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Perhaps most notorious was his stint aboard a Canadian naval vessel during the Korean War. He couldn’t resist posing for a photo after he was eventually unmasked.AP Photo

“The Great Imposter”

In the ultimate example of “fake it till you make it,” Ferdinand Demara boarded the HMCS Cayuga, a Canadian Navy destroyer during the Korean War, impersonating a doctor, which was fine until the ship started taking on more serious casualties and Demara was left as the ship’s only “surgeon”.

Ferdinand Demara, or “the Great Imposter” as he came to be known, has a very impressive resume — the only thing it lacks is his real name. Under a series of stolen identities Demara worked as a civil engineer, a zoology graduate, a doctor of applied psychology, a monk on two separate occasions (Trappist and Benedictine), an assistant warden at a Texas prison, philosophy dean at a Pennsylvania college, a hospital orderly, a lawyer and a teacher — among other professions. In 1957, he was described as an “audacious, unschooled, but amazingly intelligent pretender who always wanted to be a Somebody, and succeeded in being a whole raft of Somebody Elses.”

Perhaps his most impressive impersonation came during the Korean War while impersonating a doctor on a Royal Canadian Navy Destroyer. When several Korean combat casualties were brought on board, the responsibility of saving their lives fell to Demara, the ship’s sole “surgeon.” Demara, who allegedly possessed a photographic memory and unusually high IQ, ducked into his quarters with a medical textbook and emerged to save the lives of every single man, including one who required major chest surgery. News of his heroics eventually unmasked him, and the resulting media attention ultimately prevented him from continuing his fraudulent lifestyle. Impersonation is considerably more difficult when the entire country knows your face.

Many of Demara’s unsuspecting employers, under other circumstances, would have been satisfied with Demara as an employee. He was apparently able to memorise necessary techniques from textbooks and worked on two cardinal rules: The burden of proof is on the accuser and When in danger, attack. He described his own motivation as “Rascality, pure rascality”

His exploits led to charges against him for fraud, forgery, theft, embezzlement, resisting arrest, vagrancy and public drunkenness.

Demara’s next move was his biggest fabrication so far, and the one that ultimately brought him down. Raising the stakes, Demara arrived at a Canadian Royal Navy recruiting office in the province of New Brunswick—and enlisted as Dr Joseph Cyr. Demara was soon shipped out on the HMCS Cayuga, a navy destroyer headed for Korea, where Canada was embroiled in the Korean War.

Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. was born on December 21, 1921, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. His father, Ferdinand Sr., was a motion picture operator. The family was well-off and lived in an affluent neighbourhood of Lawrence until the Great Depression bankrupted Ferdinand Sr. the family then moved to a poorer neighbourhood of Lawrence.

Little is known about Demara’s early life, but he maintained an interest in Christianity over the course of his lifetime and incorporated it into his frauds. One of the formative experiences in Fred’s young life came when he tricked a local sweet store owner into giving him and his friend’s free chocolates. On another occasion he found a pair of artificial legs in a trashcan and positioned them sticking out of a snowbank by the side of the road, hiding and laughing at the reactions of passing motorists. His father was a film projectionist (Fred’s uncle owned a chain of movie theatres) and so he grew up surrounded by images of actors. He was also a fairly devout young boy and maintained a strong interest and belief in Christianity throughout his life.

At the age of sixteen, Fred ran away from home. He headed south to Central Falls, a small town in Rhode Island. This small town was home to a Cistercian monastery and young Fred Demara joined the monastery as a novice. The rule of the monks was that one had to be a resident for five or six years before taking vows, but after four years Fred left. He later said that the abbot of the monastery felt he was better suited for teaching out in the world rather than living in contemplation. With the war on the horizon, he enlisted in the US army. He did not find the army half as congenial as the monastery, and after a year he deserted. As part of his desertion, for the first time, he took on a false identity – that of an army buddy named Anthony Ignolia.

He taught psychology at Gannon College in Pennsylvania (under a false name, without a degree).

