Imposters are experts at being anyone but themselves. Throughout history, both women and men hoping to make a better life for themselves have been known to skillfully and successfully lie about some or even all aspects of their lives. Some of their lies were so effective that they were able to maintain complex alternate identities, often for decades, without ever arousing suspicion. For some, entire personalities were carefully calculated to fool anyone they met. For others, it’s not what they said or did that contributed to crafting the perfect alter ego — it’s what they didn’t say or do.
Psychologists like University of Queensland professor Matthew Hornsey have studied the characteristics of impostors to determine how they’re so successful at convincing people of what may seem impossible. Along with other psychological researchers in the field like Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, Hornsey partly attributes the compulsion to pretend to be someone else to a form of uncontrollable anxiety. Otherwise known as the Imposter Syndrome (IS), this anxiety is characterized by a constant fear that a person, despite their natural talents and intelligence, will be “exposed” for their inadequacy.
Everyone from students to corporate executives could suffer from IS. However, not all of those who suffer from it will make the great leap from anxiety to lying about their entire lives. The impostors on this list, although they likely suffer from this anxiety disorder, most likely suffer from other psychological problems and motivating factors which have contributed to their bizarre cases.
Regardless of their psychology, the following people have lied, swindled, deceived and manipulated huge numbers of people. Some became extraordinarily wealthy while others seem to have been motivated by the desire for fame and attention. These are ten of the greatest imposters history has ever known.
10. David Hampton
David Hampton claimed to be the son of famous actor Sidney Poitier. Calling himself David Poitier, Hampton claimed to be Poitier’s son to gain access to certain people’s homes. It began when Hampton called two different couples in New York City claiming to be David. He also claimed that he was mugged, his money and college thesis were stolen, and he had no place to go. One family, the Elliotts, allowed Hampton to stay with them and later gave him money. One day when Hampton was found sleeping in bed with another man who claimed to be Malcolm Forbes’ son, he was kicked out. On October 18, 1983, Hampton was arrested for the fraud. His story inspired a Broadway play, ‘Six Degrees of Separation’.
9. James Hogue
James Hogue, under the identity of Alexi Indris-Santana, convinced Princeton University to admit him as an autodidactic orphan but to postpone his enrolment and give him a full scholarship of $40, 000. Hogue claimed that he worked as a cowboy at Lazy T Ranch in Utah and to postpone his admission into the school, he claimed his mother was dying. Before this, Hogue fooled Palo Alto High School into thinking he was James Huntsman, who lived in a commune for 8 years after his parents died in Bolivia. He was eventually exposed at Princeton when he was recognized by teachers and classmates from Palo Alto. Reporters were tipped off and, after some research, they discovered his true identity.
8. Christophe Rocancourt
Frenchman Christopher Rocancourt used high-power names such as Rockafeller to con the rich out of $1.2 million. He introduced himself to the wealthy elite under multiple false names such as Christopher Rockefeller, William Van Hoven and Fabien Ortuno. He also claimed to be the son of Sophia Loren. Using the names as social leverage, he lured wealthy investors to give him large cash advances. But Rocancourt never delivered the high returns he promised and disappeared. He used the stolen money to rent helicopters and stay in luxurious hotels running up bills of up to $19 000. In October of 2003, Rocancourt was arrested for federal fraud and pleaded guilty to all charges.
7. Stephen Glass
Stephen Glass was one of the most sought-after reporters for the acclaimed political magazine The New Republic. He became known for writing captivating and highly regarded articles, and rose to associate editor at the magazine. But almost every article that Glass wrote was either incredible, plagiarized, or completely made up. The magazine often received numerous complaints from article’s subjects that Glass’ stories were highly inaccurate. Journalists from Forbes investigated his article about teenage hackers and determined the entire piece was a complete fabrication. Glass’ editor at TNR learned of other inconsistencies in the articles and fired Glass. It emerged that, incredibly, more than half of the articles he wrote were forgeries.
