This page considers identity theft and identity fraud
before the digital era, highlighting some major incidents
It covers -
men claimed expertise, formal qualifications, wealth and
family - inspiring anxiety about legitimacy and the recognition
of 'real' experts, underpinning moves towards the bureaucratisation
of knowledge through formal training and certification.
US anxieties about mobility and deception are discussed
in Karen Halttunen's Confidence Men & Painted
Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870
(New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1986), James Cook's The
Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 2001) and Timothy Spears'
100 Years on the Road: The Traveling Salesman in American
Culture (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1995).
A perspective is provided in 'The World of Ostap Bender:
Soviet Confidence Men in the Stalin Period' by Sheila
Fitzpatrick in 61(3) Slavic Review (2002) 535-557
and 'Portrait of a Con Artist as a Soviet Man' by Golfo
Alexopoulos in 57(4) Slavic Review (1998) 774-790.
Much identity crime has centred on the credulity of the
audience, the willingness to believe despite signals that
claims are problematical or simply impossible.
The age of paper money and social volatility produced
adventurers such as French swindler Madame Therese, profiled
in Hilary Spurling's superb La Grande Therese: The
Greatest Scandal of the Century (London: HarperCollins
2000) and Arthur Orton, who claimed to be wealthy UK baronet
Roger Charles Tichborne.
Tichborne had disappeared, presumed drowned off South
America in an 1854 shipwreck. In 1865 his mother was advised
that a man "answering to the description of her son"
was working as a butcher at Wagga Wagga, Australia. Any
resemblance was tenuous but that man - aka Tom Castro
and Arthur Orton - embarked on litigation to claim the
inheritance, ultimately being convicted in 1874 of perjury.
Orton's claims were championed by disbarred lawyer Edward
Kenealy, who modestly claimed he was the "Twelfth
Messenger" of God (in a line that began with Adam
and included Jesus, Mohammed and Genghis Khan).
The case is featured in The Tichborne Trial (London:
Grant Richards 1899) by J B Atlay here,
Rohan McWilliam's The Tichborne Claimant (London:
Continuum 2007) and Robyn Annear's The Man Who Lost
Himself: The Unbelievable Story of the Tichborne Claimant
(Melbourne: Text 2002).
Thirty years later, as Partha Chatterjee describes in
A Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History
of the Kumar of Bhawal (Princeton: Princeton Uni
Press 2002), the ailing Kumar (prince) of a leading Bengali
family supposedly died during a trip to Darjeeling in
1909. His body apparently disappeared, fuelling disagreement
when the Kumar supposedly reappeared in 1921 as a holy
man with an interest in the family estates. Litigation
lasted until an appeal to the Privy Council in 1946.
The notorious Phineas T. Barnum displayed elderly black
woman Joice Heth (1756-1836) in 1835 as the 161 year old
former nurse of George Washington, with Heth obligingly
providing the audience with tales of young George. Barnum
addressed a slump in the box office by spreading a rumour
that Heth was an automaton, with audiences then visiting
Barnum's freak show to see whether she was a real person.
The incident is discussed in The Showman and the Slave:
Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America (Cambridge:
Harvard Uni Press 2001) by Benjamin Reiss. Barnum's 1835
The Life of Joice Heth, the Nurse of Gen. George Washington,
(the Father of Our Country,) Now Living at the Astonishing
Age of 161 Years, and Weighs Only 46 Pounds is online
Harriet Muraev's Identity Theft: The Jew in Imperial
Russia and the Case of Avraam Uri Kovner (Palo Alto:
Stanford Uni Press 2003) discusses the bizarre Kovner,
friend of Dostoyesky, fraud, nihilist and fantasist.
In Australia James Coates (1901-1947) graduated from life
as a pickpocket and card-sharp to pose as grazier, surgeon
or gambler in relieving wealthy tourists of their money.
Described as "impeccably dressed and groomed, gracious
of character and speaking with an Oxford accent"
he is reported to have swindled an Australian grazier
of £40,000, an Austrian nobleman of £19,000,
the King of Sweden's son of £15,000, an Indian prince
of £80,000 and industrialist Sir Michael Watson
The latter feat, on a 1932 cruise from Alexandria to Marseilles,
involved Coates posing as an engineer, a guise substantiated
through copies of a magazine that had been doctored to
include his photograph and a false biography. Coates returned
to Australia to live the high life, being gunned down
in a gangland killing in Toorak.
clothes maketh the man?
