of his patients recovered.
In the biography of Demara’s life, The Great Impostor,
Demara claimed that he simply read a surgery textbook before
George Dupre is an interesting case, in that his only real
impersonation was of himself. However, the history he actually had
and the history he claimed to have were so different that he
inadvertently became one of the greatest Canadian war heroes in the
years following WWII.
After the war ended, Dupre began traveling across Canada as a
public speaker, describing his missions as a spy for the Special
Operations Executive, a legendary espionage organization sometimes
referred to as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Dupre wove
intricate tales of life behind enemy lines in occupied Paris,
working with the underground resistance to overthrow the Nazi
Gestapo. He described his harrowing experience as a prisoner of the
Gestapo undergoing weeks of physical and psychological torture yet
refusing to divulge any information. His story became so widespread
that a book was written about it, The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk,
and Dupre became an international sensation.
Except that none of it ever happened. With the fame from the
book came testimonies from people who had actually served
with Dupre in the war. The truth was, Dupre spent the entire war
behind a desk in
London. It turned out that Dupre had just embellished a few
stories for fun, and somehow the entire thing spiraled out of
control. Aside from the fame though, Dupre never benefited from the
book deal and the public talks—he donated all his proceeds to
Scouts Canada. His biography was reclassified as fiction.
Most of the impostors on this list got their start at a young
age—few of them achieved notoriety before the age of twenty. David
Hampton is now considered one of the youngest successful con
artists and impersonators, and his story has since been adapted
into the play and film Six Degrees of Separation. His
gimmick: impersonating actor Sidney Poitier’s son (Sidney Poitier
actually has six daughters and zero sons).
In 1983, at the age of nineteen, David Hampton tried to get into
a Manhattan night club with a friend. The bouncers refused to let
them in, but when Hampton came back later and told them he was
Sidney Poitier’s son, they immediately showed him to the VIP
section. Thus, an identity was born. Hammond took to showing up at
first class restaurants, claiming that he was meeting his “father.”
He would dine, then act disappointed when his father never arrived
while simultaneously signing the check in Poitier’s name.
Soon he began to target the wealthy citizens of
Manhattan—including Calvin Klein and Gary Sinise, among others.
Hampton would introduce himself as
David Poitier, then make up a story about how he had been
mugged and needed a place to stay until his father arrived the next
day. In one of these homes he stole an address book, and took to
calling first, claiming that he was a friend of their son/daughter
After Hampton’s story became famous in Six Degrees in
1990, he began traveling the country under various other personas
(“David Poitier” wouldn’t exactly fly anymore), playing the
impersonation game until 1993, when he passed away from AIDS.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter
Christian Gerhartsreiter is a German who moved to the U.S. in
1979 in the hopes of getting a job as an actor. His plan worked—but
not exactly in the normal sense. A mere eighteen years old with no
money, no connections, and no legal visa to be in the States, he
decided that the best thing to do would be to get married and
obtain a green card through his wife. So that’s what he did—he
found a young woman named
Amy Duhnke and told her that if he were sent back to Germany
he’d be conscripted into the German army to fight the Russians
(this was during the Cold War). She agreed to marry him, but the
day after the wedding Christian skipped out on the honeymoon and
pointed his compass towards California, where his true calling
His true calling, of course, was to become Clark Rockefeller—the
faux multimillionaire social butterfly who spent the next two
decades—from around 1985 to 2006—claiming to be a member of the
illustrious Rockefeller family. The plan worked exceedingly well
until his wife Sandra Boss (of 11 years we should add), began to
get suspicious that he was not, in fact, a Rockefeller. The married
couple had been living exclusively on Sandra’s income the entire
time, while “Clark” pursued high profile social connections.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Sandra Boss discovered
the lie, filed for divorce in 2006, and left with their daughter.
Two years later, Clark was arrested for kidnapping his daughter in
Boston, sparking a whirlwind investigation into this mysterious
German’s true identity. As it turned out, he also
killed a guy.
Stanley Kubrick is an American director who’s something of a
legend among movie buffs. The words “greatest director in history”
have been thrown around, along with the words “not British” and
“heavily bearded.” Those last two are particularly important,
because in the early 90′s the reclusive Kubrick began to show up in
social clubs in London—only now, he was clean shaven and decidedly
English. The “new” Kubrick was actually a man named Alan Conway,
who had taken to using the name for the social status it
Despite the changes in his physical appearance, and reportedly
having next to no knowledge of any of Kubrick’s films, Alan Conway
(real name Eddie Alan Jablowsky) managed to keep the charade going.
