An impostor can be defined as someone who pretends they are someone or something they are not. Some impostors assume another identity, often a celebrity or high-ranking person; others pretend they have skills, bloodlines, or degrees from prestigious universities. Here is Oddee's collection of the biggest of these big phonies.
1Fredrick Bourdin – 23-Year-Old French Algerian Poses as a Missing 16-Year-Old American
This is not your typical American teenager...
Fredrick Bourdin is what's known as a serial impostor – someone who consistently takes on new identities. However, one of his frauds has given him the crown of #1 impostor. In 1997, Bourdin was apprehended in the small town of Lineares, located in Spain. As was his standard ploy, he pretended to be someone else, usually a young boy. This time, however, he said he was an American teenager. As he was held overnight by authorities at the unmanned police station, he got access to an international lost children's hotline and was able to pull a name and other information from the list. The next day, he claimed he was Nicholas Barclay, who had gone missing in Texas some 3 years earlier; Bourdin claimed to have been kidnapped and brought overseas. Now, this is where the story gets really crazy. Even though he had a thick French accent, brown hair, and brown eyes (Barclay had blonde hair and blue eyes) he was able to not only convince U.S. and Spanish authorities he was the child, but also the members of the boy's family! Bourdin was “returned” to Texas and lived with his “family” for 5 months. This con was so amazing, it was turned into a documentary in 2012 called, appropriately enough, The Impostor. But Bourdin's story doesn't end there – in 2004, he attempted to pass himself off as a Spanish boy who had gone missing after the Madrid terrorist attacks, and he was jailed again a year later for impersonating a French orphan.
2“Emperor” Norton – Claimed to be Emperor of the United States
Joshua Abraham Norton, aka Emperor Norton, is one of the few impostors actually embraced for his charade. He was born in England, but eventually emigrated to San Francisco, California. Sometime in his adult life he became unhinged, and began loudly proclaiming himself Emperor of the United States. San Francisco was known for its tolerance even back then, and they treated the self-proclaimed Emperor with respect and even admiration. He proposed abolishing Congress as well as building bridges and tunnels across the San Francisco Bay, ideas that reverberated with his “followers" – the Bay Bridge and Transbay tunnels were eventually built long after his death. Someone even created Emperor Norton currency with his face on it, which was legal tender at certain local merchants. When he died in 1880, 30,000 people filled the streets to pay tribute to him. Was he an impostor, a hero, or just crazy? That's for you to decide.
3Christopher Rocancourt – Fake Rockefeller Married a Playboy Model, Duped the Rich
It takes a lot of chutzpah to pretend you are someone else, especially when it comes to the rich and famous, and Christopher Rocancourt had boatloads. A flamboyant Frenchman, he sometimes pretended to be a member of the iconic Rockefeller family or the son of French nobility. He played the part well, throwing lavish parties with money he didn't have and duping people into investing in his schemes. He was so successful in his charade that he married Playboy Model Pia Reyes, lived for a time with actor Mickey Rourke, and even got Jean-Claude Van Damme to put up money for a movie. Eventually, he was caught, served a five year sentence, and was ordered to pay over $10 million to nineteen victims.
4Frank William Abagnale – Famous Confidence Man Who Inspired a Movie and a Broadway Show
One of these men is Frank Abagnale, the other... an impostor!!
You probably know Frank William Abagnale from the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me if You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and he is the only repentant impostor on our list. In the early 1960s, starting at the age of 16, Abagnale assumed the identities of an airline pilot, an attorney, a pediatrician, a college professor, and several others to pull of a series of ruses (and women's undergarments). He also cashed a ton of fraudulent checks totaling $2.5 million US, and escaped from custody – twice. I think you can see why his life was made into a movie and now a Broadway musical of the same name (which are both named after his ghostwritten autobiography). When they finally did catch him, he changed his ways and became a consultant on fraud for the FBI as well as opening his own firm. Sometimes, being an impostor can pay off. Here he is on To Tell The Truth in the 1970s, already cashing in on his notoriety.
5Casanova de Seingalt – Lover, Scoundrel, Impostor
He's a handsome devil, ain't he?
The name Casanova is synonymous in English with “lover.” However, Casanova de Seingalt, as he was known at the time, was more than just that. In fact, his entire life and background was a lie. He was born to actor parents in 1725 so, in that respect, it was quite natural that he follow in their footsteps. He was abandoned at an early age and began a series of menial careers, until he realized he had the charm and the wit to present himself as an aristocrat. So began a life that not only included excessive womanizing (with a few men thrown in for good measure) and excessive gambling, but also turns as a physician, a spy, and an alchemist. Many fell in love with Casanova and he was able to live much of his life at a strata high above his actual lineage. However, he also gained many enemies, and had numerous brushes with the law that included both a prison sentence and an escape. It was the Count de Saint-Germain who called out Casanova's lies. “This very singular man, born to be the most barefaced of all imposters, declared with impunity, with a casual air, that he was three hundred years old, that he possessed the universal medicine, that he made anything he liked from nature, that he created diamonds," he wrote. Casanova eventually died a lonely death, but was made immortal through his lengthy memoirs, which went into great detail about both his chicanery and his sexual exploits. "Deceiving a fool is an exploit worthy of an intelligent man," he stated.
6Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter – Murderer Who Also Claims to be a Rockefeller
This is one of the more sinister individuals on the list, for he not only took someone's name, but also two other people's lives. Like many impostors, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter had used many different aliases, and was extremely charismatic. This combination turned out to be lethal for John and Linda Sohus, the San Marino couple who befriended him in the mid-80s. Gerhartsreiter introduced himself as Christopher Chichester, a British aristocrat, and they became close friends. In 1985, the couple disappeared; John Sohus' body was found 10 years later in a shallow grave on his property, but Linda's was never found. Meanwhile, Gerhartsreiter/Chichester had long ago left California and shed his identities to become Clark Rockefeller, saying he was a scion of that family (much like Christopher Rocancourt – see number #3 ). His ruse continued for almost 30 years, as police slowly connected the dots between him and the Sohus couple. In 2013, he was finally brought to trial. The evidence was scant – there was no DNA, no motive, or any forensic evidence to tie him to the crime. However, circumstantial evidence, including the fact that he had absconded with the victims' truck, was enough to get a jury to convict him of the crime. Mr. “Rockefeller” continues to maintain his innocence and is planning an appeal.
7Wilson Raj Perumal - Created an Entire Fake Football Team
Wilson Raj Perumal was a small-time crook, until he found his true “calling” – fixing football matches around the world. Considering there are over 10,000 teams to choose from, it wasn't too hard to find someone's palm to grease. However, as his ambitions became greater, so did the audacious ways he tried to manipulate the outcomes of the matches. In fact, he became so desperate to fix matches (because of his own rising debts) that on September 10, 2010 he had an entire team pretend to be the Togo national team in a match that he attempted to fix against Bahrain. The impostors were such poor players, though, that the Bahrain coach remarked that they “weren't fit to play 90 minutes.” Eventually, Perumal was caught and imprisoned for his numerous frauds.
8Mathurin Bruneau – Pretended to be the Son of Louis XVI
After the death of King Louis XVI in 1793, it was rather common for people to claim to be the Dauphin, his heir. But Mathurin Bruneau, a peasant, was the most outrageous. A charlatan his entire life – he had claimed to be the son of a baron as a child – he seized upon the idea that he was Louis XVII when he was a young man, and never let go. In spite of the fact that he was extremely homely, illiterate, and bore no resemblance to the royal family, he was nonetheless so convincing that he began to amass followers who smothered him with adulation, as well as money. While he was imprisoned in Rouen, for example, he was treated like a king, taking a bath every day and eating and drinking with aplomb. However, many were suspicious of this phony, and eventually there was a trial to determine his true identity. In spite of the witnesses and evidence against him, Bruneau was defiant to the very end. “Learn that I am, as I always have been, Louis XVII,” he shouted in court. “You have killed my father; you can easily kill me, too.” He was convicted and imprisoned, where he died in 1825.
9Jean-Claude Romand Pretended to Be a Doctor, then Murdered His Family
The doctor is in… sane!
This is by far the darkest of our deceptors. Jean-Claude Romand, a respectable French doctor and family man, told just one lie, but it turned out to be a whopper. He pretended to pass a medical exam which he did not take. From there, everything snowballed. For 18 years – that's right 18 YEARS, Romand managed to continue this charade, fooling friends and family alike. Whenever he went off to “work” he wandered about the small town in France where he lived, instead. Everyone believed he had scored a lucrative job as a researcher for the World Health Organization, who had an office nearby. (The family unknowingly lived off of his wife's assets as well as the money friends would give him to “invest.”)
However, one can only keep a secret for so long and Romand knew his time was (finally) running out. On January 9, 1993 he went on a calm, methodical killing spree of his entire family, bludgeoning his wife in the morning and then casually killing his children later that evening. He then killed his parents and their dog before allegedly attempting to take his own life by setting his house ablaze. He was rescued and his ruse was discovered. Romand was tried and convicted to life imprisonment for his crimes, but will be eligible for parole in 2015.
Perhaps the greatest impostor the world has ever known is staring at you in the mirror. Do you feel like a fraud? It turns out you are not alone – there is even a name for it, appropriately called “Impostor Syndrome.” It was identified in the 1970s and, according to studies, more than 70% of the human population has suffered from it. It's especially prevalent among people in high-ranking social or business positions, but people who have been part of affirmative action programs can also feel it. Impostor Syndrome can affect even the most successful people with proven track records. In short, we are often insecure about who we are and what we have done. The important thing is to not let it sabotage our lives or ambitions and to seek help if it gets too overwhelming.