We found 10 real life examples of people made their way into the history books with some fabulous deceptions—we’re not talking Milli Vanilli fibs here, we’re talking total life makeovers. Some thought living another life would be the perfect escape from their criminal pasts. Others needed a way out of poverty. A few were just bored. Whatever the reason, these 10 imposters made a name for themselves for their outrageous lies—and their very public confessions of the truth.
Frank Abagnale: Catch Him If You Can
Frank Abagnale headed to New York at the age of 16 with $200 in his bank account and no high school diploma. When he realized that his minimum wage job wasn’t going to keep him afloat, he created a new life for himself as Pan-Am pilot Frank Williams. Under his new identity, Abagnale traveled around the world, passing bad checks in nearly two-dozen countries. Abagnale stayed one step ahead of the law for five years, posing as an attorney, a pediatrician, and a Harvard-educated lawyer. He even escaped from prison—twice—once, after convincing guards he was an undercover agent sent to test them.
Finally apprehended by the French police when he was 21, Abagnale served time in France, Sweden and the U. S. But the conman’s abilities were so impressive that the U.S. federal government released him a few years into his sentence under the condition that he teach them his methods. He then turned his life of crime into a lucrative business, educating others on fraud and fraud protection, and made a biopic of his life: Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonard Di Caprio.
Victor Lustig: The World’s Best Salesman
Quick-tongued and charming, Victor Lustig used his mastery of five languages to create more than 45 aliases for his elaborate cons, most of which involved selling phony merchandise. His most clever scam took place occurred in Paris, shortly after World War I. At the time, the Eiffel Tower had become an expensive nuisance left over from the 1889 Paris Exposition. The original plan was to move the monument, but time and money prevented the transfer. The tower had instead become an unkempt eyesore, and Parisians lobbied for its removal.
In a flash of brilliance, Lustig forged government credentials and met with a small group of scrap metal dealers in a secret hotel meeting. He explained that the city wanted to sell the Eiffel tower for scrap, but that officials wanted to keep the plans a secret to avoid backlash from citizens. One of the dealers bought the story and put down a cash bid to tear down the tower. Yet when he went to city officials to cash in on the deal, the city had no idea what he was talking about. The dealer was so embarrassed that he refused to go to police. A month later, Lustig returned to Paris and ran the whole scam yet again. Lustig barely managed to elude authorities the second time around, and stayed in hiding for more than 10 years. He was finally captured in 1934, and spent the rest of his life in prison.
Christopher Rocancourt: The Hamptons Rockefeller
Christopher Rocancourt first gained the notice of police for allegedly staging a $450,000 jewelry heist in Switzerland. The charges didn’t stick, but Switzerland banned Christopher from the country anyway, just for good measure. Undeterred, Rocancourt moved to Beverly Hills and set up shop as the son of film director Dino De Laurentiis, where he scammed people out of thousands, and settled down with a former Playboy playmate.
But Rocancourt caught too much attention during his summer in the Hamptons, where he posed as a long lost member of the Rockefeller clan. The moneyed elite flocked to Christopher, begging him to invest their fortunes for them. Christopher complied, pretending he could double everyone’s money in less than two weeks (with a little cash advance, of course). Then he pocketed the money and fled to Canada, where he was finally apprehended—but only after he swindled an elderly couple out of $100,000 while pretending he was a racecar driver. Unashamed, Rocancourt wrote two biographical accounts of his life after serving time, and is working on a film deal about his experiences.
Alan Conway: The Other Kubrick
During the making of the film Eyes Wide Shut, a former travel agent and ex-con named Alan Conway started telling people he was the movie’s director, Stanley Kubrick—the same man behind 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. What was more amazing than Conway’s blatant lie, was the number of people who actually believed him; as it turns out, many people may know Kubrick’s name, but not many know his face.
By the time the actual Kubrick got wind of the imposter and tried to put an end to the deception, Conway had swindled dozens of innocent fame-seekers. He was arrested after his lies bankrupt a New York nightclub, but he filed an insanity plea and his embarrassed victims refused to file charges. Conway not only went unpunished for his actions, but he inspired the film Colour Me Kubrick, which featured John Malkovich as the famous imposter.
Mary Baker: The Javasu Princess
In 1817, a cobbler discovered a disoriented woman wearing strange clothes and speaking an unknown language. A Portuguese sailor claimed to understand the woman’s strange speech, explaining that the woman was Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu. She told the sailor she had been captured by pirates and eventually jumped overboard, swimming to safety on English shores.
For the next two months, Princess Caraboo became a local oddity. Under the curious eye of her rescuers and local dignitaries, Caraboo hunted with a bow and arrow, fenced, danced exotically, and prayed to her god, ‘Allah Tallah.’
After her story appeared in local papers, however, a woman came forward to reveal that the “princess” was actually her former servant, Mary Baker. The daughter of a cobbler, Baker had left her home in Devonshire, England, looking for work. Instead, she created a new identity. Finally outed, Princess Caraboo tried out her identity in America, France and Spain…but without generating nearly the same interest.