The preceding page noted that signifiers of expertise
or authority could can be misread. Two of the more spectacular
fin de siecle instances are the Kopenick and
Dreadnought. (Misreading of signifiers of gender, such
as the Snell and Barry incidents, is discussed later
in this profile.)
Ex-crim Wilhelm Voigt (1849-1922), trading on German deference
to anyone in a uniform, bought a second-hand captain's
suit in 1906 and commandeered a detachment of grenadiers.
Marching to Kopenick town hall, he arrested the burgomaster
(who was sent to Berlin military headquarters) and after
examining the municipal accounts departed with 4,000 marks
- equivalent to A$300,000.
Voigt was arrested five days later after getting drunk
on the proceeds; the troops went unpunished because they
had "unquestioningly obeyed the command of an officer".
The exploit features in a 1932 Carl Zuckmayer play and
the 1956 Der Hauptmann von Köpenick film.
In England Virginia Woolf starred as the Emperor of Abyssinia
when a group of friends disguised as potentates and Foreign
Office officials arrived unannounced at Portsmouth naval
base in 1910 and persuaded staff to provide an official
tour of HMS Dreadnought, the Royal Navy's most
There is an account in Adrian Stephen's The Dreadnought
Hoax (London: Chatto & Windus 1983).
sages, spooks and scions
Archibald Belaney (1888-1938), exposed in Lovat Dickson's
Wilderness Man: The Strange Story of Grey Owl
(London: Macmillan 1974) and Armand Ruffo's less persuasive
Grey Owl: the mystery of Archie Belaney (Toronto:
Coteau 1996), successfully posed as Ojiibwa sage Grey
Owl and produced three bestsellers about life as a member
of the First Nations.
Contemporary Buffalo Child Long Lance (1890-1932), star
of the 1930 film The Silent Enemy and author
of the 1928 fake autobiography Long Lance, claimed
to be a crack aviator, a war hero (appointed to West Point
and awarded the Croix de Guerre) and sparring partner
of Jack Dempsey. Sadly he was not a "full-blooded
Blackfeet Indian" who had been raised in a tipee
and hunted buffalo from horseback. His name was not Buffalo
Child Long Lance; he was African-American rather than
a member of the US or Canadian First Nations and his father
was a janitor rather than a chief.
His career is discussed in Chief Buffalo Child Long
Lance: The Glorious Impostor (Red Deer: Red Deer
Press 1999) by Donald Smith and Slippery Characters:
Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities (Chapel
Hill: Uni of North Carolina Press 2000) by Laura Browder.
More recently high profile historian Ward Churchill has
featured in claims that he was not an American Indian,
with the American Indian Movement Grand Governing Council
for example saying
fraudulently represented himself as an Indian, and a
member of the American Indian Movement and has been
masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark
glasses and beaded headband.
Belaney's peer Karl May (1842-1912) - who had earlier
been imprisoned for impersonating German secret service
agents and policemen - gained fame for 'wild west' genre
novellas, presented as autobiographical although he didn't
venture west to the English channel. Adoption of a false
persona didn't inhibit sales, which were above 50 million
copies after 1912.
He was rivalled by Lev Nussimbaum (1905-1942), aka Essad
Bey, whose stranger than fiction life was explored by
Tom Reiss in The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery
of a Strange & Dangerous Life (New York: Random
'Louis de Rougemont' (1847-1921), aka Louis Grin, gained
fame for journalism about his travels
- which apparently did not extend much beyond the Reading
Room of the British Museum. He was exposed after enthusing
over the marvellous "flight of the wombat",
implausible given that wombats are burrowing creatures
with the aerodynamic qualities of a bag of cement.
He was more successful than Jean Christoph de Lancourt
de Brenil, supposed companion of Jack London, master of
25 languages, war hero, equestrian, aviator and long distance
Rougement biographies include Ron Howard's The Fabulist:
The Incredible Story of Louis de Rougemont (Sydney:
Random House 2006).
Across the Atlantic Joseph 'Yellow Kid' Weil (1877-1975)
successfully posed as a major investor from Chicago, borrowing
executive offices in several banks. His victims were then
invited to the bank to meet that institution's CEO, duly
being impressed by the surroundings and handing over large
amounts of cash. Weil's ghosted memoir Con Man: A
Master Swindler's Own Story (New York: Broadway 2004)
features an afterword by Saul Bellow.
