5 People With Wild Past Lives They Kept Hidden
Your past can come back to haunt you, which is a lesson learned by each of the dozens of people this year who resigned in disgrace after being selected to host Jeopardy. But with some people, that past is so big and strange that it seems impossible they ever kept it secret. Just consider the following tales, a fair number of which involve Nazis.
The Secretary-General Of The UN Was Wanted For War Crimes, By The UN
From 1972 to 1982, Austrian diplomat and politician Kurt Waldheim was secretary-general of the United Nations. He teamed up with Paul McCartney to organize benefit concerts for Cambodian genocide victims and recorded a greeting for the Voyager Golden Records, so Waldheim is essentially Earth's eternal ambassador to the aliens. That's awkward for our planet because he's also a Nazi war criminal.
The Crazy Past:
Everyone always knew Waldheim was drafted into the German army during World War II, quickly got wounded, and was sent home. People didn't know he then went on to serve in a unit in Yugoslavia deporting Jews to death camps and approved propaganda leaflets that said "kill the Jews," while people were regularly executed right outside his office. His own autobiography claimed he was an innocent civilian law student in Austria during this time.
The UN did declare him a war crimes suspect in 1948, but he avoided investigation, rose in politics, and ended up being the guy who ran the whole UN. Meanwhile, the CIA and KGB did discover all about his past, but they didn't act publicly on the info, and they maybe-probably instead used it to blackmail him. Finally, the truth came out after Waldheim's time as secretary-general was done and he ran for president of Austria in 1986. Waldheim’s polling numbers improved after the scandal broke, and he got elected with 54% of the vote.
See, Austria still had plenty of old Nazis hanging around in the '80s, and they were cool with Waldheim. Others voted for him to stick it to the world, who were seemingly calling Austria a bunch of Nazis and telling them whom they should elect. So Kurt Waldheim became president of Austria and was promptly banned from entering almost every other country in the world. That’s ironic when you realize that “President of Austria” is a mostly ceremonial position where the main responsibility is to travel around the world making Austria look good.
Up next, we have someone in the exact opposite position as Waldheim ...
A British Stockbroker Interrupted His Vacation To Save Hundreds Of Children, Didn’t Think To Tell Anyone
Nicholas Winton was a stockbroker and an ardent socialist, who became a mechanic and pilot in World War II despite being a conscientious objector. Talk about a man of contradictions. He lived a quiet life until 1988, when the BBC surprised Winton by revealing that he was sitting in a room full of children he'd saved from the Nazis 49 years earlier.
The Crazy Past:
We hope this isn’t a surprise to you, but by early 1939, things were getting bad in Czechoslovakia. Despite being a random nobody, Winton interrupted his ski vacation to Switzerland, went to Prague, and began organizing evacuations trains for Jewish children from his hotel room. His biggest problem was, of course, crippling bureaucracy.
To get British visas, Winton needed to find hundreds of British families willing to pay £50 (several thousand dollars in today’s money) for the privilege of caring for random foreigners who didn't speak English. He pulled this off while holding down a full-time job at the London stock exchange and saved 669 Jewish children from certain death. To be clear, Winton never lied about doing all this. He simply wouldn’t mention it unless the topic came up, so basically no one knew. Even the children didn’t know who had saved them. Winton didn’t seem to think what he did was all that impressive or heroic—he wasn’t in much personal danger and probably viewed his extensive postwar charity work as being more impactful, so why mention this other thing?
In 1988, Winton's wife Grete found a scrapbook in their attic with the names of the children he'd saved. She gave it to holocaust researcher Elisabeth Maxwell, whose husband Robert Maxwell ultimately got it to the BBC. Winton became a national hero in two countries, was knighted by the Queen, awarded Czechia’s highest honor by its president, made an honorary citizen of Prague, and showered in medals, awards, and statues from numerous organizations. Czech astronomers even named a minor planet after him. Best of all, Sir Nicholas Winton lived to see all this before dying in 2015 at the age of 106.
Oh, and if “Elisabeth and Robert Maxwell” ring a bell, it’s either because they’re the parents of Jeffrey Epstein’s henchwoman, Ghislaine Maxwell, or because Robert stole huge amounts of money and was probably a spy. Which reminds us …
A Naval Commander Is Actually A Fugitive Spy Who Stole $100 Million From Veterans
Retired naval commander Bobby Thompson was a major political donor who founded and led the United States Naval Veterans Association (USNVA). Thompson was popular and well connected in Republican circles and regularly visited the White House to take pictures with the president, which is embarrassing considering he was actually a fugitive intelligence officer wanted for fraud and espionage.
Someone in this photo is a liar!
The Crazy Past:
The USNVA was an elaborate charity scam that defrauded veterans out of $100 million between 2002 and when Thompson vanished in 2010. He used dozens of stolen identities to impersonate dozens of USNVA employees who didn’t exist and supposedly worked in USNVA offices that also didn’t exist. Oh, his name wasn't "Bobby Thompson," though that was the name of a very confused Navajo man whose social security number had been stolen.