Adam Wheeler: The Perfect Plagarist
When he was expelled for plagiarism in 2007, Bowdoin undergraduate Adam Wheeler wasted little time devising a new plan for his higher education. Instead of repentance, Wheeler applied to Harvard. Devising his ideal curriculum vitae out of fabrication and lies, Wheeler claimed he earned a perfect SAT score; graduated from the elite Phillips Academy; and held an impressive two-year run at MIT. Harvard took the bait, and accepted Wheeler’s transfer in spring of 2007.
Wheeler could have graduated quietly on his forged credentials, but he decided to take the deception a step further. On his 2009 applications for both Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships, the Harvard student boasted authorship of two books, a perfect G.P.A. and a Rockefeller grant. All of it was faked. Wheeler was caught red-handed after a Harvard professor noticed how closely the application resembled the work of one of his colleagues. Wheeler was again expelled, receiving 10 years probation and an order to repay Harvard the $45,806 in tuition—but not before he attempted transfers to Yale and Brown. He now works part-time at a non-profit in Massachusetts.
Ferdinand Demara: The Great Imposter
Ferdinand Demara may be the only imposter who walked away a national hero. Possessing a genius IQ and a photographic memory, Demara used the name of an Army buddy to go AWOL from the U.S. Army in 1941. He then faked his suicide, and stepped seamlessly into the lives of a civil engineer, a zoologist, a psychologist, a doctor and even a monk.
But his most impressive deception by far came during the Korean War, while impersonating a doctor for a Royal Canadian Navy Destroyer. Demara, the ship’s sole “surgeon” was tasked with saving the lives of several wounded Korean soldiers. Never having performed surgery in his life, he snuck into his room and crammed for the procedures using a medical textbook. Miraculously, every surgery was a success. But when the news of his life-saving deeds went nationwide, his lies came to the surface as well. Demara served 18 months in prison for his dangerous impersonations, but in the end he was still revered for his genius. His life also served as inspiration for the 1960 film, The Great Imposter as well as the 1996 TV show, The Pretender.
George Psalmanazar: The First Formosan
In the 1700s, a mysterious figure going by the name George Psalmanazar appeared in London with news of his exotic homeland: an island called Formosa (modern-day Taiwan). Britains, hungry for news of countries outside of their own, were intrigued by the first Formosan to ever reach their shores. So for three years, Psalmanazar successfully posed as a native of the Asian country, giving discourses on the island’s religious and cultural practices. None of the information he supplied was true, of course, but that didn’t matter to his eager listeners.
In 1704, by popular demand, he published a book about life in his country, entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, An Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan, which was later translated into French and German. The fascinating work of fiction detailed the many aspects of Formosan life, and included an elaborate diagram of the Formosan language (in actuality, an alphabet Psalamanazar designed himself).
Psalmanazar revealed his deception in 1706, after the English grew suspicious of his stories, and the “Formosan” lapsed into relative obscurity. He penned a real autobiography about his cons, however, which he arranged to have published posthumously. The one detail missing from the memoir: His real name.
Cassie Chadwick: A Secret Carnegie
Born in 1859, Elizabeth Bigley is one of the earliest examples of the artful con. By her early 20s, she had already taken on several personas, including that of fortune-teller Lydia Scott and brothel owner Mrs. Hoover. But it was during her time as etiquette teacher Cassie L. Chadwick that Bigley ran her biggest con. After duping a wealthy Cleveland doctor into marrying her, Bigley revealed a “big secret” to her new husband and close friends on Millionaire’s Row: She was actually Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter, and stood to inherit $400 million at her father’s death. And she had the (forged) promissory notes to prove it.
Bankers and millionaire friends, eager to believe her secret, began offering Bigley $1 million loans at 25 percent interest, believing they would eventually make their own fortunes. Bigley used the money to buy diamonds, lavish clothing, and even a gold organ for her living room. But the game ended in 1904, when a businessman who had given Bigley $200,000 called in his loan. When Bigley couldn’t pay, the promissory notes were examined in court and revealed as forgeries, which finally landed Bigley in prison. She died in her cell in 1907, surrounded by trunks of finery that the judge had let her keep.
Charles Ponzi: The Million-Dollar Pyramid
Born from a well-to-do family in Parma, Italy, Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi, developed his con after stumbling onto a loophole in the government’s international reply coupons system. The IRC was designed to allow the sender of a letter in one country to pay advanced postage for a recipient’s reply letter in another country. The exchange rate of IRCs depended on the cost of postage in the country of purchase, Ponzi discovered, which meant he could buy them cheaply in Italy, then exchange them for U.S. stamps of a greater value. Ponzi’s scheme was actually not illegal—at first—but as he started making more than 400-percent profits, he saw potential to make himself a multi-millionaire.
What got Ponzi in trouble was his “Securities Exchange Company,” which promised investors a 50 percent profit within 45 days, or a 100 percent profit within 90 days. He would then invest in cheap IRC, sell it for more expensive stamps, pocket some of the profit, and give the rest to his investors. As long as new investors signed up for the scheme, existing investors could be paid. Unfortunately, it was also the only way to pay them, and later adopters found themselves bilked out of their investments. The Ponzi scheme soon collapsed under the demands of its investors and, in order to maintain the demands of his wealthy, new lifestyle, Ponzi began operating under different aliases, including Charles Ponei and Charles P. Bianchi. The practice finally caught up with Ponzi, however, who went to prison on 86 counts of mail fraud.