This page considers identity theft and identity fraud
before the digital era, highlighting some major incidents
It covers -
As Gilbert & Sullivan lamented in HMS
Pinafore (1878) "things are seldom what they
seem: skim milk masquerades as cream". The history
of identity-related deception before the internet reflects
the willingness of the deceived to believe and diffficulties
in readily determining what is skim milk, what is the
The extent of ID theft/fraud over time is not clear ...
and arguably is not knowable. The instances that remain
in popular and scholarly memory survive because they relate
to feats of particular audacity or had political significance;
mundane deceptions were frequent but have not attracted
As suggested on the preceding page of this profile, a
basic trajectory is evident, from identity crime involving
sacred or royal identity to deception concerning bureaucratic
actors, a shift from blood to uniforms and paper.
gods and monsters
Matthew vii 15 warns of false prophets "who
come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they
are ravening wolves". In the pre-Christian and early
Christian eras it is common to find charismatic figures
such as Simon Magus, Alexander of Abonoteichos or Theudas
who claimed divine or quasi-divine powers. In appropriating
an identity, where better to start than that of God?
Some people were less ambitious. Eusebius for example
notes the supposed memoirs and counter-memoirs of Pontius
Pilate - for example the Memoirs of Pilate and Our
Savior of around 312AD exhibited on bronze tablets
in public squares. Three Neros appeared and were summarily
despatched after the suicide of the emperor, discussed
in 'The False Neros: A Re-Examination' by Paul Gallivan
in 22 Historia (1973) 364-365.
Confusion about who is who continued in the Middle Ages.
Gregory of Tours' Historia features an enthusiast
who at the end of the sixth century declared himself to
be Christ, travelling in the neighbourhood of Arles in
company of Mary, performing miracles and gathering followers
until struck dead by a representative of Bishop Aurelius.
False bishops Adelbert and Clement, active in Germany
around the year 744, gained attention for unorthodoxy
(Adelbert told his followers it was unnecessary to confess
their sins because he already read their hearts) and claims
that their authority was confirmed by a miraculous letter
from Jesus Christ that had supposedly fallen from heaven
and been picked up by the Archangel Michael.
The letter was read aloud by Pope Zachary at the Council
of Rome in 745 but was apparently unconvincing as the
'bishops' were subsequently terminated.
Franciscan friar James of Jülich was boiled alive
in 1392 after the bad career move of pretending to be
a bishop and falsely ordaining numerous priests.
Ecclesiastical fraudster Paulus Tigrinus successfully
conned Pope Boniface IX (1389) and Antipope Clement VII
into colluding in his assertion that he was the wandering
Patriarch of Constantinople, lucratively milking minor
potentates such as the Duke of Savoy.
Jewish apostate Sabbatai Zevi (1626-76) persuaded a substantial
number of people that he was the Messiah before converting
to Islam to save his own skin. His tale - an echo of Christian
millenarianism - is illuminated
by Gershom Scholem's Sabbatai Zevi: The Mystical Messiah,
1626-76 (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 1976) and
accounts in Sabbatai Zevi: Testimonies to a Fallen
Messiah (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization
2007) edited by David Halperin. Jacob Querido claimed
to be a reincarnation of Zevi; Abraham Miguel Cardozo
(1630-1706) merely assumed Zevi's mantle as the Messiah.
Precursor Solomon Molcho (Shlomo Mol'kho, aka Diogo Pires)
(1500-1532) had declared himself the Messiah in the Ottoman
empire before fleeing to the Holy Roman Empire. He was
burnt at the stake in Mantua for apostasy
rather than blasphemy,
having earlier renounced Christianity.
Taiping leader Hóng Xiùquán (1814-1864)
claimed to be the younger brother of Christ, with a career
described in Jonathan Spence's God's Chinese Son:The
Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (New York:
The shape of the historical record, which for example
like television centres on action rather than providing
detailed information about the perceptions of ordinary
people, means that it is difficult to be sure why some
frauds were successful.
One reason is presumably the 'charisma' of the fraudsters.
Another is contemporary expectations that identity was
signified and validated by appearance: if you wore the
right clothing and displayed the appropriate hauteur you
were likely to be who you claimed to be, a case of clothes
making the man.
