10 Greatest Imposters in History

3/10/2009
Strange People
207,338 views
Tags: Con Artists, Impostors
     

1
Victor Lustig: the Man who sold the Eiffel Tower

Known as "the man who sold the Eiffel Tower", Victor Lustig was one of the most talented confidence tricksters who ever lived. Born in 1890 in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, he was a glib and charming conman, fluent in multiple languages. He established himself by working scams on the ocean liners steaming between Paris and New York City. Lustig's first con involved a "money-printing machine". He would demonstrate the capability of the small box to clients, all the while lamenting that it took the device six hours to copy a $100 bill. The client, sensing huge profits, would buy the machines for a high price, usually over $30,000. Over the next twelve hours, the machine would produce two more $100 bills. After that, it produced only blank paper, as its supply of $100 bills became exhausted. By the time the clients realized that they had been scammed, Lustig was long gone.

In 1925, Lustig's master con began when he was reading a newspaper: an article discussed the problems the city was having maintaining the Eiffel Tower. So he adopted the persona of a government official, and sent six scrap metal dealers an invitation to discuss a possible business deal. Lustig told the group that the upkeep on the Eiffel Tower was so outrageous that the city could not maintain it any longer, and wanted to sell it for scrap. So he sold the Eiffel Tower to one of the scrap metal dealers and took a train to Vienna with the suitcase full of cash. The buyer was too humiliated to complain to the police.

Later, Lustig convinced gangster Al Capone to invest $40,000 in a stock deal. Lustig kept Capone's money in a safe deposit box for two months, then returned it to him, claiming that the deal had fallen through. Impressed with Lustig's integrity, Capone gave him $5,000. It was, of course, all that Lustig was after.

On 1907, Lustig arrived to the United States and conducted a number of scams, but eventually his luck ran out: he was arrested for counterfeiting and sent to Alcatraz prison. On March 9, 1947, he contracted pneumonia and died two days later.


2
Frank Abagnale: catch me if you can

The movie "Catch Me If You Can" is loosely based on Frank Abagnale's exploits, as he collected over $2,5 million in 26 countries. Born in 1948, his first con was writing checks on his own overdrawn account. Then he printed out his own, almost perfect copies of checks. He also collected over US$40,000 by printing his account number on blank bank deposit slips and added them to the stack of real blank slips in the bank.

Then, for a period of two years, Abagnale masqueraded as Pan Am pilot "Frank Williams", to get free rides around the world by dead heading on scheduled airline flights. Later, he impersonated a pediatrician for 11 months in a Georgia hospital under the name "Frank Williams". He also forged a Harvard University Law diploma, passed the bar exam of Louisiana and got a job at the office of the State Attorney General of Louisiana.

Eventually he was caught in France in 1969 when an Air France attendant recognized his face from a wanted poster. When the French police apprehended him, 12 of the countries in which he had committed fraud wanted to extradite him. After a two day trial, he first served prison time in Perpignan's House of Arrest in France; a one-year sentence that was reduced by the presiding judge at his trial to six months. His stay in Perpignan left him fearful of spending more time in another version of the prison. He was then extradited to Sweden where he was treated fairly well under Swedish law. During trial for forgery, his defense attorney almost had his case dismissed by arguing that he had "created" the fake checks and not forged them, but his charges were instead reduced to swindling and fraud. He served six months in a Malmö prison, only to learn at the end of it he would be tried next in Italy. Later, a Swedish judge asked a U.S. State Department official to revoke his passport. Without a valid passport Swedish authorities were forced to deport him to the U.S. He was sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison for multiple counts of forgery.


3
Charles Ponzi: created the Ponzi Scheme

One of the greatest swindlers in American history, Charles Ponzi created the famous "Ponzi scheme," a scam that pays early investors returns from the investments of later investors. He promised clients a 50% profit within 45 days, or 100% profit within 90 days, by buying discounted postal reply coupons in other countries and redeeming them at face value in the United States as a form of arbitrage. By the time he was making $250,000 a day in 1920, federal agents arrested him, after The Post started a series of articles that asked hard questions about the operation of Ponzi's money machine. He was sent to prison for years; on 1934 Ponzi was released, sent to Italy, and eventually Brazil, where spent the last years of his life in poverty, working occasionally as a translator. He had a stroke in 1948, and died in a charity hospital in Rio de Janeiro on 1949.


4
Christopher Rocancourt: the french "Rockefeller"

An imposter and con artist who scammed affluent people by masquerading as a French member of the Rockefeller family, Christopher Rocancourt pulled his first big con in Paris, faking the deed to a property he didn't own, then "selling" it for USD $1.4 million. Making his way to the United States, Rocancourt pretended to be a movie producer, ex-boxing champion or venture capitalist. He dropped names like "his mother" Sophia Loren or "his uncles" Oscar de la Renta and Dino De Laurentiis and was associated with various celebrities. He married Playboy model Pia Reyes; they had a son, Zeus. He lived for a time with Mickey Rourke and apparently convinced actor Jean-Claude Van Damme to produce his next movie.

One of his trademarks was to always have a stunningly beautiful woman on his arm. Beside being married to Pia Reyes, according to the press, he lived with playboy model Rhonda Rydell for six months. She did not know Rocancourt was married, and said he had told her he was French nobility, the son of a countess. In March 2002 he was extradited to New York and pleaded to charges of theft, grand larceny, smuggling, bribery, perjury and fraud against 19 victims. He was fined $9 million, was ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution and sentenced to five years in prison. In Switzerland, the police have connected him with a jewel theft and barred him from the country until 2016. He once estimated to Dateline that his various schemes/ventures netted him at least $40 million (USD), but this cannot be confirmed.


