In 1853, French born Roger Tichborne died at sea. His wealthy and widowed mother, beside herself with grief couldn't accept the death and sent inquiries all around the world, desperate to find her lost son.
Eventually she got a letter back from a man from Australia, claiming to be her heir, whom she immediately welcomed back in open arms, though some other members of the family found it suspect that the man didn't match the description of Tichborne at all. Where Tichborne was a skinny, black-haired youth, the impostor was basically just a fat, light-haired man who didn't even speak a word of French. You would think that would be a prerequisite.
Subtle differences in appearance.
How Did He Do It?
Regardless of what her family thought (not to mention her eyesight, common sense, etc), the mother genuinely believed she had found her son. The impostor was Arthur Orton, and he got away with it by basically just telling the distraught woman anything she wanted to hear. Whenever he was asked a "do you remember when..?" question from a concerned relative, Orton's answer was completely wrong, but mother wouldn't hear anything of it, and the fact he didn't speak French didn't bother her at all. Blind-retardation is evidently contagious, as other people began to accept Orton as Roger Tichborne as time went on and, before he knew it, he had a whole mess of new old friends.
How Was He Caught?
When his "mother" died two years after his arrival, Orton inherited the family fortune, but with his biggest supporter now dead, other family members were quick to point out his deception, support grew and the matter was eventually taken to court. Orton lost the case, obviously, and after seven years of playing Tichborne, he confessed and went to prison. Ready to hear about some large balls? The first thing Orton did when he finished his 10-year prison term for stealing Tichborne's identity was go out in the world and again try to convince people that he was Tichborne. He was less successful and died alone but, still. Balls, man.
When a shy little boy named Franisco Fernandez turned up at a French school, claiming to be a 15-year-old orphan, the teachers had no hesitation in enrolling him in class, because that's what teachers do. Problem: That boy's real name was Frederic Bourdin, and he was actually a balding 31-year-old man with a pretty serious Peter Pan complex.
How Did Do It?
Bourdin had pulled off the ruse by dressing as a teenager, slumping his shoulders and hiding his bald spot with a baseball cap. He would dress himself in secret and never, ever remove his hat. He had told his teachers that the hat hid scars from abuse from his (fake) parents.
Boudin didn't shy away from being social however; he quickly became popular among the other children and was well liked by his teachers, some of whom were actually younger than he was.
"I should have known those cigarettes weren't for medical purposes."
How Was He Caught?
A whole month went by without anyone suspecting at the school, and Frederic probably could have gotten away with it, if he hadn't already been pulling this stunt for years. Bourdin in fact had a history of pretending to be a lost teenager, a quirk that earned him some jail time, the nickname "Chameleon" and some media attention. When a teacher recognized his face on TV in a story about an asshole who likes pretending to be children, she dramatically unmasked him like a bad Scooby Doo episode and he was sent to prison for four months. He now has a child, who we're not entirely unconvinced isn't also Bourdin in disguise, somehow.
This is a list of fakers and con artists, but Ferdinand Demara is the only one officially nicknamed "The Great Impostor." Demara has pretended to be (among others): a civil engineer, a sheriff's deputy, an assistant prison warden, a hospital orderly, a lawyer, a child-care expert, a Benedictine monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, a teacher and, most disturbingly, a fucking surgeon under the stolen name of Joseph Cyr.
Yes, Demara just wasn't happy with one fake life. He wanted ALL OF THEM.
Demara's shiftiness, clearly portrayed in this painting of him as a youth.
His most famous deception was pretending to be the ship's doctor on board the HMCS Cayuga, taking the name of an already respected doctor, Joseph Cyr. This was bad news for the crew.
How Did He Do It?
Despite having absolutely no medical training whatsoever, Demara actually did a good job, managing to improvise several surgeries, which, admittedly, is the last thing you want your doctor to do.
"Uh, then, now we'll just reconnect this femur back onto the labia."
After nervously flicking through a few medical textbooks, Demara even completed a complex and major chest operation on a wounded crewman.
How Was He Caught?
He kept a relatively low profile on the ship, but when his captain saw his work, he decided to offer him a nomination for decoration. Demara declined, not wanting to get in the public eye.
But after he saved another wounded man's life by successfully removing a bullet, his name appeared in the newspaper. The real Joseph Cyr's mother, apparently confident that her son wasn't that good a doctor, called bullshit.
"Son, it says here that you're a famous life-saving doctor."
"Yeah? Nice. I told you I'd kick ass."
Cyr contacted the authorities, who removed Demara from the ship and threw his ass in jail. Wait, what's that? No jail, he just sort of hung around giving lectures? And then they made a movie about his life starring Tony Curtis? Huh. Seriously, kids, we're positive there's something wrong with lying. Uh... OH, he eventually died of diabetes. Guess he couldn't impostor his way out of that one. So there's the lesson kids. If you lie, you will get diabetes.
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For more people with balls the size of Jupiter, check out The 5 Ballsiest Con Artists of All Time and The 5 Ballsiest Lies Ever Passed off as Journalism.
And stop by our Top Picks to see Swaim trying to convince the cops he's their sergeant.