Anxiety about identity and signifiers was reflected in
a succession of sumptuary
laws in most jurisdictions, seeking to underpin social
hierarchies and morality by regulating the clothing of
classes and occupations (eg prostitutes).
Elizabeth I of England for example decreed that
shall wear in his apparel any Cloth of Gold, Cloth of
Silver or cloth mixed with gold or silver, nor any sables,
except Earls, and all of superior degrees, and Viscounts
and Barons in their doublets and sleeveless coats.
Scottish law of 1433 had more plaintively prohibited provision
of pies to anyone under the rank of baron, with successive
English statutes prohibiting the poor from indulging in
meals with more than two courses.
An introduction is provided by Alan Hunt's Governance
of the consuming passions: a history of sumptuary law
(New York: St Martins 1996) and Valentin Groebner's Der
Schein der Person: Steckbrief, Ausweis und Kontrolle im
Mittelalter (Munich: Beck 2004), available as Who
Are You? Identification, Deception & Surveillance
in Early Modern Europe (New York: Zone 2007). Hunt
supersedes Frances Baldwin's 1926 Sumptuary Legislation
& Personal Regulation in England (rpr New York:
AMS Press 1994). For a more detailed view see Sumptuary
Law in Italy 1200-1500 (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press
2002) by Catherine Killerby and other resources highlighted
Exotic imposters were not restricted to Western Europe
or the Church.
Byzantine politics had been bedevilled by pretenders such
as the Alexis Comnenus who undermined emperor Isaac Comnenus
II. The sudden death of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa
in 1190 saw a slew of false Fredericks, followed by more
imposters in the 1280s following the death of Frederick
II Hohenstaufen (the 'Stupor Mundi' emperor) in 1250.
Dietrich Holzschuh (aka Tile Kolup) for example was burnt
alive in Wetzlar during 1285,
The death of Baldwin of Antioch saw appearance of a false
Baldwin in Flanders in 1225. Sigurd Magnusson Slembedjakn
spent time on the Norwegian as a 'son' of king Magnus
the Barefoot from 1135, before losing a battle and being
executed in 11139. The death of Margaret of Norway (putative
Queen of Scotland) in 1290 was followed ten years later
by the reappearance of a False Margaret. She and her husband
were convicted of fraud: she was burnt at the stake in
1301, he was beheaded.
In the UK John of Powderham claimed in 1318 that he and
not the reigning Edward II should be king, explaining
that a nurse had swapped babies after a pig had gnawed
on his ear.
He later retracted the claim, saying the Devil in the
guise of a cat had inspired him. Both John and the cat
were then hanged; Edward was deposed in 1327. Misadventures
with livestock are recounted in Wendy Childs' 'Welcome,
My Brother': Edward II, John of Powderham, and the Chronicles,
1318' in Church & Chronicle in the Middle Ages:
Essays presented to J. Taylor (London: Hambledon
1991) edited by Ian Wood.
Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri's problematical The
Man Who Believed He Was King of France: A True Medieval
Tale (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2008) recounts
the misadventures of Giannino di Guccio who claimed to
be Jean I, king of France, after being persuaded in 1354
by the infamous Cola di Rienzo that he was the lost heir
to Louis X. Guccio had allegedly been switched at birth
with the son of a Tuscan merchant.
Jack Cade, who claimed descent from the Earls of Mortimer,
momentarily gained control of London before being slain
in 1450. The demise of the 'princes in the tower', attributed
to Richard III, was followed by revolts centred around
Lambert Simnel (who claimed in 1486 to be the Duke of
Clarence and crowned in Dublin as Edward VI) and Perkin
Warbeck (who announced himself in 1497 as Richard, Duke
They are profiled in Rebels, Pretenders, & Impostors
(New York: St Martins 2000) by Clive Cheesman & Jonathan
Williams, Ann Wroe's more detailed Perkin: A Story
of Deception (London: Cape 2003), Michael Bennett's
Lambert Simnel & the Battle of Stoke (Stroud:
Alan Sutton 1987) and Ian Arthurson's The Perkin Warbeck
Conspiracy, 1491-1499 (Stroud: Alan Sutton 1993).