Since the real Kubrick hadn’t been seen in public more than a
handful of times in the past 15 years, it couldn’t have been
terribly difficult—and even people who had actually met Kubrick in
real life were fooled by the act. The film critic Frank Rich was
famously convinced and, based on Conway’s behavior, came to the
conclusion that Kubrick
was gay (which Conway was).
Unfortunately, this story would be hilarious if it wasn’t quite
so tragic. Conway was a violent alcoholic, according to his son,
and his impersonations were closer to fanatical delusions than any
carefully calculated plan. Conway passed away in 1998 from heart
In the past, masquerading as one of the captains of industry
seemed to be the surest way to a quick million. These days, the
Hollywood faces are the new American royalty. In 1992, Tehran
native Anoushirvan Fakhran came to the States on a student visa,
and spent the next several years living a lavish lifestyle,
sprinkled with privileges usually reserved for celebrities and
visiting royalty. That’s because nobody knew him by the name of
Anoushirvan—to everyone who knew him, he was
Jonathan Taylor Spielberg, nephew of director Stephen
In fact, he had even gone so far as to officially change his
name to Spielberg in 1997. Then, in 1998, an anonymous woman placed
a call to Paul VI high school in Fairfax, Virginia. She claimed to
represent Steven Spielberg, and said that his nephew would be
filming a movie in the area and wanted to research high school
life. So the school allowed “Jonathan” to attend free of tuition,
and gave him an official transfer from his previous school, the
fictitious Beverly Hills Private School for Actors. Jonathan
Spielberg was now a student.
During this time, Jonathan and his mother were living in a posh
apartment in Fairfax Village, and Jonathan drove a BMW to school,
often parking in the school principal’s reserved space. Nobody
complained; he was related to a celebrity. Eventually though, the
scheme backfired—Jonathan stopped attending classes, and the school
tried to reach Steven Spielberg to find out why. Jonathan was
arrested and sentenced to 11 months in jail for forging
Steven Russell is probably closer to an escape artist than an
impostor, but the means through which he masterminded his many
prison escapes are the stuff of legend. In 1990, Russell lost his
job and, instead of searching for new work, faked an accident and
sued the company. This landed him his first prison sentence, and
his first chance to escape. In 1992, Russell impersonated a prison
guard by changing his clothes and just walking right out of the
On his second arrest, which was for embezzling nearly $1 million
from a medical company, Russell was given a $950,000 bail—he
couldn’t pay it, so he simply called the courthouse, told them he
was a judge, and reduced the bail to $45,000, which he promptly
paid. Unfortunately, he was quickly tracked down again once the
error was discovered, and Russell found himself facing a 40 year
sentence for the previous embezzlement charges.
So he escaped again—this time by coloring his prison uniform
with several dozen green markers until it resembled surgical
scrubs. Again, he walked right out the front door. And again, he
was quickly found and arrested. So this time Russell typed up fake
medical records on a typewriter in his cell, and, through judicious
use of laxatives,
convinced the prison guards he was dying of AIDS. Then he called
the prison and said that he was a doctor looking for volunteers to
test a new AIDS treatment. When the prison warden announced the
news, Russell promptly volunteered.
The next time he was caught, he faked a heart attack and was
taken to a hospital under guard of FBI agents. So he asked to use
the phone—and called the very agents guarding him under the guise
of an FBI detective to let them know that they no longer needed to
guard him. Russell is currently back in prison, looking forward to
his release date in the year
2140. The film I love you Phillip Morris is based on his
Christophe Thierry Rocancourt
The Rockefellers just can’t catch a break. Before the German
Clark Rockefeller, there was Christophe Rocancourt, the “French
Rockefeller.” Christophe started his scams big, and kept the ball
rolling his entire career—his first scam was faking a property deed
in Paris, and then selling that deed for $1.4 million.
With his wallet freshly stuffed, he then hopped the ocean to the
United States and began fraternizing with the Hollywood fat cats,
claiming to be a French relative of the Rockefellers. Through this
alias (and others), he convinced multiple people to fund his
fictitious projects. Most of the time, he never even had to make
any concrete claims—he would just show up at a party and make a
vague mention of his mother, who might happen to be an actress one
week, or a famous producer the next week.
In 2006, he was interviewed by Dateline, and claimed that he
had, all said and done, scammed about $40 million in his lifetime.
His modus operandi was to convince someone wealthy that he was
working on a large investment, but needed some capital to get it
off the ground. The person would give Rocancourt the money, and
Rocancourt would disappear.
He famously convinced Jean Claude Van Damme, the action star, to
produce a movie of his.
He was arrested for fraud in 1998, but has continued his scams
well into the 21st century. As of 2009 he was in jail in Vancouver,
where he told
reporters, “I never steal. Never. I lied, but I never
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