Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. lived for 60 years, and spent most of them pretending to be someone else. Or someones else, really; the man who came to be known as “the Great Imposter” adopted at least 10 identities, including a year-long stint as a (self-taught!) trauma surgeon during the Korean War.

In an obituary published June 9, 1982, the New York Times summed up his accomplishments:

At times in his life, Mr. Demara lived as a Trappist monk, a doctor of psychology, a dean of philosophy at a small college in Pennsylvania, a law student, a zoology graduate, a career researcher, a teacher at a junior college in Maine, a surgeon in the Royal Canadian Navy, an assistant warden at a Texas prison and a teacher in a Maine village. He often borrowed the names and credentials of living people.

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

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How did he pull it off? He supposedly had a high IQ and a photographic memory (which begs the obvious question: why didn’t he just use those skills to pursue a legitimate career?) At the end of author Robert Crichton’s The Great Imposter, an awkward phone call between author and subject reveals everything and nothing, when Demara first claims to be a saint, then blames “Rascality, pure rascality!” for his actions.

The physically imposing Demara appears in this episode of You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx (“It’s always a pleasure to meet somebody who’s as crooked as I am!”) at around the 7:00 mark; at around 13:00 he talks about his stint as a fake doctor who performed real surgeries:

And here’s the trailer for The Great Imposter, based on Crichton’s book and starring a bemused-looking Tony Curtis. (The real Demara disavowed both the book and film.)

Top image: Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr., center, is questioned by Det. Millard Nickerson, left, and Kennebec County attorney Robert A. Marden February 14, 1957. Credit: AP Photo.

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