In 2009, a reporter stopped by at not-Bobby's place, ironically to ask for a quote about a local politician who lied about his service record. This reporter then became suspicious at how the supposed commander was living in a cockroach-infested duplex. "Thompson" fled, and an infuriating manhunt now began for … uh … The Guy. Every time the FBI closed in, he’d change his identity like a pair of pants and skip town. In 2012, they arrested him in Portland after an FBI agent accidentally sat next to him at a bar. He still refused to identify himself and started signing documents “Mr. X.”
After five months, he was finally identified when a frustrated FBI agent—and this is not a joke—googled “major white-collar fugitives” and found a Business Insider listicle. That listicle contained an age-progressed photo (produced by the FBI itself) of one of the subjects, John Donald Cody ... who looked just like Mr. X.
John Donald Cody was a Harvard-educated lawyer, former military intelligence officer, and ex-mercenary who had been wanted for fraud since 1984 and goddamn espionage since 1987, and narrowly escaped capture several times. Nobody noticed Cody and Thompson were the same guy until just now.
Cody went unidentified largely because his fingerprints were somehow missing from the national database. Why that was, along with Cody's motive, details of the whole espionage thing, and where all that USNVA money went, are all still unexplained. Regardless, Cody was convicted of a ridiculous number of crimes and will probably die in prison. The judge also sentenced Cody to spend every Memorial Day in solitary confinement, which was later overruled because the justice system is lame.
A Taxi Driver In Chicago Turns Out To Be The Missing Governor Of West Virginia
Bill Marland was a driver for the Flash Taxicab Company in Chicago and lived in the basement of a YMCA. One day, he quipped to a passenger headed to West Virginia that “I used to be governor there.” That passenger casually mentioned this to his friend Margery McElheny, a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. McElheny, for some reason, decided to go verify this random cabbie’s joke.
The Crazy Past:
William C. Marland was elected governor of West Virginia in 1953. He desegregated schools and put forward a included a massively controversial tax on coal companies—yes, Marland had the balls to be publicly against coal and racism in 1950s West Virginia. Thanks to that, plus inexperience, nepotism, and crippling alcoholism, Marland kinda crashed and burned as governor.
After losing two senate races, Marland moved to Chicago in the late 1950s to become, of all things, a sales director at a coal company, but his alcoholism became even worse. By 1960, he basically disappeared, and no one knew where he was. After a stint in rehab in 1962, Marland decided to become a taxi driver. The story broke while Marland was out driving and Flash Taxicab’s dispatch radioed him to return to base because reporters were mobbing the place.
Marland explained to the reporters that his ambition led to his alcoholism and he found that driving a cab provided structure and kept his ambition in check. The story became national news. There was a huge outpouring of public support for Marland, who landed a new job running a horse racing track in West Virginia. And then he abruptly died of cancer, because the author of this tale randomly decided it needed one more twist, a cruel one.
A Hero Skiing Instructor Is Also An Escaped Nazi POW
In January 1952, a train named City of San Francisco became stuck in California’s Yuba Pass when a blizzard and 100 mph winds piled on some 12-foot snow drifts. It took three days to evacuate the train of all 226 people. Newspapers and magazines published photos of all-American hero Dennis Whiles, a local skiing instructor who led the first rescue team to reach the stranded train.
Somehow, no one noticed that Whiles was actually escaped POW Georg Gaertner, whose wanted posters were in most post offices.
The Crazy Past:
When World War II ended, German Afrika Korps soldier Georg Gaertner was in a POW camp in New Mexico, but his hometown was in the Soviet Occupation Zone. Gaertner was so terrified about being repatriated into the loving arms of vengeful Russians that he broke out of prison, rode the rails to California, perfected his American accent, assumed a new identity, and became a skiing instructor, as one does.
Gaertner later moved to San Francisco and became a tennis instructor with a celebrity clientele. This included Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and columnist Herb Caen, who called for Gaertner’s capture and once wrote an article pondering how weird it would be if Gaertner hypothetically lived in San Francisco. Caen then unwittingly became Gaertner’s tennis partner and won a doubles tournament with him.
Gaertner eventually told one person about his past, his wife of 21 years, and only because she was literally walking out the door to leave him for not discussing his past. She was … supportive and convinced him to come clean. Even though the U.S. Army had given up their search in 1963, the FBI never had. They were still circulating extremely outdated wanted posters of Gaertner in 1985, when he simply called a press conference, admitted everything, published a book, and jokingly surrendered to the host of The Today Show.
With their 40-year manhunt over, the government somehow only now realized they had absolutely no idea what to do with this guy. Hilariously, Gaertner wasn’t an illegal immigrant because, technically, the U.S. government had originally forced him to come to America against his will. He likely wasn’t a POW either because, technically, he escaped after the war ended. Instead, Gaertner was such a perfectly designed legal unicorn that the government gave up on deporting him and let him stay in America. In 2009, he became a U.S. citizen. Thanks, Obama.
Zachary Frey has written a bunch of other articles for Cracked that you should totally go read. Yes, I want to read some more of Zachary Frey's awesome articles. No, I don't want to read his awesome articles, but I will click on this link taking me to them anyways.