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11/27/03

Mind Shadows Home Ferdinand Waldo Demara, the Great Imposter

He was the Great Imposter, and his exploits became a bestselling biography, followed by a 1961 movie. Bold, downright audacious, Ferdinand Waldo Demara pretended his way into challenges that would leave others drenched in sweat.

He didn't choose small deceptions. He was often drawn to situations in which discovery was quite dangerous to him. The danger itself seemed to whet his appetite for life on the edge. Consider these:

  • He faked his way into becoming a surgeon in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Korean War.
  • He doctored credentials and bamboozled interviewers so that he became a guidance counselor in an American maximum security prison.
  • With a phony PhD he taught applied psychology at a Pennsylvania college.
  • The list doesn't end there. He was also civil engineer, sheriff's deputy, assistant prison warden, hospital orderly, lawyer, child-care expert, and Trappist monk, editor, cancer researcher. These are only some of his roles.

    In the Royal Canadian Navy, his role as physician Joseph Cyr was perhaps his most challenging. He performed risky operations at sea during the Korean war. Under severe battle conditions, he worked on patients needing tooth extraction, amputation, and a bullet removed from a lung. He was blessed with keen intelligence and a photographic memory, and before the operations he retreated to his quarters, intensely studying medical books. He also administered heavy doses of penicillin to guard against patients' infections. Eventually the Canadian Navy learned of his false identity but didn't doubt his credentials as a physician. The ship's captain, whose tooth Demara extracted, was among those attesting to his character. He was discharged honorably.

    Did he lie and defraud because of an amoral personality? No, strangely, his quest was partly spiritual. A faithful Roman Catholic, as a boy he had fallen in love with the Catholic church and its trappings. He mouthed the names of priestly vestments, Amice, Alb, Cincture, Maniple, Chasuble, and dreamed some day of becoming a bishop. When feeling troubled or in need, he prayed with different words, those describing a bishop's clothing: miter, gloves, ring, surplice, cassock, tunic.

    His life of course took a different direction, though he did pretend to be a Trappist monk who had sworn to vows of silence. This, because he desperately wanted to live the pious life of a monastic. How did a man who would turn from the tranquil world instead assume some highly tense roles?

    He also sought respectability, however temporary. He seems to have been conflicted, wanting peace on the one hand while seeking power and authority on the other. He entered monasteries, desperate for a pious life, only to be kicked out because of his troublesome behavior. The rejection sent him seeking elsewhere, this time for the respect and attention he craved, which came from positions of authority.

    This craving seems the key to understanding him, and is illustrated by one situation which combined both aspects of his personality, the spiritual and the cynical, the would-be contemplative and the arrogant anti-authoritarian.

    The situation. Although he finished only the ninth grade, he faked his way into graduate theology courses, and earned straight A's in them. Of that experience he says,

  • "I knew I could do it but I had to have it proven to me. That experience really changed me. No matter how I might feel I still can't work up any respect for acquired learning. I can for character but not learning. A man with a good mind who trusts it can learn anything he needs to know in a few months."
  • Certainly his achievement is remarkable, but he took theology, not graduate physics courses, and he assumed that "acquired learning" is falsely based on the authority of institutions, which he sees fit to unmask as so much pretentiousness.

    He strikes an interesting contrast between character and learning, as if they are distinct attributes. He disdained scholarship almost as if it called into question the character of the professor, which is strange, twisted logic. His conception of character is curiously unfortunate: the man behind a mask has less suspect character than the fellow without a mask. It seems he would undermine authority while seeking it himself.

    Given the pretension he saw in the world, he became a pretender, somebody who put the lie to authority by showing how easily it can be assumed as prison warden, surgeon, or whatever. Demara observed that

  • "In any organization, there's a lot of unused power laying around which can be picked up without alienating anyone."
  • "If you want power and want to expand, never encroach on anyone else's domain; open up new ones."

    Demara operated under two cardinal rules:

  • The burden of proof is on the accuser.
  • When in danger, attack. For example, after being accused of a forgery, he explained "The ordinary faker would at least try to explain his way out at best. But I managed to plant a doubt, and once there was that doubt, for the time being, at least, the moral advantage was on my side. So I was outraged, of course." By the time anyone's suspicions became serious, Demara was off to his next role.

    He offers simple advice for the aspiring imposter:

  • [Use an] innocent bumpkin opening [and] ask such simple and naïve questions that the person would have to have an especially dismal view of humanity in order to figure this was the first step of chicanery.
  • Always use the biggest names [because] people are reluctant to bother important people on routine matters. And they don't suspect a fraud to use obvious names.

    The irony is that Demara could exploit basic human decency while regarding this as a test of his character.

    At least two books were written about Demara: The Great Imposter, by Robert Crichton and The Rascal and The Road, a sequel also by Crichton. A film, The Great Imposter (1962) appeared with Tony Curtis as the fraud. Demara believed himself slighted by Crichton's rendering of his life and planned an autobiography, but he died, lonely and deeply depressed, of a heart attack on 8 June 1982 at age 59. Dr John Zane, a friend and physician, said of Demara that he died a "broken man who felt his talents were wasted."

    At the time of his death he was employed as a hospital priest in California.

    The Korean Veterans Association of Canada has an interesting page on him.

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