We Love Who They Aren't: 7 Famous Impostors

Passing yourself off as someone else could land you in prison, but if you are convincing enough, your (fake) life could be the subject of a book or movie!

Princess Caraboo

Mary Baker was a 19th century scam artist who posed as a princess from an exotic but fictitious island. She appeared in Gloucestershire, England in 1817. No one could understand the strange language she spoke, nor her odd habits. After some weeks, a sailor coincidentally arrived who spoke her language. He translated her story to the effect that she was Princess Caraboo of the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean, had been kidnapped by pirates, and had escaped by swimming ashore near Bristol. She was treated like proper royalty for the next ten weeks. Newspaper publicity led to her identification as Mary Baker by a woman with whom she had previously lodged. Mrs. Neale also recalled how Baker would sometimes speak in a language she had made up. To avoid embarrassment over the hoax, the family Baker was staying with in Bristol shipped her off to America, where she continued to live as Princess Caraboo. She later returned to England, and also traveled in France and Spain, posing again as Princess Caraboo. She later settled down in England under her real name and was never charged over the impersonation. Later investigation found that Baker had invented several false identities in the years before she became a princess. Her story was the basis of the 1994 movie Princess Caraboo, starring Phoebe Cates.

Friday the 13th Escapee

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50-year-old Steven Jay Russell spent many years portraying himself as various professionals for financial gain, but his prison escapes, which always happen on Friday the 13th, are more fascinating. Once, he impersonated a judge and had his own bail reduced. Another time, he dyed his prison uniform green with stolen magic markers and walked out while guards assumed he was a medical professional. In 1998, he feigned a heart attack when he was arrested, then impersonated an FBI officer who got him released from the hospital. Twice Russell convinced prison authorities that he had AIDS and escaped while arranging medical transfers, even faking his own death in the second incidence. He also impersonated officials to obtain the release of his prison lover Phillip Morris. Russell's last arrest was in 1998, after which he received a 144-year sentence. His affair with Phillip Morris is the subject of a movie to be released in 2009. I Love You, Phillip Morris will star Jim Carey as Russell and Ewan McGregor as Morris.

Reformed at an Early Age

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Frank Abagnale is a security consultant who has worked with the FBI for over 30 years. Before that, he was imprisoned in France, Sweden, and the US on bank fraud charges. He was only 16 years old when he began his 5-year crime spree. Abagnale defrauded his own father of $3,400 with a credit card scheme. He opened various checking accounts under false identities and withdrew nonexistent funds. With identification that stated he was ten years older than his actual age, he impersonated an airline pilot, a university teaching assistant, a pediatrician, and a lawyer (he passed the bar exam without attending law school). Abagnale served five years in prison, then was offered release in exchange for consultation services for the FBI. In 1980, he told his story in the book Catch Me If You Can, which was the basis of the 2002 movie of the same name, starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hanks.

The Multiple Diplomat

235Weyman.jpgStanley Clifford Weyman, also known as Stephen Weinberg, scammed people not just for personal gain (although he accepted money), but for the adventure. Between 1910 and 1954, he convinced people he was a US consul representative to Morocco, a Military attaché from Serbia, a consul general for Romania, a doctor (several times), the US Secretary of State, a faith healer, and a journalist for the United Nations. He also served several stretches in prison for fraud. In 1921, Weyman contacted the visiting Princess Fatima of Afghanistan and arranged for her to meet with president Warren Harding -for a fee of $10,000. Then he actually pulled off the meeting! He convinced actress Pola Negri that he was a doctor and a friend of her boyfriend Rudolph Valentino in time for his funeral in 1926. After a life of impersonation, Weymen died as true hero. At age 70, he was shot and killed while confronting thieves at the hotel where he worked.

The Grand Duchess

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Anna Anderson, also known as Anastasia Manahan, was once presented to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of the Romanov dynasty. After Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed in 1918, there were rumors that one of his daughters had survived the massacre. Anderson was discovered when she tried to kill herself in Berlin in 1920. She was taken to a mental institution, where her identity was questioned. Anderson claimed that she was the Tsar's youngest daughter Anastasia, had survived the shooting, and was rescued by a Russian soldier who she later married. Gleb and Tatiana Botkin, whose father was the Russian doctor who died with the Romanovs, promoted Anderson's imperial identity. This publicity impressed the public, even though none of the Tsar's many relatives who met Anderson thought she was Anastasia. The story was too good to pass up! The 1956 film Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman was loosely based on Anderson's story. The 1997 animated film Anastasia was an even more fictionalized version of the earlier movie. Anderson died in 1984 in Virginia. DNA tests on a tissue sample proved she was not related to the Romanovs, but was most likely Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish woman born in 1896. In 2007, the remains of the last members of the slain Imperial Family were unearthed in Russia.

The Man Who Wouldn't Talk

200wouldnttalk.jpgGeorge DuPre served in World War II and returned home to Calgary. Over time, he told about his adventures as a spy in the British Intelligence to inspire local Boy Scouts. He lectured about how he smuggled pilots out of occupied France and was captured and tortured by the Nazis, but never gave them any information. This drew the attention of Readers Digest magazine, who found DuPre to be an upstanding citizen and commissioned Quentin Reynolds to write a book. The Man Who Wouldn't Talk was released in 1953 and became a bestseller. Readers Digest published a condensed version in the magazine in November of that year. That's when men who actually served with DuPre during the war noticed. The Calgary Herald investigated and found DuPre's story did not hold up under scrutiny. Infact, he had served his entire World War II career in England and had never been to France! When the newspaper published an expose, author Reynolds and Readers Digest editor DeWitt Wallace were stunned. The magazine printed a retraction, and the book publisher offered a refund to those who bought the book. It was then reclassified as fiction.

The Great Imposter

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Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. began his life of deception in 1942, when he used an assumed identity to walk away from the US Army after one year of enlistment. He used forged credentials to find employment as a lawyer, a psychologist, a sheriff's deputy, a monk from two different orders, a teacher, and other positions. Demara was arrested and imprisoned several times. The impersonation he became famous for began in 1951 when he signed up for Canada's Royal Navy under the name of Dr. Joseph Cyr. At the time, the navy was desperate for surgeons and did not thoroughly check his background. Demara served aboard the HMCS Cayuga in the Korean War. He performed routine medical procedures and surgery by studying medical texts as needed. After removing a bullet from a war casualty, "Dr. Cyr" was profiled in a Canadian newspaper. The mother of the real Dr. Cyr read the account and called her son to ascertain that he was not, in fact, in Korea. This led to Demara's unmasking and dismissal from the Royal Navy. No charges were filed, as the navy assumed that Demara was still a doctor, if not the doctor he said he was. Demara's story was the subject of the book The Great Imposter by Robert Crichton, which was made into the 1961 movie The Great Imposter starring Tony Curtis.

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June 12, 2008 - 2:15am
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