The 300-Pound Victorian Fraudster Who Inspired ‘The Simpsons’ Most Polarizing Episode
Say the name “Armin Tamzarian” to even the most casual Simpsons viewer and there’s a decent chance you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of a several-minute rant. It is, of course, the real name of Principal Seymour Skinner, as revealed in the Season Nine episode “The Principal and the Pauper,” arguably the most controversial, polarizing episode of the show’s whole run.
In the episode, the person all of Springfield know as Skinner is revealed to be a fraudster who stole the real Skinner’s identity in the Vietnam War. At the end of the episode, the town collectively decides to keep Tamzarian, run the real Skinner out and never mention the incident again.
A lot of people hate, hate, hate the episode. Simpsons creator Matt Groening says it’s one of his least favorite. Skinner’s voice actor Harry Shearer describes it as being insulting to viewers. It is regularly cited as one of the signs the show was already past its best, or in the process of changing from one show into entirely another. It wasn’t the idea itself that people minded — and nobody objected when Mad Men did the same thing — but the flippancy of it all.
However, in 2003, the episode’s writer Ken Keeler told the fansite Can’t Get Enough Futurama, “A possibly controversial statement: in my opinion, the best thing I ever wrote for TV was the ‘Principal Skinner is an Impostor’ episode of The Simpsons, which is often named as their jump-the-shark moment.”
So where did it come from? The two most obvious sources of inspiration for the story seem like, given the title, Mark Twain’s classic story of two lookalikes swapping places — The Prince and the Pauper — and the 1993 movie Sommersby.
Sommersby stars Richard Gere and Jodie Foster (both of whom later guested on The Simpsons — Gere as himself in Season 13’s “She of Little Faith,” and Foster as Maggie Roark in Season 20’s “Four Great Women and a Manicure”) and tells the story of a man returning from war and his wife’s gradual suspicions that he might be an impostor. It was based on the real story of Martin Guerre, a 16th-century Frenchman who vanished for eight years, then returned to his wife and had two children with her before being revealed as a fraudster and hanged. (One of the giveaways: The real Guerre was missing a leg.)
Given the relative recency of the film when the episode was made, and the episode’s working title “Skinnersby,” the Guerre/Gere tale seems like a no-brainer as far as inspiration goes. But according to Keeler, it is isn’t. On the DVD commentary for the episode, he says, “This episode is not — despite what people have been saying for eight years — based on or a rip off of or a goof on the story of Martin Guerre. ... The pattern of facts is clearly the Tichborne claimant story, and not Martin Guerre.”
The whatty what story, Ken? And will unravelling the Tichborne claimant story make the episode make any more sense?
The Missing Heir
In 1854, 25-year-old Roger Tichborne went missing following a shipwreck and was presumed dead. He was the heir to the Tichborne baronetcy, which as well as a title included huge swathes of valuable land and property, bringing in over £20,000 per year, the equivalent of millions of dollars in today’s money.
In 1862, Tichborne’s father died, and the fortune passed in Tichborne’s absence to his younger brother Alfred, who began pissing it up a wall immediately. However, during this time, Tichborne’s mother Lady Henriette Tichborne remained convinced that he was alive. There were rumors that survivors of the shipwreck had ended up in Australia, and all the psychics and clairvoyants she spoke to agreed that he was out there somewhere, so she arranged to have an ad placed in Australian newspapers offering a reward for any information leading to Tichborne’s whereabouts.
A Mountain of Flesh
Soon enough, in 1865, a man came forward. A chunky butcher living in the town of Wagga Wagga under the name Thomas Castro claimed to be the missing Tichborne — he said he had survived the shipwreck, assumed the name of a vague acquaintance and begun a new life. He had fairly sketchy recall of his life before the accident, including getting his supposed mother’s name wrong, but managed to put forward a convincing enough case that banks released funds to him for a journey back to England.
Upon meeting Lady Tichborne, she immediately accepted him as her son, as did a few of Tichborne’s prior acquaintances, but the rest of the Tichborne family were unconvinced. Eleven years is a long time, but the slender, delicate, French-accented Tichborne was now a 300-pound Aussie (the Yale Law Journal once described him as a “mountain of flesh”) who had forgotten all the French and Latin of his childhood, as well as many of the details of his former home.
There was a fairly even split between those who believed him and those who didn’t, but given the large sums of money involved, a conclusion had to be reached. Tichborne’s younger brother Alfred was now dead, and the title had passed to his son Henry — if the man who said he was Tichborne was in fact Tichborne, he was the baronet.
