For most of us, the idea of pretending to be someone else day in and day out sounds exhausting, if not impossible. Not for everyone, though. Some people slip into a new identity as easily as you slip into a new pair of shoes. In fact, history is full of impostors who donned new guises and successfully pretended to be someone else entirely for money, power, or, in some cases, just for fun.
8. Lord Gordon-Gordon
The real name of Lord Gordon-Gordon is lost to history, but we know that he was a 19th century British con man who was successful in impersonating a Scottish landowner. He swindled many people, most notable being one of the richest men in America, the notorious railroad magnate Jay Gould.
When the con man decided to adopt the guise of a Scottish aristocrat around 1868, he became Lord Glencairn in London. With the right look and the proper demeanor, he slowly gained the trust of others and persuaded them to grant him money loans or services on credit. When the fraud was exposed in 1870, Lord Glencairn disappeared from London and Lord Gordon-Gordon emerged in America.
There, he was even more successful as real Scottish lords were few and far between. He was aided by the fact that Gordon-Gordon was able to deposit tens of thousands of dollars in a bank. It was the money left over from his British swindles, but it instantly gave him credibility.
He settled in Minnesota and announced his intention to invest in railroads. This way, he made the acquaintance of Jay Gould and convinced him that he owned a lot of stock in the Erie Railroad. Keen to do business together, Gould gave him half a million dollars as a sign of good faith – some in money, the rest in stock. This was intended as a guarantee – Lord Gordon-Gordon was only supposed to hold onto the money, not spend it. However, when he began selling stock shares, Gould realized he had been swindled. The industrialist tried to settle matters in court, but the “lord” fled to Canada.
This almost caused an international incident as Gould’s associates crossed the border and tried to kidnap Gordon-Gordon to bring him to justice. They were caught and arrested and a U.S. militia wanted to invade Canada to secure their release.
The con man thought himself safe in Canada, but authorities eventually decided to extradite him. Not wanting to face prison, Lord Gordon-Gordon shot himself on August 1, 1874.
7. Wilhelm Voigt
On October 16, 1906, a German captain walked into an army barracks in Berlin and commandeered ten soldiers who accompanied him by train to the town of Köpenick east of the capital. There, the captain placed the mayor and the treasurer under arrest for embezzlement and confiscated over 4,000 marks from the local treasury as evidence. At first, this sounded like a typical corruption bust, but there was a catch – the “army captain” was just some guy dressed in uniform who changed in his civilian clothes and left with the money.
His name was Wilhelm Voigt. In his late 50s at that time, he had spent half his adult life in and out of prison for various crimes. In 1906, he assembled a full captain’s uniform by buying various used parts from different shops around Berlin. He looked, walked and talked like an officer and, for German soldiers, that was enough apparently. They followed his orders without question, even the sergeant who allowed his men to travel with Voigt.
The impostor was caught ten days after his impersonation and was sentenced to four years in prison. However, unlike most other con men, Voigt’s brazen actions amused the public, both in the German Empire and abroad. He became regarded more as a folk hero than a criminal and Kaiser Wilhelm II pardoned him after two years.
Voigt was keen to take advantage of his newfound popularity and began making appearances in theaters, restaurants, amusement parks, and wherever else he was welcomed. Decades later, the memorable affair even became the subject of a play called “The Captain of Köpenick.”
6. John Deydras
One day in 1318, a one-eared man walked into Beaumont Palace in Oxford and declared himself to be the true Edward II and, therefore, the rightful King of England.
This man’s name was John Deydras, sometimes recorded as John of Powderham, and all we know about his past is that he worked as a clerk and may have been the son of a tanner. According to his story, though, he was actually the son of Edward I, better known as Edward Longshanks. However, when he was an infant, a sow bit off his ear while he was playing in the castle courtyard. Fearing that she would be severely punished for her carelessness, his nanny substituted him with another boy from the village who ended up becoming Edward II of England.
Of course, Deydras had no proof for this wild story and modern historians opine that the man was likely mentally ill since making such an accusation was basically a death sentence back then. However, Edward II was said to have been amused by Deydras and, given that nobody took the story seriously, the king may have even wanted to spare the man and keep him as his court jester.
Unfortunately, Deydras really picked the wrong time for his little stunt. Edward was deeply unpopular at that time for his military failures against the Scots led by Robert the Bruce. Moreover, his wife, Queen Isabella, was “unspeakably annoyed” by Deydras and wanted him gone. Not surprisingly, though, she wasn’t nicknamed the She-Wolf of France for nothing.
As a result, Deydras was arrested and tortured. He confessed that the whole thing had been a lie, claiming that he had been put up to it by his cat who was actually a demon. Both man and feline were executed.
