Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. traveled the country posing as a Navy officer, a surgeon, a teacher, and more, beginning in the 1940s. He is known as the "Great Imposter" for pulling off some of the greatest identity hoaxes in history.
Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. was born on December 21, 1921 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. His father, Ferdinand Sr., was a motion picture operator. The family was well-off and lived in an affluent neighborhood of Lawrence, until the Great Depression bankrupted Ferdinand Sr. The family then moved to a poorer neighborhood of Lawrence.
Little is known about Demara's early life, but he maintained an interest in Christianity over the course of his lifetime, and incorporated it into his frauds. Demara is believed to have possessed a photographic memory and a high IQ.
At the age of 16, Demara ran away from home to join an order of Cistercian monks in Rhode Island, where he remained for several years. In 1941 he enlisted in the Army, where he began a habit of lying about his identity. He took the name of an Army buddy, Anthony Ignolia, before going AWOL. Demara turned up at a Trappist monastery near Louisville, Ky.
Forging transcripts and documents, Demara then took on the identity of Robert Linton French, Ph.D., a religious psychologist. As Robert L. French, Demara He psychology at a college in Pennsylvania. Not one to stay put, Demara soon moved on to new identities and new locations. Among his personas during this time were an orderly at a sanitarium in Los Angeles, and an instructor in St. Martin's College in the state of Washington.
The law eventually caught up with Demara—though not for his lies. He was arrested by the FBI for desertion, and served 18 months in prison. Soon after, though, Demara was back at his old game—posing as Dr. Cecil Hamann, and studying law at Northeastern University. He soon returned to his religious pursuits, joining a Catholic monastery in Maine, the Brothers of Christian Instruction. Known at the monastery as "Brother John", Demara became acquainted with a young doctor named Joseph Cyr. Demara was impressed by Cyr’s medical skills—so impressed, in fact, that he choose Cyr as his next target.
Raising the Stakes
Demara's next move was his biggest fabrication so far, and the one that ultimately brought him down. Raising the stakes, Demara arrived at a Canadian Royal Navy recruiting office in the province of New Brunswick—and enlisted as Dr. Joseph Cyr.
Demara was soon shipped out on the HMCS Cayuga, a navy destroyer headed for Korea, where Canada was embroiled in the Korean War. Onboard the destroyer, Demara worked as a trauma surgeon. He studied medical textbooks and memorized basic surgical procedures, and successfully performed major operations on sixteen wounded enemy combatants, including amputations and major chest surgery.
Demara's heroic work brought him into the media spotlight. The mother of the real Joseph Cyr read of the imposter Demara's exploits at sea in a newspaper, and alerted authorities that her son was in fact practicing in New Brunswick, Canada. The Canadian Royal Navy decided not to press charges against Demara, and he was returned the United States.
Back in the U.S., Demara continued to take on false identities, though none as high profile as that of Joseph Cyr. In 1955 he was Dr. Benjamin Jones, and worked in a Texas prison.
In 1957, Demara was arrested in North Haven, Maine. When a prisoner recognized Demara from a LIFE magazine article, he moved to the Penobscot Bay island, where he assumed the identity of Martin Godgart, a high school teacher—until that lie, too, was uncovered. Demara spent six months in prison for his exploits as Martin Godgart.
We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!