Under Anthony’s name, he joined the US Navy instead. He was trained as a hospital corpsman, but when he realised this meant serving on the front lines he tried to forge the credentials that would let him enrol in officer training. The forgery was detected, and he was forced to go on the run again. He decided to return to monastic life at a Cistercian monastery in Louisville Kentucky, this time under the name of Robert Linton French. Doctor French was a real person, as Fred’s normal MO was to find a real person living in obscurity and gain copies of their documents by mail – birth certificates, university credentials etc. Nowadays we’d call this “social engineering”. As Robert French, he travelled to Chicago and studied philosophy and ethics at DePaul University. He excelled at his studies, but when he found himself close to taking holy orders he got cold feet. Unwilling to take the vows as a fraud, and afraid to reveal his imposture to his colleagues, he decided to just vanish.

He resurfaced in Erie, Pennsylvania teaching psychology at a university, then moved to Los Angeles where he spent some time as an orderly in a sanitarium. Using French’s name and credentials he got another job teaching psychology at a university in Washington State. Though he had never really studied psychology, he just kept his own study a chapter ahead of his students in the textbook. He liked Washington State, and enjoyed the teaching, and made the mistake of getting comfortable. He became friends with the local Sheriff, Frank Tamblin. Sheriff Tamblin made him a special deputy, and Fred made speeches supporting the Sheriff’s bid for re-election. But one day the sheriff turned up with a warrant for Fred’s arrest. At the station, two FBI agents were waiting. Fred had been identified as a deserter, and he spent 18 months imprisoned at the US Disciplinary Barracks in San Pedro California.

After he was released from prison Fred returned home to Lawrence for a while, but the temptation to assume a new identity proved too much for him. This time he decided to become a biologist in Kentucky named Dr Cecil Hamann. Under this name Fred got a job at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, a Harvard-affiliated hospital that still exists and combines teaching, treatment and research. At the same time, Fred also took night classes in law, though he only did the first year and didn’t get any qualifications. Fred was much more a believer in on-the-job training. At the same time, he decided to leave Boston and headed north to Alfred, Maine.

His first con was tiny, he conned a chocolate shop in his hometown into giving chocolates to his entire class when he had no money to pay for them. That’s no big deal, but after that, there was no turning back.

In Maine, he returned to the religious life. This time it was as part of a teaching order, the Brothers of Christian Instruction. The Brothers were delighted to welcome such a “highly qualified” man into the flock. The story even made the local papers, something which almost led to disaster for Fred. A student of the real Dr Hamann read the story and passed it on to him. Luckily Dr Hamann was a bit of a procrastinator and never got round to reporting Fred to the authorities.

During Demara’s impersonation as Brother John Payne of the Christian Brothers of Instruction, Demara came up with the idea of making the religious teaching order more prominent by founding a college in Alfred, Maine. Demara proceeded on his own, and actually got the college chartered by the state. He then promptly left the religious order in 1951, when the Christian Brothers of Instruction offended him by not naming him as rector or chancellor of the new college and chose what Demara considered to be a terrible name for the college. The college Demara founded, LaMennais College in Alfred, Maine, began in 1951 (when Demara left); in 1959 it moved to Canton, Ohio, and in 1960, became Walsh College (now Walsh University).

There he became friends with the local GP, a man named Joseph Cyr. Fred claimed that they became friends when Dr Cyr was treating a monk for arthritis. He had heard that Fred had been a biologist before becoming a monk, and asked his advice.

Fred had read about bee venom being used to treat arthritis in a medical journal and suggested that. It worked, and Dr Cyr’s respect for him rose enormously. Enough that when Fred was returning to Maine Dr Cyr made the mistake of asking him to take his credentials back with him. Dr Cyr hoped to gain an American medical license to go with his Canadian one. Of course, the credentials would never be delivered.

When Fred returned to Maine, he discovered that the Brothers had obtained their college charter. He also discovered that despite his hopes he had not been selected as head of the college. Angered by the snub, he “borrowed” one of their automobiles, drove to Boston, and got the bus straight back to New Brunswick. There he went into a Navy recruiting office and enlisted as a Naval surgeon using Dr Cyr’s credentials. In the spring of 1951, he was assigned to a naval base in Halifax for two months. While there he fell in love with a local girl, for the first and possibly only time in his life. The pair planned to get married after Fred finished his tour of duty. But at the time Canada was one of the nations involved in the Korean War, and in June Fred Demara sailed out on the Cayuga.