6. Ferdinand Demara
Ferdinand Demara travelled America posing as a Naval Officer in the 1940s. He became known as “the Great Imposter” for forging a series of complex identities throughout his lifetime. He posed as a religious psychologist, an orderly at a sanatorium and a college instructor. After serving 18 months in prison for desertion — a crime unrelated to his false identities — Demara studied law at Northwestern University while posing as Dr. Cecil Hamann. When Demara lied his way onto a Canadian Naval ship, pretending to be a medical doctor, he successfully performed surgeries on over 16 wounded soldiers after merely studying medical textbooks. When the story of his successful surgeries broke, his mother had recognized him and alerted the authorities.
5. JT LeRoy
JT LeRoy, the teenage boy who was acclaimed for his confessional memoirs, is actually Laura Albert. LeRoy’s memories told of a past where his mother would pimp him at truck stops as an androgynous prostitute. JT rarely read at public literary events; however, many were sure that he was real, often seeing him incognito or talking on the phone. He was a media sensation for writing high-quality and poignant works at such a young age. But the person speaking on the phone was not JT – it was the real author of the memories, which were actually fictional stories. When literary journalists began to investigate, they revealed Albert as the real author. The incognito JT people would see in public was actually the little sister of Albert’s boyfriend. Albert defended her actions, citing that her persona was a literary creation; however, she was charged for fraud after signing legal documents under her creation’s name.
4. Steven Jay Russell
Steven Jay Russell may be the best prison escapist the world has seen. He was imprisoned for credit card fraud and for embezzling funds from a produce packaging company. Behind bars, he met and fell in love with fellow prisoner Phillip Morris. His first escape was from Harris County Jail in 1992, when he simply walked out disguised as an undercover police officer. He escaped a second time in 1996 and a third time only 5 months later. Finally, to escape again, Russell was able to convince doctors he was dying of the HIV virus. He spent months feigning the symptoms of the disease by losing weight. He was, then, able to declare himself dead and thus freed. For each escape he was sent back to prison, but he hasn’t attempted any in the last 16 years. A movie inspired by his life, ‘I Love You Philip Morris’, starred Jim Carrey.
3. Charles Ponzi
The infamous Ponzi scheme takes its name from Charles Ponzi. Ponzi was responsible for an assortment of financial crimes in the 1920s. In his scheme, Ponzi secured millions of dollars in cash and paid returns to investors from other investor’s money. Doing this left many of them broke, but it made Ponzi incredibly wealthy. He made promises to potential investors, such as a 50% return in 45 days, and 100% returns in 90 days. According to some, he made up to $250 000 a day. When The Boston Globe began to investigate Ponzi, investors pulled out, and Ponzi was arrested and charged with 86 counts of mail fraud.
2. Frédéric Bourdin
When 13-year old Nicolas Barclay disappeared, there was not much hope. That was, until three years later when police in Spain received a call from Frederic Bourdin claiming to be the lost Barclay. He was then ‘returned’ to his American family. In previous years, Boudin had pretended to be an orphan all around Europe, conning his way into foster homes and child-care facilities. He was so successful at pretending to be Barclay, the family were convinced that he was telling the truth, even though he bore no real physical resemblance to the real Barclay. It took the work of a suspicious private investigator to expose Bourdin. For his crimes, he was sentenced to 4 years in prison. Since his release, he pretended to be a lost teenager on at least one more occasion.
1. Frank Abagnale Jr.
Frank Abagnale Jr. is the true-story inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s film Catch Me if You Can. Abagnale Jr. began his career as an imposter when he learned how to forge cheques and convince bank tellers to cash them. Later, he conned his way into becoming a pilot for Pan Am airlines, flying all over the world for free. He stayed in luxurious hotels, bought expensive cars, and consistently fooled the FBI. After his stint as a pilot, Abagnale Jr. posed as a doctor and secured a job managing interns. He then claimed he was a lawyer, going as far as to pass the notoriously difficult Bar exam. Finally, Abagnale was arrested in Paris by the FBI and served time in prison. He was considered an expert in forgery and bank fraud and was later hired as a consultant by the FBI. He now owns his own security company.