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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Great Impostor: Ferdinand Waldo Demara

     While most people aren't con artists, charlatans, and swindlers, many are, in various degrees, cheats and pretenders. Men without military experience impersonate war heroes, politicians pretend to lead, bureaucrats impersonate competent employees, and job applicants falsely claim qualifications and work histories. It's not uncommon for young men to break the law by impersonating cops and FBI agents. Because most law enforcement impostors are inept, they are quickly caught.

     In 1937, 16-year-old Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. ran away from his home in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He took up residence with Cistercian monks in Rhode Island, then in 1941, joined the U. S. Army. A year later, Demara went AWOL. Under the name Anthony Ignolia, he lived in another monastery before signing up with the Navy. Demara next faked his suicide, adopted the name Robert Lincoln French, and began playing the role of a religiously oriented psychologist. This led to a teaching position in a college psychology department.

     Bored with teaching, Demara worked as an orderly in a Los Angeles sanitarium, then moved to Washington State where he taught at St. Martin's College. The FBI interrupted his impersonation career by arresting him for desertion. That resulted in an 18-month stretch in a federal prison.

     Following his release from the federal penitentiary, Demara joined the Brothers of Christian Instruction order in Maine. There, Demara became friends with a young physician which led to the impostor becoming a trauma surgeon aboard a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer during the Korean War. Demara actually operated on 16 South Korean soldiers wounded in combat. He managed this by speed-reading surgical textbooks. All of his patients survived Although later exposed as a phony physician, the Canadian Navy did not press charges.

     In 1951, as Brother John Payne of the Christian Brothers of Instruction, Demara founded a college called La Mennais College of Alfred Maine. He left the state shortly thereafter. (In 1959, the college moved to Canton, Ohio, and in 1960, changed its name to Walsh College.)

     In the early 1960s, Demara worked as a prison administrator in Huntsville, Texas, and as a counselor at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. In 1967, at age 46, he received a Graduate Certificate in Bible from Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon. In the late 1970s, Demara became a chaplain at a hospital in Anaheim, California. He became ill in 1980, and on June 7, 1982, died at the age of 62.

     Demara had become famous in the late 1950s after he sold his story to Life Magazine. In 1961, Tony Curtis played him in a popular movie called "The Great Impostor." Demara credited his impostor success to his high IQ, his photographic memory, and his understanding of institutional politics. (It also helps to move around a lot.) 

2 comments:

  1. Missing from the above is that Demara was charged in about the 1960s in Madera County, California for improper actions with a boys' camp he was involved with in the foothills. Was represented by none other than Marvin Belli. I don't remember the outcome, but I lived in Madera at that time.

    M.A. Clark

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  2. Yes, that's true. Dr Joseph Cyr and it was an old Tribal class destroyer HMCS Cayuga. While most articles cite DND as having pursued this, FOIA indicated Article 32 hearing was at least requested. I see some striking similarities to David Ferry in this man's behaviour. Jim, perhaps you could comment on that? I find it telling what roles they chose, cancer research, medicine, religious. Had they faked being a short order cook at Dennie's, we wouldn't be talking about them here. Jim, I sent you a lengthily email to your EUP address. I'm looking forward to your reply. Cheers. Gary

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