In 1957, Demara was arrested in North Haven, Maine. When a prisoner recognised Demara from a LIFE magazine article, he moved to the Penobscot Bay island, where he assumed the identity of Martin Godgart, a high school teacher—until that lie, too, was uncovered. Demara spent six months in prison for his exploits as Martin Godgart.

Dr Joseph Cyr, a surgeon lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Navy, walked onto the deck of the HMCS Cayuga. It was September 1951, the second year of the Korean War, and the Cayuga was making her way north of the 38th parallel, just off the shore of North Korea. The morning had gone smoothly enough; no sickness, no injuries to report. But just as the afternoon was getting on, the lookouts spotted something that didn’t quite fit with the watery landscape: a small, cramped Korean junk that was waving a flag and frantically making its way toward the ship.

Within the hour, the rickety boat had pulled up alongside the Cayuga. Inside was a mess of bodies, 19 in all, piled together in obvious filth. They looked close to death. Mangled torsos, bloody, bleeding heads, limbs that turned the wrong way or failed to turn at all. Most of them were no more than boys. They had been caught in an ambush, a Korean liaison officer soon explained to the Cayuga’s crew; the messy bullet and shrapnel wounds were the result.

That’s why Dr. Cyr had been summoned from below deck: He was the only man with any medical qualification on board. He would have to operate — and soon. Without his intervention, all 19 men would very likely die. Dr Cyr began to prepare his kit.

There was only one problem. Dr Cyr didn’t hold a medical degree, let alone the proper qualifications required to undertake complex surgery aboard a moving ship. In fact, he’d never even graduated high school. And his real name wasn’t Cyr. It was Ferdinand Waldo Demara, or, as he would eventually become known, the Great Impostor — one of the most successful confidence artists of all time, memorialised, in part, in Robert Crichton’s 1959 account The Great Impostor. His career would span decades, his disguises the full gamut of professional life. But nowhere was he more at home than in the guise of the master of human life, the doctor.

Over the next 48 hours, Demara would somehow fake his way through the surgeries, with the help of a medical textbook, a field guide he had persuaded a fellow physician back in Ontario to create “for the troops” in the event a doctor wasn’t readily available, copious antibiotics (for the patients) and alcohol (for himself), and a healthy dose of supreme confidence in his own abilities. After all, he’d been a doctor before. Not to mention a psychologist. And a professor. And a monk (many monks, in fact). And the founder of a religious college. Why couldn’t he be a surgeon?

As Demara performed his medical miracles on the high seas, makeshift operating table tied down to protect the patients from the roll of the waves, a zealous young press officer wandered the decks in search of a story. The home office was getting on his back. They needed good copy. He needed good copy. Little of note had been happening for weeks. He was, he joked to his shipmates, practically starving for news. When word of the Korean rescue spread among the crew, it was all he could do to hide his excitement. Dr Cyr’s story was fantastic. It was, indeed, perfect. Cyr hadn’t been required to help the enemy, but his honourable nature had compelled him to do so. And with what results. Nineteen surgeries. And 19 men departing the Cayuga in far better shape than they’d arrived. Would the good doctor agree to a profile, to commemorate the momentous events of the week?

Who was Demara to resist? He had grown so sure of his invulnerability, so confident in the borrowed skin of Joseph Cyr, M.D., that no amount of media attention was too much. And he had performed some pretty masterful operations if he might say so himself. Dispatches about the great feats of Dr Cyr soon spread throughout Canada.

Graphic Bussiness Insider

Dr. Joseph Cyr, original version, felt his patience running out. It was October 23, and there he was, sitting quietly in Edmundston [New Brunswick], trying his damnedest to read a book in peace. But they simply wouldn’t leave him alone. The phone was going crazy, ringing the second he replaced the receiver. Was he the doctor in Korea? the well-intentioned callers wanted to know. Was it his son? Or another relative? No, no, he told anyone who bothered to listen. No relation. There were many Cyrs out there, and many Joseph Cyrs. It was not he.