5. Cassie Chadwick
Elizabeth Bigley was a 19th century Canadian swindler who ran cons ever since she was a teenager. She started off with some minor forgery before moving to the United States where she pretended to be a clairvoyant in several different cities. She also married twice, each time under a different pseudonym, but neither marriage lasted long and, eventually, Bigley was sentenced to nine years in prison for forgery in 1889.
She was paroled in 1893 and went to Cleveland where she adopted the name Cassie Hoover. A few years later, she became Cassie Chadwick after marrying again, this time to a wealthy, respected doctor named Leroy Chadwick. This new relationship granted Cassie access to some of Ohio’s richest and most influential people and, with the unwitting help of one of her husband’s friends, Chadwick embarked on her most ambitious con.
In 1897, she took a trip to New York City. There, she met an aquaintance of Dr. Chadwick, a lawyer named James Dillon. Cassie asked him to accompany her on an errand and the man obliged. Together, they traveled to Fifth Avenue and stopped in front of one of the most lavish buildings in the entire city. It was the mansion of Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in the world. Chadwick went inside while Dillon waited in the carriage, puzzled over what business she could possibly have in there.
In reality, all Chadwick did was ask to speak with the head housekeeper under the pretense of checking the references of a maid she wanted to hire. She never met Carnegie, but that was irrelevant to the con – all that mattered was that she spent some time inside his house.
When she left, Dillon obviously asked about her business. Chadwick confessed that she was the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie and even showed the lawyer some promissory notes (forged, of course) worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, also mentioning that she stood to inherit millions more. She swore Dillon to secrecy, knowing full well that the attorney would tell everyone in Ohio.
Once her story was out, Chadwick found it easy to secure massive loans from every bank she walked into. She was counting on the fact that nobody would be so bold as to ask Carnegie about an illegitimate daughter and she was right…for a while. Chadwick kept her scam going for seven years. Then, in 1904, a banker demanded she pay back a loan worth almost $200,000. She was unable so the banker asked Carnegie who said he had no idea who Cassie Chadwick was. She was convicted of fraud and died in jail a few years later.
As far as Andrew Carnegie is concerned, we did an entire video about him on our sister channel, Biographics, so check the link in the description if you want to learn more about him.
4. Lambert Simnel
The death of King Edward IV of England in 1483 led to one of the most enduring mysteries in English history – the fate of his two sons, the so-called Princes in the Tower. When they were 12 and 9 years old, respectively, they were locked inside the Tower of London by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who took the throne for himself and became King Richard III. He was killed two years later at the Battle of Bosworth Field, putting an end not only to his reign, but also to the House of York and the Wars of the Roses. After him came Henry VII, first king from the House of Tudor.
As for the two princes, it is generally accepted that the two died in the tower, but there have been people who emerged claiming to be one or the other and, therefore, the rightful heirs to the throne.
One of these people was Lambert Simnel who, curiously, was hailed as not one, but two different heirs. As a boy, Simnel was under the care of a priest named Richard Simon who became convinced that his pupil came from royalty. At first, he proclaimed that the boy was Richard of Shrewsbury, the younger of the two princes who survived his incarceration in the tower. Later, he amended his claim, saying that Simnel was actually Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, a different member of the House of York who had been imprisoned by King Henry VII as a young boy.
Unbeknownst to most people, Simon included, the real Edward Plantagenet was still alive inside the Tower of London and it would be over a decade until he was actually executed. However, Simon’s claim was convincing enough that Lambert Simnel was taken to Ireland where he was crowned King Edward VI and an army was raised to dethrone Henry. The two sides met in 1487 at the Battle of Stoke Field where Simnel’s supporters were decisively defeated.
Fortunately for Simnel, King Henry understood that the boy was simply a puppet used by people to rally Yorkist supporters. Therefore, he pardoned Simnel and allowed him to work in the royal kitchen. When he got older, he became a falconer before disappearing from the history record.
3. Fred Demara
Known as “the Great Impostor,” Fred Demara adopted numerous identities and spent most of his lifetime pretending to be someone else. Some of his alter egos included a psychologist, a biologist, a law student, a Trappist monk, a teacher, a dean of philosophy, a prison warden, and, most shocking of all, a naval surgeon who actually performed medical procedures during the Korean War.
It won’t surprise you to learn that we don’t know a lot of accurate information about the lifelong swindler as most of the details surrounding him were provided by Demara himself after he sold his story to Life magazine. He was born Ferdinand Waldo Demara in 1921 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Allegedly, he had a very high IQ and a photographic memory which helped him take on identities that often required a higher education. His family started off rich, but lost it all during the Great Depression which convinced a teenage Demara to run away from home and embark on his life as a professional impostor.
