On a cold November morning in 1956 a pair of police officers travelled to the small Maine community of North Haven Island to arrest the local school teacher.
The man, Martin Godgart, was beloved. He lead the Sea Scouts, taught at the local Sunday school and even played Santa Claus each year.
He was also Ferdinand Waldo Demara, the greatest imposter of the 20th century.
Demara spent the first ten years of his life filthy rich. But when his family lost their fortune, Demara soon got a taste of poverty. And he didn’t like it. He left home early, joining the Trappist monks, the Brothers of Charity, the US Army and the US Navy. Demara, unaccustomed to hard work, failed at them all, faking his own suicide on one occasion to and stealing an army buddy’s name on another.
Demara got a taste for impersonation and soon took to faking his identity on a regular basis. He masqueraded as Joseph C. Cyr, a doctor, and worked as a trauma surgeon during the Korean War despite having no medical training. In a ploy better suited to a repeat of M*A*S*H, Demara would examine a patient, speed-read the appropriate sections of the text-book and then got to work. Not one of his patient’s died despite the fact he would operated on wounded soldiers on a ship both during storms and while under attack.
After the war, he continued working under a string of assumed identities, including posing as a Christian Brother and founding a school despite not have finished his own religious education. His notoriety grew so much that LIFE magazine did a profile on his life.
Even with national fame, he continued impersonating, pretending to be an expert on prison reform, Ben W. Jones. He instituted massive changes at one of the country’s toughest cell blocks. He was arrested after a prisoner recognised him from his LIFE article.
Demara, who was obese with a crew cut haircut and only a little natural charisma, was successful as a impersonator because of the time and energy he put into the philosophy and psychology of his scams. His dedicated to mastering the human mind lead to him posing as a doctor of applied psychology for several years.
Demara understood the importance of finding a power vacuum and filling it. At universities, rather than joining an existing professor’s committee and fighting for control, he’d start his own committee.
“That way there’s no competition, no past standards to measure you by.” Demara admitted in his biography. “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.”
His goal was never to seize power but to find power that others did not want and to take advantage of it. He was like business man who understood that importance of exploring new markets rather than competing in the old.
There is no denying that Demara was a genius. Even though he an imposter he did great things during his lifetime. He reformed a prison, founded a school and saved lives. He made powerful friends among politicians and movie stars (Steve McQueen admired him greatly) and, in his later years, survived by their generosity. He inspired a 1960 biopic staring Tony Curtis and the 1990’s television series, The Pretender.
Why become an imposter when he had the brains and the talent to do just about anything he wanted?
“Rascality, pure rascality”
Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author, entertainer and collector of scams.