A few hours later, Cyr received another call, this time from a good friend who now read aloud the “miracle doctor’s” credentials. There may be many Joseph Cyrs, but this particular one boasted a background identical to his own. At some point, coincidence just didn’t cut it. Cyr asked his friend for a photograph.

Surely there was some mistake. He knew precisely who this was. “Wait, this is my friend, Brother John Payne of the Brothers of Christian Instruction,” he said, the surprise evident in his voice. Brother Payne had been a novice when Cyr knew him. He’d taken the name after shedding his secular life — and that life, Cyr well recalled, was a medical one much like his own. Dr. Cecil B. Hamann, he believed the man’s original name was. But why, even if he had returned once more to medicine, would he ever use Cyr’s name instead? Surely his own medical credentials were enough. Demara’s deception rapidly began to unravel.

And unravel it did. But his eventual dismissal from the navy was far from signalling the end of his career. Profoundly embarrassed — the future of the nation’s defence was on its shoulders, and it couldn’t even manage the security of its own personnel? — the navy did not press charges. ­Demara-alias-Cyr was quietly dismissed and asked to leave the country. He was only too happy to oblige, and despite his newfound, and short-lived, notoriety, he would go on to successfully impersonate an entire panoply of humanity, from prison warden to instructor at a school for “mentally retarded” children to humble English teacher to civil engineer who was almost awarded a contract to build a large bridge in Mexico.

Time and time again, Demara — Fred to those who knew him undisguised — found himself in positions of the highest authority, in charge of human minds in the classroom, bodies in the prison system live on the decks of the Cayuga. Time and time again, he would be exposed, only to go back and succeed, yet again, at inveigling those around him.

But it was the beginning of the end for Fred Demara.

Fred’s time in the Canadian Navy was, as he would later put it, “the happiest time in his life”. Even after he was exposed, his shipmates sent him a Christmas card declaring that whatever his faults, they considered him their friend. We don’t know how Fred finished things with his fiancée, but we know that Fred never saw his Canadian girlfriend again.

Fred once again fell back to his parents in Lawrence, where he was contacted by a journalist from LIFE magazine. Needing the money, Fred agreed to give them an interview. The story of the “fake Navy doctor” had already been in the papers, and Fred saw this as a chance to put his side of the story. In a move that would come back to haunt him, he also posed for multiple photos in the magazine. By the time the piece was printed, it had an addendum saying Fred had “disappeared once more, whether temporarily or for another exploit, his family does not know”. In fact, Fred had gone on the road – working a series of jobs around the country, sometimes taking on a fake name to try and avoid questions but sometimes not. He also started drinking, driven mostly by guilt over the girl he’d disappointed in Halifax. He’d always been afraid of being discovered, not out of punishment but out of fear of what people would think of him. And now his fear had come true.

Demara continued his run, eventually becoming a warden in a Texas prison. Demara is questioned here in 1957 after it was discovered that he was teaching under a fake name. AP Photo

He was ousted after showing a magazine story about himself to a prisoner. REUTERS/Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/Handout via Reuters

In Houston, Texas in 1955, Fred resurfaced as Dr Benjamin Jones, a professor from Mississippi. He applied to join the Texas Department of Corrections, using a canny strategy where he applied directly to the head of the wrong department, knowing the man would forward it on to the correct person, one OB Ellis. This lent his application some borrowed legitimacy and he was accepted. Asked for eight character references, he simply wrote them all himself.

(He used a pretty clever trick to make the references look legit. He would write to government departments in other states, making queries and including a “stamped, self-addressed envelope.” When the replies came back (with an out-of-state postmark), he’d open them up, put his reference inside, then erase the address (written in pencil) and replace it with Ellis’ address. Then he just dropped the bundle into a random in-tray in the office when he was in sorting out some point about his application, and relied on somebody blaming an inattentive mail boy and passing them on to Ellis.)

Fred was accepted and was initially assigned to be the lieutenant of the guard at one of the prison farms. However the harsh working conditions for the inmates and the open brutality and racism of the guards disturbed him too much, and he transferred to the prison recreation department.