Dispute about the demise in Africa of King Sebastian of
Portugal in 1578 saw a succession of four pretenders,
each claiming to be the king. One account is provided
in H. Eric Olsen's The Calabrian Charlatan, 1598–1603:
Messianic Nationalism in Early Modern Europe. (New
York: Palgrave Macmillan 2003), a studio of impersonation
by Marco Tullio Catizone.
Problems with succession in Russia after the death of
Ivan the Terrible and Boris Godunov (1605) saw four pretenders
who claimed to be Ivan's son Dimitri.
As noted by Gyula Szvak in False Tsars (Boulder:
East European Monographs 2001), Maureen Perrie in Pretenders
& Popular Monarchism in Early Modern Russia: The False
Tsars of the Time of Troubles (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 1995), Chester Dunning's Russia's First
Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the
Romanov Dynasty (University Park: Pennsylvania State
Uni Press 2001) and Philip Longworth's 'The Pretender
Phenomenon in Eighteenth-Century Russia' in 66(1) Past
& Present (1975) 61-83, 'comebacks' by dead Russian
royalty were recurrent, with multiple false Tsar Peters
(following death of Catherine the Great's husband in the
1762 palace coup) and false Constantines (assuming the
identity of Nicholas I's older brother Constantine).
The death in a Paris prison of the Dauphin Louis, son
of Louis XVI, resulted in over thirty self-proclaimed
Louis XVIIs, including one who was implausibly black and
frizzy-haired. Ex-forger Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, undeterred
by an inability to speak French, convinced enough true
believers to fund his 'court' in Brussels until 1845.
Recent DNA tests are discussed in Deborah Cadbury's The
Lost King of France: A True Story of Revolution, Revenge,
and DNA (New York: St Martins 2002) and Jan Bonderson's
The Great Ptretenders (New York: Norton 2005).
Mary Carleton - born Mary Moders in 1642 - married Canterbury
shoemaker John Steadman, entered a bigamous marriage with
a surgeon named Day following an abortive flight to the
Bahamas, bigamously married a bricklayer and then moved
to London where she claimed to be a rich German princess
named Maria de Wolway. Her supposed wealth evaporated
after yet another marriage, which resulted in a bungled
trial for bigamy at the Old
Bailey. After acquittal she went on stage (failing
to wow Samuel Pepys) and manufactured documents to support
In 1670 she was caught stealing a silver tankard, escaping
hanging by transportation to Jamaica. Escaping from that
colony she returned a career in London as a 'lady of quality'
but while in Newgate prison for theft of silver was recognised
as the 'German Princess' and thence hanged at Tyburn in
1673. Presumably now she would be appearing alongside
Germaine Greer on the set of Big Brother. Her
activities are discussed in The self-fashioning of
an early modern Englishwoman: Mary Carleton's lives
(Aldershot: Ashgate 2004) by Mary Kietzman.
John and Charles Allen reinvented themselves as the Sobieski
Stuarts, supposedly the only legitimate grandsons of Bonnie
Prince Charlie (and great-great grandsons of Polish king
Jan Sobieski). They are best known for their concoction
of the 1842 Vestiarium Scoticum, a work of imagination
that served as a pattern-book for the invention of the
clan-based tartan and that was based on non-existant manuscripts.
Milkmaid Mary Baker (1791-1864) became exotic Princess
Caraboo of Javasu, a career change described in John Wells'
Princess Caraboo: Her True Story (London:
Pan 1994) and John Gutch's
1817 Caraboo: A Narrative of a Singular Imposition
Practiced Upon the Benevolence of a Lady Residing in the
Vicinity of Bristol.
Contemporary Olivia Serres (1772-1834) claimed to be Princess
Olive, supposed daughter of George III's feckless brother
the Duke of Cumberland. Arrested in 1821, she unsuccessfully
claimed that as a member of the royal family she could
not be thrown into a debtors' prison.
Her eldest daughter (1797–1871), falsely claimed
to be a member of the British royal family, calling herself
"Princess Lavinia of Cumberland" and in 1844
unsuccessfully sought to take the Duke of Wellington to
court for having "overlooked" a bequest of £15,000.
