This is the true and fascinating story of Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. – also known as the Great Impostor. It is actually not one but many stories, because Demara perhaps has the most impressive CV that the world has ever known as an impersonator!
Who is Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr.?
He was born on December 12th 1921 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, but his family’s origin is probably somewhere in Québec, with the spelling of Desmarais. He had a pleasant childhood but the family’s fortunes deteriorated with 1929 crisis and he struggled to accept the move to a less posh part of the town.
Later, he expressed once that he would like to experiment the austerity of a monk’s life and, after secondary school, when he was just 16, he ran away from home to join a Trappist monastery in Rhode Island, where he became Brother Marie-Jérôme…
The rigour of monastic life was beyond his level of tolerance and, in 1941, he joined the US Army. He served there for one year only, then he defected and return to Lawrence, where he had to face his father’s disappointment for his lack of patriotism!
Where it all started…
And that’s where it probably all started: instead of turning himself in back to the Army (and facing potential charges for desertion), he took the name of an army buddy, Anthony Ignolia, and, after a couple of attempts to enter a monastery, joined the US Navy! He was sent to the Norfolk base where, while performing his duties, he managed to get the notes of Dr Robert Linton French, a Navy officer and psychologist on prolonged leave. Once he had collected the notes and other information from the parish in Lawrence, he realised that he didn’t achieve the rank he was expecting in the US Navy and simulated his suicide by leaving a small parcel with a few clothes on the quay with a farewell note!
A “career” as an impostor!
Taking with him all the information, he entered the Gethsemani Trappist monastery in Kentucky, as Dr Robert Linton French. One year later, still pretending to be Dr French, he studied theology, cosmology and epistemology at the Chicago DePaul University, with the recommendation of the monastery director.
From that moment onwards (roughly at the end of World War II), he started careers in colleges and universities: taught psychology, served as an orderly in a sanitarium, as an instructor in a college… He finally was arrested in Seattle, with the charge of “war time desertion”. He wouldn’t complete the six-years sentence because he managed to get out of jail on parole after only 18 months.
He then revamped his religious side and joined the Brothers of Christian Instruction at Grand Falls in New Brunswick, Canada, as Brother John Payne. There, he came up with the idea of founding a college in Alfred, Maine: LaMennais College. He proceeded on his own and actually got the college chartered by the State. But the Brothers of Christian Instruction named somebody else as head of the new college and, in 1951, Demara left in anger. The college Demara founded existed until 1959 when it moved to Canton in Ohio and changed its name to Walsh College, now Walsh University.
However, while Demara was with the Brothers of Christian Instruction, he met a young doctor from Harvard, Joseph C. Cyr. Dr Cyr would like to go back to the US to work and Demara offered to help him: he just asked for the relevant documentation – such as copies of diplomas – that he could forward to his helpful acquaintances…
The true hoax
With this information, Demara left the Brothers of Christian Instruction and joined the Canadian Navy as Dr Joseph Cyr. He was sent on the HMCS Cayuga, a Canadian Navy destroyer, as a trauma surgeon. The boat would be part of the Canadian operating in the Korea War, in September 1953. During this assignment, Dr Cyr – alias Demara – demonstrated the very nature of his character and approach to life.
Sixteen Korean soldiers were on-boarded on the ship, all of them with serious injuries requiring immediate surgical intervention – or they would die. There was only one surgeon: Dr Cyr.
He didn’t panic. He commanded these variously injured patients to be transported into the ship theatres and prepared for surgery, and he disappeared in his room: he went studying. At exceptional speed. Then he went to the theatre and operated all of them. And none of the patients died as a result of his surgery! Among the interventions to be performed, there was also a piece of complicated chest surgery.
This achievement made it to the Canadian newspapers. The mother of the real Dr Cyr read about them, fairly surprised because her son was still practising in Grand Falls!
The news reached the HMCS Cayuga while it was still on duty in Korea. Captain James Plomer, who had dental work performed by Demara on an infected tooth, refused to believe that he was no doctor!
The Royal Canadian Navy chose not to press charges against Demara and he came back to the US.
The saga continues…
The Life magazine offered him 2,500 dollars for his story and, very soon, he became some kind of celebrity. But this didn’t prevent Demara from working as prison warden in Texas, under the identity of Ben W. Jones. It didn’t last very long as a convict recognised him: he denied everything, complained that there was a huge mistake, but escaped in the middle of the night!
He moved to the Penobscot Bay island, as Martin Godgart, a high school teacher, until he was again uncovered. Demara spent six months in prison for his exploits as Martin Godgart. He then got another job, under the name of Frank Kingston, as a carer for mentally disabled patients.
In 1960, as a publicity stunt, Demara was given a cameo in the horror film The Hypnotic Eye as a hospital surgeon. In the same year, the movie The Great Impostor, starring Tony Curtis, was issued, probably based on an early Demara’s biography written by Robert Crichton in 1959.
Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. finished his “career” with his real name as a counsellor at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. During the years, he also managed to have a close relationship with actor Steve McQueen, to whom Demara delivered last rites in November 1980.
During Demara’s “career”, he also was a civil engineer, a sheriff’s deputy, a lawyer, a child-care expert, a Benedictine monk, an editor and a cancer researcher. Media news of his exploits started uncovering him more and more often, and the resulting attention was ultimately preventing him from continuing his fraudulent lifestyle. Identity theft is considerably more difficult when the entire country knows your face…
He died on June 7th 1982 at the age of 60 because of the consequences of a heart failure and complications from his diabetic condition – which 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.
All in all…
His main biographer, Robert Crichton, wrote an biography, published in 1959, and recently issued a new version, The Great Impostor, with more details on how he managed to get the information he presents. He explains the reason of his success:
He had come to two beliefs. One was that in any organization 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.
“I call it ‘Expanding into the power vacuum'” Demara proudly explains. “It works this way. 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 is to found your 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!“
Demara was a pathological liar, a specialist in deception, one of the most fascinating people and a headache for law enforcement: in a word, for most people, Demara was a criminal. But, letting alone his exceptional memory and his extraordinary IQ level, there is no evidence that suggests that he used the impersonations for personal monetary gain.
In an era of “specialised incompetence”, it is refreshing to think about him as a man who made his dream true: being a hundred persons in one and living a hundred lives in one. And doing it well!
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