It would seem that the two career paths that genuinely appealed to Demara were as a monk and a military man. He joined several monasteries and military branches throughout his life, but never lasted more than a few years in each before running away and starting over again.
When Demara joined a religious educational group known as the Brothers of Christian Instruction, he met a Canadian doctor named Joseph Cyr. He later adopted Cyr’s identity and secured a position as trauma surgeon aboard the Canadian destroyer HMCS Cayuga during the Korean War. Apparently, he was successful in performing sutures, minor surgery, and, on one occasion, even extracting a bullet from a chest wound.
After Demara became a minor celebrity in the late 1950s, he found it much harder to assume new identities. Instead, he tried living as Fred Demara and parlayed his newfound fame into a few TV appearances and even one movie role in the 1960 horror film The Hypnotic Eye.
2. George Psalmanazar
George Psalmanazar is the only known alias of a Frenchman who purported to be a native of Formosa who both dazzled and horrified 18th century London with tales from his homeland.
The man was born sometime around 1679 in southern France. Whilst traveling through Europe, he adopted the guise of an Irish pilgrim. However, people could often tell he was lying, so he decided he needed something more exotic. He then pretended to be a Japanese heathen, but later switched to something even more far-flung and claimed to be a native of the island of Formosa, known today as Taiwan. He even began practicing strange rituals and eating unusual food which was enough to convince most Europeans that he was from someplace far, far away. On his travels, he met a Scottish chaplain named Alexander Innes who “converted” him to Christianity, christened him George Psalmanazar and brought him to London.
The stranger’s story proved popular in England. He claimed to have been kidnapped from his native land by Jesuits who then imprisoned him for refusing to convert to Catholicism. This played well in a country where anti-Catholic sentiment was high, only enhanced by Psalmanazar’s conversion to Anglicanism.
In 1704, the Formosan wrote and published a book titled “An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan.” It was a hit, although most of the facts were either fabricated, exaggerated or taken from travel reports of other civilizations. It contained a fake language, a fake calendar, and fake religious ceremonies performed to worship the Sun and the Moon.
Most shocking were Psalmanazar’s claims of how common cannibalism and human sacrifice were in his society. According to him, the Formosan High Priest Gnotoy Bonzo commanded 18,000 boys under the age of 9 to be killed each year so that their hearts could be offered as sacrifices. The rest of their bodies were eaten. To ensure a steady supply of children, men were allowed to take on as many wives as they wanted.
Of course, the Formosan fascination only lasted a couple of years before people moved on to the next craze. This eventually prompted Psalmanazar to confess that the whole thing was a fraud, but he suffered no serious consequences for his deception. He even had admirers, most notably the playwright Samuel Johnson, who appreciated his success as an impostor.
1. The False Dmitris
The end of the 16th century brought a succession crisis in Russia known as the Time of Troubles. It started in 1598 after Fyodor I died without heirs. This prompted the appearance of several pretenders to the throne all known as False Dmitry because they all claimed to be the same person – Tsarevich Dmitry Ivanovich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible.
The real Dmitry died in 1591 when he was only 8 years old under controversial circumstances. He was killed by a stab wound – some say he was assassinated, others that the young prince accidentally stabbed himself during a seizure. A few years later, a third story arose purporting that the alleged assassins killed a different boy while the real Dmitry was hidden away, waiting for the opportune time to return. This version opened the door for people to come forward as the rightful heir to the throne.
The first False Dmitry appeared around 1603 in Poland-Lithuania. He was the most successful of the bunch. He gained the backing of the Polish lords and found plenty of Russian supporters as well. He raised an army and intended to challenge Tsar Boris Godunov, but there was no need for this. In 1605, Godunov died of an illness. His teenage son, Fyodor II, became the new tsar, but only lasted a couple of months before being assassinated and replaced with Dmitry.
False Dmitry reigned for almost a year, but he had his own enemies who plotted against him. One of them was Vasili Shuisky. He convinced the people of Moscow that Dmitry was planning to massacre them with the help of his Polish followers. They stormed the Kremlin and killed Dmitry and, according to legend, cremated his body and shot the ashes out of a cannon towards Poland.
Shuysky became Tsar Vasili IV. In 1607 came False Dmitry II who was accepted as the real Dmitry by Tsaritsa Marina, the wife of the first False Dmitry who, presumably, would have accepted anyone to gain back her power. He actually assembled a large army and had several military successes, but was killed in 1610 while drunk by one of his own followers.
Lastly came False Dmitry III. He gained the allegiance of the Cossacks, but was betrayed by a group who kidnapped him and took him to Moscow in 1612 where he was executed. The crisis, as well as the line of False Dmitris, ended a year later when Michael I became the new Tsar of Russia, thus beginning the 300-year reign of the House of Romanov.