Throughout history, people have taken on new identities and pretended to be someone they’re not. Some do it live a more exciting life and attract attention, while others have more sinister motives, such as pulling off a crime. Find out more about six of history’s most fascinating phonies, including a murderer who claimed to be a member of a famous American family, a woman who passed as a male soldier during the U.S. Civil War, and a charlatan who invented an entire history and language for a country he’d never even laid eyes on.
Born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in 1961 in Germany, this faux Rockefeller arrived in the Unites States on a tourist visa as a teen and by the early 1980s was living in San Marino, California. There, he rented a house, called himself Christopher Mountbatten Chichester and told people he was a movie producer and relative of British statesman Lord Mountbatten. In 1985, the son and daughter-in-law of Gerhartsreiter’s landlord went missing, and soon afterward, Gerhartsreiter relocated to Greenwich, Connecticut, where he used a new alias and fake social security number to find work on Wall Street.
By the early 1990s, he was going by Clark Rockefeller and residing in New York City, where he dined at private clubs, had an impressive (but fake) art collection and dropped the names of famous people who were supposedly his friends. He married a Harvard-educated executive, with whom he had a daughter in 2001; however, his wife filed for divorce in 2007 and gained custody of the girl. In 2008, while visiting his daughter in Boston, where she lived, Gerhartsreiter fled with her to Baltimore, where he’d already assumed another alias. Following a highly publicized week-long search, police caught Gerhartsreiter in Baltimore. His 2009 kidnapping conviction generated fresh interest in the unsolved murder of his San Marino landlord’s son, whose dismembered remains were discovered in San Marino in 1994. A variety of circumstantial evidence linked Gerhartsreiter to the crime, and in 2013 he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison.
Historians have estimated that some 400 to 1,000 females masqueraded as men in order to do battle for the North or South. Among them was Edmonds, who was born in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1841 and fled her home as a teen to escape an arranged marriage. She eventually moved to America, where she dressed as a man and used the name Franklin Thompson in order to find work. Edmonds was employed as a traveling book salesman and living in Michigan when the war broke out. Feeling it was her duty, she enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. (Entrance physicals for recruits were brief, and once a woman posing as a man was admitted to the army, she was aided in her ruse by things such as loose-fitting uniforms and the fact that troops often slept in their clothing). As Franklin Thompson, Edmonds participated in a number of battles, including First Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg, and served as a field nurse, mail carrier, and according to a popular memoir she wrote, a Union spy. After contracting malaria, she abandoned her regiment in 1863 rather than risk being found out as a woman by seeking treatment at a military hospital. Following her recovery, Edmonds stopped pretending to be Franklin Thompson and, wearing traditional female clothing, worked as a nurse for the rest of the war.
Following the war, the federal government, after being petitioned by some of Edmonds’ fellow soldiers, expunged the desertion charge from her service record and in 1884 granted her a military pension. Before her death in 1898, Edmonds became the first woman admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans’ group.
In 1854, Sir Roger Tichborne, a member of an aristocratic British family, left South America on a ship that soon was lost at sea; he was presumed dead. Devastated by her son’s disappearance, Tichborne’s mother, convinced he was still alive, placed ads in newspapers around the world offering a reward for information about Roger. In 1865, a man purporting to be the missing heir came forward, saying he’d been saved from the shipwreck and taken to Australia, where he’d been working as a butcher and going by the name Tom Castro. After Castro traveled to England, Lady Tichborne decided he was her long-lost son Roger. However, when Castro tried to claim a share of the family fortune, he was challenged by other Tichborne relatives. They hired investigators who alleged Castro was actually a London-born butcher named Arthur Orton. During the subsequent trial, a number of people supported the so-called Tichborne Claimant but his story had discrepancies–including the fact he didn’t know French, a language Roger had spoken–and he failed to prove his case. In 1873, the claimant went on trial for perjury, and the following year was convicted of impersonating Roger Tichborne. In an age long before photo IDs and DNA testing, the claimant’s trials, some of the lengthiest in English legal history, captivated the public and divided British society, with many average citizens believing the claimant was being robbed of his rightful inheritance. The claimant spent a decade behind bars, and after his release accepted money to admit he was an imposter, only to later retract his confession. He died in poverty in 1898.
Demara, who became the subject of a book and a movie both titled “The Great Impostor,” made a career out of posing as other people, even working as a surgeon despite never attending medical school. Born in the early 1920s in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Demara dropped out of high school and ran away from home to join an order of monks. In the early 1940s, he enlisted in the Army followed by the Navy, but went AWOL from both. He went on to assume a series of aliases and was a college instructor, prison warden and law student, among other occupations. During the Korean War, Demara pulled off his boldest hoax after stealing the credentials of a doctor he knew and masquerading as a surgeon with the Royal Canadian Navy. Working aboard a destroyer, Demara performed a number of surgical procedures, including the extraction of a bullet lodged near one soldier’s heart. (He later said he’d consulted medical textbooks to figure out what to do.) Demara’s success eventually brought media attention that led to him being exposed as a fraud; however, the Canadians did not press charges. Demara’s life was the subject of a 1959 best-selling book, “The Great Impostor,” that was adapted into a 1961 film starring Tony Curtis. The man of multiple identities died in California in 1982.
Early in his criminal career, Lustig, born in 1890 in Austria-Hungary, met wealthy passengers on ocean liners and convinced them to buy money-printing machines. By the time the travelers realized the devices didn’t work and they’d been swindled, the con man had fled. He moved on to other scams, including selling the Eiffel Tower in the mid-1920s. Lustig developed this scheme after reading that the famous structure, erected for the 1889 World’s Fair and intended to last only 20 years, was in need of repairs and expensive to maintain. Claiming to be a government official, Lustig set up meetings with some of the city’s scrap-metal dealers to let them know the tower was slated to be demolished. One dealer bribed Lustig to secure the winning bid for the job and only after paying him a hefty sum to supposedly take possession of the tower did the dealer learn he’d been duped. Embarrassed he’d been bamboozled, the man didn’t press charges.
Lustig eventually made his way to America, where he adopted fake identities and continued to pull off a variety of scams, including persuading Al Capone to invest in a deal that would double his money. Instead, after a short period, Lustig told the mobster the scheme hadn’t worked out but he was returning all his money anyway. Impressed by Lustig’s supposed honesty, Capone paid him a reward, which might have been the con man’s end game all along. In 1935, law enforcement agents in New York finally caught up with Lustig, who had been running an extensive counterfeiting ring. After being convicted and sent to Alcatraz, Lustig died in 1947.
Born in the 1670s or 1680s, most likely in France, Psalmanazar became a celebrity in Britain in the early 1700s after claiming to be from Formosa (present-day Taiwan) and penning a supposedly true book about the faraway island then largely unknown to Europeans. In “An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa,” published in 1704, Psalmanazar wrote about the lives and customs of the Formosans, which he claimed included cannibalism, ingesting viper’s blood for breakfast and sacrificing thousands of young children every year to a Formosan god. Presenting himself as an exotic foreigner, Psalmanazar captured the interest of British high society and gave lectures about his alleged native land. He even invented an entire Formosan alphabet and language. Eventually, however, he was exposed as a fraud (although his fabricated language seemed so credible that for years afterward some linguists thought it was real). Jonathan Swift even lampooned Psalmanazar as “the famous Salamanaazor, a native of the island of Formosa,” in his 1729 satiric essay “A Modest Proposal,” and the fake Formosan died in England in 1763.