There he did well enough to be made deputy warden of a new prison (“Shamrock”) designed to separate out the most violent inmates from the rest of the population. It was a tough assignment, but Fred (aided by his knowledge of psychology, complete lack of fear, and an occasional surreptitious dose of tranquillizers to the prisoners) did extremely well at it. (He later joked “You might say it was Texas’ first hospital for the criminally insane.”) But it all came crashing down when one of the prisoners recognised him from his interview in LIFE magazine. Confronted by his boss, Fred denied everything. But as soon as he was out of the man’s sight, he headed to his room, grabbed everything he owned, got in his car and fled.

Demara meets with Groucho Marx, who told him that it’s always a pleasure to meet someone as crooked as he is.YouTube/ Groucho Marx – You Bet Your Life

In the summer of 1956, Fred stepped off the ferry on North Haven Island in Maine. This time he was Martin Godgart, the new teacher at the local school. He taught the boys English and Latin and was also active in the local community. People took a while to warm up to this stranger, but he soon became popular with them. But Fred was close to the breaking point. He was tired, and he started drinking again.

One too many indiscreet comments aroused the suspicions of the locals, and the mother of one of the kids he taught ordered a copy of an old issue of LIFE magazine. With her suspicions confirmed, she tricked Fred into leaving his fingerprints on a glass and then sent them to the FBI. On February 14th, 1957, Fred was arrested and taken off the island. Luckily for him, the judge only gave him two months probation for not having a legitimate teacher’s license.

Fred’s actions over the next couple of years are somewhat unclear – there are rumours he spent six months in prison in Canada, though this is difficult to confirm. The New Haven incident closes out the biography of him written by Robert Crichton. It was called The Great Imposter and was published in 1959.

Demara told his biographer he was successful in his roles because he was able to fit into positions which no one else had previously occupied. Demara explained it in the following excerpt from his biography:

(Demara)’… had come to two beliefs. One was that in any organisation there is always a lot of loose, unused power lying about which can be picked up without alienating anyone. The second rule is, if you want power and want to expand, never encroach on anyone else’s domain; open up new ones…’

Demara referred to it as ‘expanding into the power vacuum,’ and described as such; ‘if you come into a new situation (there’s a nice word for it) don’t join some other professor’s committee and try to make your mark by moving up in that committee. You’ll, one, have a long haul and two, make an enemy.’ Demara’s technique was to find his own committee. ‘That way there’s no competition, no past standards to measure you by. How can anyone tell you aren’t running a top outfit? And then there’s no past laws or rules or precedents to hold you down or limit you. Make your own rules and interpretations. Nothing like it. Remember it, expand into the power vacuum!’

The photo in LIFE magazine and interview that unmasked Fred.

The biography was a bestseller and made Fred Demara a household name. He decided to take advantage of his newfound fame, and took up an offer to take a bit part in a Hollywood film called The Hypnotic Eye. It was a pretty standard horror movie (Fred was a surgeon, of course), and the main thing it taught Fred was that he didn’t like “real” acting. While he was in LA, he made an appearance on Groucho Marx’s game show, You Bet Your Life.

Ferdinand Demara, “The Great Imposter” (‘Water’, Nov 12, 1959)

It’s fascinating to be able to see Fred on film, joking to Groucho Marx about how he “acquired all his credentials” with the charm that had carried him through so many impersonations. In addition to plugging The Hypnotic Eye, Fred and his partner (a Brazilian woman named Carmen Phillips writing a book about how to marry an American) won $2000. Fred joked that he was donating his half to the “Feed And Clothe Fred Demara Fund.”