5
Gregor MacGregor: drew investors to "Poyais", a fictional country

A Scottish soldier, adventurer and colonizer who fought in the South American struggle for independence, Gregor MacGregor was also one of the most famous con artists of all time as he, upon his return to England in 1820, claimed to be cazique of "Poyais", a fictional Central American country that MacGregor had invented which, with his help, drew investors and eventually colonists. Not only did Gregor MacGregor gain the trust and hard-earned pounds of his eager would-be colonists, he also created a guidebook detailing the geography and abundant natural resources of his island off the coast of Honduras. By the time his 250 investors had sailed to the vacant patch of water where their island should have been, MacGregor was already rounding up his next group of colonists, this time from France. Undeterred by the eventual deaths of 200 of his first settlers, MacGregor went through the trouble of drafting a Poyois constitution naming himself as head of the republic. Even after his trial and conviction for fraud, this magnificent man continued selling non-existent land and stock to European nobility.


6
Cassie Chadwick: Andrew Carnegie's "illegitimate daughter"

Born as Elizabeth Bigley but later known as Cassie Chadwick, defrauded Cleveland-area banks by claiming to be an illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie. At the age of 22, Cassie was arrested in Woodstock, Ontario for forgery but released on grounds of insanity. In 1882 she married Wallace Springsteen in Cleveland, Ohio; her husband threw her out eleven days later when he found out about her past. In Cleveland, she married a Dr. Chadwick.

In 1897, Cassie began her largest, most successful con game: that of establishing herself as Andrew Carnegie's daughter. She faked a promissory note of $2 million with Carnegie's signature. The information leaked to the financial markets in northern Ohio, and banks begun to offer their services. For the next eight years she used this fake background to obtain loans that eventually totaled between 10 and 20 million dollars. When Carnegie was later asked about her, he denied ever knowing her: the scheme collapsed, she was arrested and the trial was a media circus. She died in jail.


7
Ferdinand Demara: improvised successful surgeries as a fake surgeon

Known as "the Great Impostor", Ferdinand Demara masqueraded as many people from monks to surgeons to prison wardens. Born in Massachusetts in 1921, he joined the U.S. Army in 1941 and began his new live by borrowing the name of his army buddy Anthony Ignolia. He then faked his suicide and borrowed another name, Robert Linton French, and became a religiously-oriented psychologist. Both Navy and Army caught him eventually and he served 18 months in prison.

A string of pseudo-academic careers followed. He was, among other things, a civil engineer, a sheriff's deputy, an assistant prison warden, a doctor of applied psychology, a hospital orderly, a lawyer, a child-care expert, a Benedictine monk, a Trappist monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, and a teacher. One teaching job led to a six months in prison. He never seemed to get much monetary gain in what he was doing - just temporary respectability.

His most famous exploit was to masquerade as surgeon Joseph Cyr on the HMCS Cayuga, a Canadian Navy destroyer, during the Korean War. He managed to improvise successful surgeries and fend off infection with generous amounts of penicillin. This worked until the mother of the real Dr. Joseph Cyr found out and reported it.

Demara returned to the U.S., inspired the 1960 film "The Great Imposter," and died on 1982 as a Baptist minister.


8
David Hampton: Six Degrees of Separation from Sidney Poitier

An African-American con artist, David Hampton' story became the inspiration for the famous movie "Six Degrees of Separation," as he assumed the identity of Sidney Poitier's son and was suddenly ushered in as celebrity.

Hampton began employing the persona of "David Poitier" to cadge free meals in restaurants. He then persuaded at least a dozen people into letting him stay with them in their homes or to give him money, including Melanie Griffith, Gary Sinise, and Calvin Klein. He told some of them that he was a friend of their children, some that he had just missed his plane to Los Angeles and that all his luggage was on it, some that his belongings had been stolen.

On 1983, Hampton was arrested and convicted for his frauds and was ordered to pay restitution of $4,490 to his various victims; on 2003 he died of AIDS-related complications.


9
Mary Baker: Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu

On 1817, a cobbler in England, met an apparently disoriented young woman with exotic clothes who was speaking a language no one could understand. Locals brought many foreigners who tried to find out what strange language the lady was talking, until a Portuguese sailor "translated" her story: she was Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean. She had been captured by pirates, then jumped overboard in the Bristol Channel and swam ashore. For the next ten weeks, this representative of exotic royalty was a favourite of the local dignataries. She used a bow and arrow, fenced, swam naked and prayed to God, whom she termed Allah Tallah. She acquired exotic clothing and a portrait made of her was reproduced in local newspapers.

Eventually the truth came out: she was actually a cobbler's daughter, Mary Baker, from Devon. She had been a servant girl in various places all over England but had not found a place to stay. She had invented a fictitious language out of imaginary and gypsy words and created an exotic character. She continued her role in the USA, France and Spain without the same luck. Her story was the basis of the 1994 movie "Princess Caraboo", written by John Wells.


10
Milli Vanilli: the pop duo that tricked the world

A pop vocal duo composed of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, Milli Vanilli was formed in Germany in the mid-1980s. The duo started to grow worldwide rapidly in 1988 and won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist on 1990. And then, in that same year, during a 'live' performance recorded by MTV at the Lake Compounce theme park in Connecticut, the recording of the song "Girl You Know It's True" jammed and began to skip, resulting in one of the most embarrassing moments in popular music history. The truth was revealed: the Milli Vanilli sound was actually created by Frank Farian featuring the vocal talents of other singers, and Morvan and Pilatus did not sing at all on the records.

After this, the Grammy Award they received was stripped from them, and at least 26 different lawsuits were filed under various U.S. consumer fraud protection laws against Pilatus, Morvan and Arista Records. In 1998, only ten years after Milli Vanilli's inital debut, Pilatus was found dead in a Frankfurt hotel of an apparent drug overdose.


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