Whether impersonating someone else or trying to come across as something you’re not, today’s episode is all about those sneaky and clever people we call imposters.
The stories I’ll be sharing with you throughout this episode come from articles found at History.com and Historyextra.com
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 after World War I by inflation. Several films, plays and TV dramas have been produced about his story.
Princess Caraboo: In 1817 a young woman appeared in Almondsbury in Gloucestershire, England 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. She also made money by selling leeches for medical purposes. (It’s good to see that she diversified) 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.
Lobsang Rampa penned several books on the occult and eastern religions, which were eagerly bought by people in 1950s and 60s Britain and America. 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. (Two in a row from Devon. What is it about Devon that breeds imposters?) When confronted he did not deny this, but explained that he had consented to his body being taken over by the spirit of Rampa after he fell out of a tree while attempting to photograph an owl. (At least he had a solid explanation!)
Hoskin/Rampa wrote several other books that did much to popularize Buddhism in Britain and America. One of them titled Living with the Lama (1964), was, he claimed, dictated to him by his pet Siamese cat, Mrs Fifi Greywhiskers. (You can’t make this stuff up!)
Ferdinand Demara 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 was based on Demara.
Canadian-born Elizabeth Bogley (1857–1907) was, under various names (she married a number of times), a clairvoyant, brothel-keeper and fraudster. (It’s good to keep busy) 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 publicized.
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.
Archibald Belaney (1888–1938) was abandoned by both parents as a child and brought up in Hastings (Different part of England, not near Devon) 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 practicing 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 (he liked to play practical jokes with 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. (It occurs to me that if you are a really good imposter, that well known actors will portray you in a movie!)
The Irish-born James 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. He 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.
During the American Civil War, Historians have estimated that some 400 to 1,000 females masqueraded as men in order to do battle for the North or South. Among them was Sarah Edmonds, who was born in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1841 and fled her home as a teen to escape an arranged marriage. She eventually moved to America, where she dressed as a man and used the name Franklin Thompson in order to find work. Edmonds was employed as a traveling book salesman and living in Michigan when the war broke out. Feeling it was her duty, she enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. (Entrance physicals for recruits were brief, and once a woman posing as a man was admitted to the army, she was aided in her ruse by things such as loose-fitting uniforms and the fact that troops often slept in their clothing). As Franklin Thompson, Edmonds participated in a number of battles, including First Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg, and served as a field nurse, mail carrier, and according to a popular memoir she wrote, a Union spy. After contracting malaria, she abandoned her regiment in 1863 rather than risk being found out as a woman by seeking treatment at a military hospital. Following her recovery, Edmonds stopped pretending to be Franklin Thompson and, wearing traditional female clothing, worked as a nurse for the rest of the war.
Following the war, the federal government, after being petitioned by some of Edmonds’ fellow soldiers, expunged the desertion charge from her service record and in 1884 granted her a military pension. Before her death in 1898, Edmonds became the first woman admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans’ group.
That reminds me of Petit Jean. I recently took a family vacation to Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas. The Legend of Petit Jean, and how the mountain received its name, begins in the 1700s with the story of a young French Nobleman, Chavet, who lived during the period of the French exploration of the New World. He requested permission to explore a part of the Louisiana Territory, and for a grant to claim part of the land. The King granted Chavet’s approval.
Chavet was engaged to be married to a beautiful young girl from Paris, Adrienne Dumont. When told of his plans, she asked that they be married right away so she could accompany him. Thinking of the hardship and danger on the journey, Chavet refused her request, telling her upon his return if the country was good and safe, they would be married and go to the New World.
Adrienne refused to accept his answer, and disguised herself as a cabin boy and applied to the captain of Chavet's ship for a position as a cabin boy, calling herself Jean. The girl must have been incredibly clever in her disguise, for it is said that not even Chavet recognized her. The sailors called her Petit Jean, which is French for Little John.
The ocean was crossed in early spring; the vessel ascended the Mississippi River to the Arkansas River, to the foot of the mountain. The Indians on the mountain came to the river and greeted Chavet and invited the sailors to spend time on the mountain. Chavet, Petit Jean, and the sailors spent the summer atop Petit Jean Mountain until fall approached and they began preparations for their voyage back to France. The ship was readied and boarded the evening before departure.
That night, Petit Jean became ill with a sickness that was strange to Chavet and his sailors. It was marked with fever, convulsions, delirium, and finally coma. Her condition was so grave at daylight that the departure was delayed. During the illness, Petit Jean's identity was, of course, discovered. The girl confessed her deception to Chavet and begged his forgiveness. She requested that if she died, to be carried back to the mountaintop that she had spent her last days on, and be buried at a spot overlooking the river below. The Indians made a stretcher out of deerskins and bore her up the mountain. At sundown, she died.
Many years later a low mound of earth was found at the point we now call Petit Jean's Grave. Her death, and the legend that followed, is said to give the mountain and the overlook an enchanting quality that draws visitors back again, and again.
OK, now this one is 99.99% certain to be untrue, but it is interesting nonetheless.
Many people in Victorian Gloucestershire believed that Queen Elizabeth 1st 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 in 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 – or does it…?
And that story reminds me of the whole conspiracy theory about Paul McCartny of the Beatles dying and being replaced with an imposter. Coming back to the beatles is bringing it full circle now (circle spelled with a Y) but we don’t have time to get into all that. One day we’ll do an episode on conspiracy theories.