In 1961 The Great Imposter was released as a movie. Tony Curtis played Fred, to his displeasure. “He looks nothing like me,” he commented. By this time Fred (always a big man) had put on so much weight that it was affecting his health, and he was forced to give up his life of imposture. Instead, he worked as a counsellor in a homeless shelter in downtown Los Angeles for several years. In 1967 he finally got some credentials of his own, getting a degree from a bible college in Oregon. With this, he got a job as a chaplain in a hospital in Anaheim, California. When Demara’s past exploits and infamy were discovered in the late 1970s, he was almost dismissed from the Good Samaritan Hospital of Orange County in Anaheim, California, where he worked as a visiting chaplain. Chief of Staff Philip S. Cifarelli, who had developed a close personal friendship with Demara, personally vouched for him and Demara was allowed to remain as chaplain. Demara was a very active and appreciated minister, serving a variety of patients in the hospital. Few of those with whom he interacted at the hospital knew of his colourful past. Due to limited financial resources and his friendships with Cifarelli and Jerry Nilsson, one of the major owners of the hospital, Demara was allowed to live in the hospital until his death, even after illness forced him to stop working for them in 1980.

Demara died on June 7, 1982, at the age of 60 due to heart failure and complications from his diabetic condition, which had required both of his legs to be amputated. According to his obituary in The New York Times, he had been living in Orange County, California, for eight years. He died at Nilsson’s home in Anaheim, California.

He was a remarkable man – charming and intelligent, adaptable and compassionate, with a photographic memory and a swift mind to match. Yet he squandered his talents on borrowing lives, and all his accomplishments were overshadowed by the crimes he committed to achieving them. In the end, his life was a tragedy, and the greatest tragedy of all was that we never saw what The Great Imposter could have accomplished if he’d had the courage just to be himself.

Ferdinand DeMara. Eventually, he returned to his religious-impersonation roots, operating as a chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital of Orange County in Anaheim, California, but he was too famous to keep the deception going for long. They let him stay on though, and he died there in 1982.

In 1977 in an article from the period after which Demara was formally ordained. Fred said:

“It’s rascality, pure rascality”

Those words are the closest Demara has ever come to explaining why he spent almost two decades assuming other people’s identities.

For the, then previous 14 years, however, Demara has been a bona fide non-denominational preacher, ministering to rural hamlets in the Pacific Northwest and to skid row derelicts in Los Angeles. In 1975, he was named chaplain at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Anaheim, Calif.

Looking back, the hulking (6′, 250 lbs.) Demara claims his role-playing was a search for reality. “Reality to me is best defined by the Latin adage Esse quam videri,” says Demara. “That means, To be, rather than to seem.’ I have learned that now, but in my earlier years I reversed it.”

And he did so brilliantly. As plain Fred Demara, he was a high school dropout who ran away from his Lawrence, Mass. home to join a monastery. He enlisted in the Army in 1941, promptly went AWOL to join the Navy. Deserting the Navy, Demara began his career of impersonating other people.

Surgeon-Lt. Joseph C. Cyr was Demara’s most astonishing impersonation. In his role as a doctor in the Royal Canadian Navy in Korea, Demara operated on wounded South Korean soldiers. In one case, he took only 10 minutes to extract a bullet lodged a quarter inch from a patient’s heart. In another, he removed a man’s lung after a bullet had torn through his chest. Because he had had no formal medical training whatsoever, Demara’s feat was later compared to “taking someone out of the Stone Age and telling him to fix a jet engine.” Ironically, Demara’s expertise proved his downfall. The publicity he received flushed out the real Dr Cyr, a general practitioner in New Brunswick.

Throughout the 1950s Demara popped up in different places with different names and guises. Dr Ben Jones was an assistant warden at the Huntsville (Texas) Penitentiary. Martin Godgart was a Latin teacher in North Haven, Maine. Dr James Lore was assistant to the prefect at the Mount Alverno School for Boys in Cincinnati.

Each time Demara was unmasked, he found his fame had grown, peaking with the publication of Robert Crichton’s The Great Impostor in 1959 and the movie in 1961. Yet fame did not mean fortune.

“Being an impostor is a notoriously underpaid profession,” he said at the time. He got $4,000 for the film rights.

Since he walked into Los Angeles’ Union Rescue Mission in 1963, Demara dedicated himself to the ministry—and used his own name. He said the “thread of religion” has run through his entire life, and now he has found his niche. Dr Gerald Nilsson, part owner of the Good Samaritan Hospital, believed Demara is “the most humble and the most accomplished man I have ever known. [As chaplain] he has the ability to take a person and guide him through by making him feel secure.”