Competitor 'Count' Victor Lustig (1890-1947), described
in The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower (Garden
City: Doubleday 1961) by Floyd Miller, forged French government
stationery and invited six scrap metal dealers to a confidential
meeting at the Hotel Crillon, where he introduced himself
as the Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Posts
& Telegraphs and sought bids for the Eiffel Tower.
One dealer provided several hundred thousand francs payment
in advance, along with the customary bribe. Lustig was
caught when he sought extra sweeteners.
The 'Eiffel Tower' exploit has attracted more attention
than scams in the 1890s that saw fraudsters extract several
hundred thousand dollars from US millionaires by selling
Trajan's Column, the Arch of Constantine, the Colosseum.
Tower of London and the Parthenon.
Swiss hotel pageboy Gottfried Kopp for example reinvented
himself as Austrian aristocrat Godfrey von Kopp to 'sell'
the Arch of Constantine to US restaurant magnate John
R Thompson for US$0.5 million. The US millionaire paid
a US$100,000 deposit before sailing back to New York.
The Arch never arrived. Kopp went on to 'sell' Trajan's
Column to Charles Yerkes for US$250,000.
Stanley Clifford Weyman (1890-1960) impersonated public
officials, including the US Secretary of State, the US
consul to Morocco, a military attaché from Serbia,
a US Navy lieutenant, the US consul general for Romania
and a company doctor in Peru, where he threw lavish parties
until his credit ran out.
Contemporary Serge Stavisky (1886-1934), like Madame Therese,
decided that it was simpler to start his own bank, claiming
authorisation from the French government and a wealth
that was in fact based on ponzi-style marketing of bonds.
His career is examined in Stavisky: A Confidence Man
in the Republic of Virtue (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press
2002) by Paul Jankowski.
Cassie Chadwick (1857-1907) pretended to be the illegitimate
daughter of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, something that
resulted in banks competing to lend her money - a total
of US$10 million over eight years. Her scam was reinforced
when she forged securities in Garnegie's name. She takes
centre stage in John Crosbie's The Incredible Mrs
Chadwick: The Most Notorious Woman of Her Age (New
York: McGraw-Hill 1975).
Pennsylvania farmer George Byron (1824-1882) refashioned
himself as Major George Gordon de Luna Byron and claimed
to be the child of the poet and Countess de Luna, supposedly
secretly married in 1809. Byron added 14 years to his
age and went into business forging letters and other documents
by his putative father, Shelley, Keats and other figures.
In 1849 the New York Evening Mirror sniffed that
turned from him with the natural disgust we feel for
humbugs in general, and literary humbugs in particular.
action for defamation
was unsuccessful and he decamped to the UK before reappearing,
unabashed, with a self-awarded commission in the US army.
He is described in Theodore
Ehrsam's Major Byron: The Incredible Career of a Literary
Forger (New York: Boesen 1951) and James Soderholm's
Fantasy, Forgery and the Byron Legend (Lexington:
Uni Press of Kentucky 1995).
Ferdinand Demara (1921-1982) - who described his motivation
as "rascality, pure rascality" - variously assumed
the identity of real or fictitious civil engineers, police,
psychologists, lawyers, monks (Benedictine and Cistercian),
scientists and teachers. His career as an identity thief
peaked when he stole the ID of Canadian navy surgeon Joseph
Cyr during the Korean War, supposedly successfully undertaking
surgery. He is profiled in Robert Crichton's The Great
Imposter: the Amazing Careers of Ferdinand Waldo Demara
(New York: Random House 1959).
Andre Gide's 1914 Les Caves du Vatican reworks
the 1892 scam, described by Jean de Pauly in 1895, in
which a gang of conmen persuaded gullible Catholic traditionalists
that Pope Leo VIII was being held captive in the Vatican
cellars: Freemasons and Jesuits had diabolically replaced
him with an impostor. The victims dutifully supplied hundreds
of thousands of francs for a secret crusade to rescue
Some contemporary scammers such as Christopher Rocancourt,
David Hampton, Robert Hendy-Freegard, Omid Amidi-Mazaheri,
Jean-Claude Romand and Abraham Abdullah are featured in
the following page of this profile.
For insights into more contemporary scamming see Frank
Abagnale's Catch Me if You Can (New York: Broadway
Books 2000) with Stan Redding and The Art of the Steal
(New York: Broadway 2001).
next page (contemporary