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.
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:
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.