Demara insisted his deceptions are over. “I hate to look back,” he says. “I’m not proud of my impostor days.”

Demara convinced his biographer — who named him “The Great Imposter” — to give him money to support him in his efforts to “go straight” time and time again. Barnes and Noble

Dr Charles V. Ford, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), has long been fascinated by lies and the liars who tell them.

He published a book, “Lies! Lies! Lies! The Psychology of Deceit,” in 1995 that has since been translated into several languages. Perhaps the most entertaining chapters in Ford’s book are those in which he discusses pathological liars, a group that includes — among other types — impostors and con artists.

Ford notes that some of these liars and cons have found prominent places in pop culture, inspiring books and movies, including the so-called “Great Impostor,” Ferdinand Waldo Demara, and Frank Abagnale Jr., arguably the greatest of con-artists. Ford says in “Lies! Lies! Lies!” that Demara – who impersonated people in many professions and did so very competently – was “the most famous impostor of this century, perhaps in history.”

He also singled out Demara “When you study his life, you appreciate how truly brilliant the man was,” Ford said.

“Amazingly, according to the best information, he competently completed his responsibilities in each of these roles,” Ford said. Not surprisingly, he was exposed many times. Of course, this is perhaps part of the attraction for impostors.

“They continuously lie a lie, to the point of assuming new names and identities for each role they play. For some there is a con-artist quality to their posturing; for others, the only identifiable goal of the imposture is the thrill of pulling it off.”

Perhaps Demara’s most famous exploit, according to Ford and others, was his stint posing as a surgeon on a destroyer in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Korean War. Amazingly, Demara even performed numerous surgeries and did so successfully. He performed such delicate procedures as removing a bullet lodged within an inch of a patient’s heart.

“He was so good that he was operating on Korean children (and) never had a day of medical school,” Ford said.

In fact, Demara was seen as “such a star and such a humanitarian” that he received some press attention, Ford said. “That’s how he was exposed because the actual Canadian surgeon he was pretending to be saw the article and alerted the authorities.

“He was exposed not because of incompetence but because of his competence,” Ford said. “To me, this is just mind-blowing.”

Demara was profiled by Life magazine, and this inspired a biography by Robert Crichton, published in 1959. 

Tony Curtis starred in a Hollywood movie about Demara, titled “The Great Impostor,” in 1961. It was based on the book. In true Hollywood fashion, Curtis bore little physical resemblance to the real Demara, who was 6 feet tall and weighed about 350 pounds.

Demara “died a lonely, depressed man, somewhere in California,” Ford said. (The AP account in 1982 said that Demara died in a hospital in Anaheim, Calif.)

Ford said he was so fascinated by Demara that he went to the library and found the Life magazine about him and, as a psychiatrist, he wondered why “The Great Impostor” did what he did.

“Why would this guy – who could have been successful and world-famous in a number of different fields – instead imposture various careers from one to another? Ford said. “We can only theorise because nobody spent that time with him.”

When asked why he continued to be an impostor, Demara responded, “Because I am a rotten man,” Ford says in the book.

However, this was not an adequate explanation, according to Ford. “It was not that simple,” he writes. After all, Demara often displayed generosity and kindness while playing his roles.

Ford speculated that Demara, for whatever reason, “had such a loss of personal identity that he had to create various identities along the way.”

Ferdinand Demara – Criminal – Biography.com

Obituary, New York Times

Fred Demara, the Great Imposter – HeadStuff

The Art of the Con | The Saturday Evening Post

Full text of “THE GREAT IMPOSTOF” – Internet Archive

Ferdinand Waldo Demara – Wikipedia

Ferdinand Demara – Top 10 Imposters – TIME

Fred Demara was the greatest con man ever – Business Insider

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255 – Fake Navy Man Fred Demara – The Dollop

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Ferdinand “Waldo” Demara | CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum

Ferdinand Waldo Demara: Who was the Great Imposter? | Stuff You …

The Great Impostor: The Amazing Career of Ferdinand Waldo Demara …


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