Undeterred, she brandished forged documents as part of
bold but similarly fruitless legal action in 1866 for
Sir Gregor MacGregor (1786-1845) merely invented the Central
American state of Poyais,
pocketing the proceeds of a £200,000 development
loan. His exploits are recalled in David Sinclair's Sir
Gregor MacGregor and the Land That Never Was (London:
In 1833 John Dow (aka John Luttrel) - a former convict
from Van Diemen's Land - appeared in Sydney in the guise
of Edward, Viscount Lascelles. He audaciously claimed
that he was conducting an official investigation for the
UK Secretary of State, eloped with a minor heiress and
in the NSW Supreme Court for her return when she was rescued
by her parents
More recently John Gawsworth (1912-1970), a bibulous London
poet and bibliophile, is chiefly remembered as claimant
to the make-believe throne of the tiny uninhabited West
Indies island of Santa Maria la Redonda.
Tiny islands are of course useful because they are so
very hard to find on the map, especially by a
travel agent. Redonda has spawned sundry pseudo-orders
such as the Ordo Equestris Militiae Templi Deus Vult graced
by the Hon Most Rev Dr Cesidio Tallini
(king of TTF-Bucksfan), who claims that "it can be
demonstrated that Cesidian law really governs the Internet".
Franz Weber-Richter claimed to be Hitler's son, an assertion
just slightly more credible than the revelation that he
had spent several months living with aliens on Mercury,
but sufficient to gain handouts from aging Nazis.
The Forger's Tale: The Search for Odeziaku (Athens:
Ohio Uni Press 2006) by Stephanie Newell discusses the
improbable career of embezzler, forger and literary fantasist
John Moray Stuart-Young (1881-1939) aka John Mount Stewart
Young and John James Young. His Osrac, the Self-Sufficient:
with a memoir of the late Oscar Wilde (London:
Hermes Press 1905) features facsimiles of clumsily forged
letters from Wilde supposedly documenting their uranian
Bolshevik execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family
was followed by various imposters claiming to be the Grand
Duchess Anastasia - eg Eugenia Smith and Anna Anderson
in 1922, highlighted in Peter Kurth's Anastasia: The
Riddle of Anna Anderson (New York: Little Brown 1985)
and more recently Georgian Natalya Petrovna Bilikhodze
- or the Tsarevitch, eg Michael Goleniewski and Nikolai
Chebotarev, promoted in Guy Richards' Imperial Agent:
The Goleniewski-Romanov Case (New York: Devin-Adair
1966) and Michael Gray's Blood Relative (London:
At a less elevated level the Martin Guerre case has formed
the basis of two films, three plays, a musical, an opera,
a novel by Alexandre Dumas - author of royal ID theft
tale The Man In The Iron Mask - and Natalie Zemon
Davis' exemplary The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge:
Harvard Uni Press 1983).
Unpleasant French villager Martin Guerre disappeared after
going off to the wars, returning in 1556 as harder-working,
more popular and more pleasing to his wife (albeit with
smaller-size feet). Property disputes led to claims that
he was an imposter, with litigation resolved in 1560 when
a one-legged man hobbled into the Parlement of Toulouse
claiming that he was the real Martin. That claim
was successful: the penalty for identity fraud in the
Guerre case was public execution.
Two centuries later, amid the chaos of the French Revolution,
Anne Buiret claimed to be the Adelaide-Marie de Champignelles,
Marquise de Douhault, supposedly imprisoned by her grasping
relatives from 1786 to 1789. They claimed that she had
died and been properly buried. The case was not clearly
resolved - the court ruled that she was neither Buiret
not the Marquise - and the claimant has gained attention
as a model of a 'stateless' person ("la femme sans
nom") or the basis for Wilkie Collins' thriller The
Woman In White (1858).
Harry Domela (1905-1978?) persuaded people that he was
successively Graf Korf, Prince Lieven of Latvia and Prince
Wilhelm of Hohenzollern before starring as himself in
an early talkie. Runaway indentured servant Sarah Wilson
(b1754) persuaded people in colonial Virginia that she
was Susanna Caroline Matilda, sister of Queen Charlotte
and thus sister-in-law of George III. The scam ended when
she was retrieved by her master.
Palermo urchin Guiseppe Balsamo (1743-1795) reinvented
himself as the fantastic Count Alessandro di Cagliostro
- alchemist, lover, magnetic healer, muse, freemason and
party animal. He is profiled in Iain McCalman's The
Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the
Age of Reason (London: HarperCollins 2003).
next page (apparitions)