This was obviously pre-forensics and pre-DNA. Cutting-edge science at the time involved looking at two photographs and imagining one of them a decade and 200 pounds on. However, digging deep into his story seemed to bring more and more proof that the man who said he was Roger Tichborne — and had previously been known as Thomas Castro — was actually Arthur Orton, a London-born butcher who emigrated to Australia. Not an heir, just some dude.
The First Case
Eventually, broke, the man claiming to be Tichborne brought a civil case against the current tenant of Tichborne House to evict him. The case hinged upon proving his identity as the real Roger Tichborne. It all became very fraught — there were people on both sides who swore on oath that they knew exactly who the person was. Dozens of witnesses were called. There was talk of the original Tichborne having malformed genitals and tattoos that had somehow repaired themselves and disappeared, and an inference that if this was Tichborne, he was a seriously dodgy character — at one point his defense seemed to be hinting that he had killed Orton and assumed his identity.
Eventually, the case was rejected, and the man arrested for perjury. He wrote to the Evening Standard asking for financial help from the public to launch an appeal, and was inundated with help — after all, if he was the real Roger Tichborne, his situation fucking suuuuuuucked.
The Second Case
He was bailed out by well-wishers, and began attending meetings all over Britain to raise more money. The case became symbolic — working-class people rallied behind him, seeing his mistreatment by the courts as representative of all that was wrong with British justice. Oddly, he was seen simultaneously as a working-class hero and a near-divine aristocrat — George Bernard Shaw (author of Pygmalion, also a frequent go-to for The Simpsons) wrote that “(his) attempt to pass himself off as a baronet was supported by an association of laborers on the ground that the Tichborne family, in resisting it, were trying to do a laborer out of his rights.”
In 1873, the second case began, a criminal one this time, the crown against the claimant, even more high-profile than the first — there were two newspapers dedicated solely to the case. Mark Twain attended court on a few occasions, and was later inspired to visit Wagga Wagga. It was a big enough deal that “Tichborne” became an established nickname for any heavy man.
But, 188 court days and a few extra arrests for perjury later (some of the hundreds of witnesses were really shit), it was over. The prosecution’s closing statement was basically a day-long speech about how shitty a job the defense had done (to the point that the lead defender was disbarred) and how absurd the whole thing was, and Arthur Orton — as the court had concluded he was — went to prison.
Despite all of Britain being transfixed by the case for years, by the time Orton was released 10 years later, nobody really cared anymore. Still insisting he was the real Roger Tichborne, he died in poverty.
So who was he? Nobody knows for certain. The evidence certainly seemed to suggest that he was Arthur Orton, but there are definitely question marks around the whole thing. If he was a fraud, he was a very good one — a huge amount of people who had known Tichborne closely believed him. There was also, despite the very different body types, a definite facial resemblance. There is a real possibility that he was the genuine Tichborne and had killed Orton — using a murder you committed to acquit yourself of fraud would after all be an extremely bold defense.
The 1998 movie The Tichborne Claimant stars John Kani (now best known as T’Chaka in Black Panther) as Tichborne’s manservant Andrew Bogle, who the film posits as being part of a plot with Orton, sneaking him information about his former life in order to share the wealth.
Revisiting Armin Tamzarian
Rewatching “The Principal and the Pauper” with all this information, does it play out any differently? Not really — it still feels like it has a lot more in common with the Martin Guerre tale and Sommersby than the Tichborne story. The war, the original person returning, the idea that the impostor is preferable — the only element in the episode that feels lifted from the Tichborne case is the heartbreaking idea of a lonely elderly mother opting to believe a fraudster because the alternative, that her son is dead, feels unthinkable.
But something worth bearing in mind is that Ken Keeler is legitimately a genius. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Harvard and was responsible for a huge amount of the highbrow math jokes sprinkled through both The Simpsons and Futurama. He once came up with a new mathematical proof, known as the Futurama Theorem, to demonstrate that the plot of one episode was numerically sound.
If he’s super clever, and he thinks it’s good, maybe it’s good? Maybe there are deeply buried details within the tale of the Tichborne claimant that Keeler was inspired by, and he enjoys the episode on a deeper level compared to the people offended by its seeming cruelty and contempt.
Or maybe Keeler is channeling Skinner — or rather, Tamzarian — himself, seeing the backlash to the episode and opting for an approach of, “No, it’s the viewers that are wrong.”