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We Love Who They Aren't: 7 Famous Impostors

Passing yourself off as someone else could land you in prison, but if you are convincing enough, your (fake) life could be the subject of a book or movie!

Princess Caraboo

Mary Baker was a 19th century scam artist who posed as a princess from an exotic but fictitious island. She appeared in Gloucestershire, England in 1817. No one could understand the strange language she spoke, nor her odd habits. After some weeks, a sailor coincidentally arrived who spoke her language. He translated her story to the effect that she was Princess Caraboo of the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean, had been kidnapped by pirates, and had escaped by swimming ashore near Bristol. She was treated like proper royalty for the next ten weeks. Newspaper publicity led to her identification as Mary Baker by a woman with whom she had previously lodged. Mrs. Neale also recalled how Baker would sometimes speak in a language she had made up. To avoid embarrassment over the hoax, the family Baker was staying with in Bristol shipped her off to America, where she continued to live as Princess Caraboo. She later returned to England, and also traveled in France and Spain, posing again as Princess Caraboo. She later settled down in England under her real name and was never charged over the impersonation. Later investigation found that Baker had invented several false identities in the years before she became a princess. Her story was the basis of the 1994 movie Princess Caraboo, starring Phoebe Cates.

Friday the 13th Escapee

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50-year-old Steven Jay Russell spent many years portraying himself as various professionals for financial gain, but his prison escapes, which always happen on Friday the 13th, are more fascinating. Once, he impersonated a judge and had his own bail reduced. Another time, he dyed his prison uniform green with stolen magic markers and walked out while guards assumed he was a medical professional. In 1998, he feigned a heart attack when he was arrested, then impersonated an FBI officer who got him released from the hospital. Twice Russell convinced prison authorities that he had AIDS and escaped while arranging medical transfers, even faking his own death in the second incidence. He also impersonated officials to obtain the release of his prison lover Phillip Morris. Russell's last arrest was in 1998, after which he received a 144-year sentence. His affair with Phillip Morris is the subject of a movie to be released in 2009. I Love You, Phillip Morris will star Jim Carey as Russell and Ewan McGregor as Morris.

Reformed at an Early Age

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Frank Abagnale is a security consultant who has worked with the FBI for over 30 years. Before that, he was imprisoned in France, Sweden, and the US on bank fraud charges. He was only 16 years old when he began his 5-year crime spree. Abagnale defrauded his own father of $3,400 with a credit card scheme. He opened various checking accounts under false identities and withdrew nonexistent funds. With identification that stated he was ten years older than his actual age, he impersonated an airline pilot, a university teaching assistant, a pediatrician, and a lawyer (he passed the bar exam without attending law school). Abagnale served five years in prison, then was offered release in exchange for consultation services for the FBI. In 1980, he told his story in the book Catch Me If You Can, which was the basis of the 2002 movie of the same name, starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hanks.

The Multiple Diplomat

235Weyman.jpgStanley Clifford Weyman, also known as Stephen Weinberg, scammed people not just for personal gain (although he accepted money), but for the adventure. Between 1910 and 1954, he convinced people he was a US consul representative to Morocco, a Military attaché from Serbia, a consul general for Romania, a doctor (several times), the US Secretary of State, a faith healer, and a journalist for the United Nations. He also served several stretches in prison for fraud. In 1921, Weyman contacted the visiting Princess Fatima of Afghanistan and arranged for her to meet with president Warren Harding -for a fee of $10,000. Then he actually pulled off the meeting! He convinced actress Pola Negri that he was a doctor and a friend of her boyfriend Rudolph Valentino in time for his funeral in 1926. After a life of impersonation, Weymen died as true hero. At age 70, he was shot and killed while confronting thieves at the hotel where he worked.

The Grand Duchess

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Anna Anderson, also known as Anastasia Manahan, was once presented to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of the Romanov dynasty. After Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed in 1918, there were rumors that one of his daughters had survived the massacre. Anderson was discovered when she tried to kill herself in Berlin in 1920. She was taken to a mental institution, where her identity was questioned. Anderson claimed that she was the Tsar's youngest daughter Anastasia, had survived the shooting, and was rescued by a Russian soldier who she later married. Gleb and Tatiana Botkin, whose father was the Russian doctor who died with the Romanovs, promoted Anderson's imperial identity. This publicity impressed the public, even though none of the Tsar's many relatives who met Anderson thought she was Anastasia. The story was too good to pass up! The 1956 film Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman was loosely based on Anderson's story. The 1997 animated film Anastasia was an even more fictionalized version of the earlier movie. Anderson died in 1984 in Virginia. DNA tests on a tissue sample proved she was not related to the Romanovs, but was most likely Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish woman born in 1896. In 2007, the remains of the last members of the slain Imperial Family were unearthed in Russia.

The Man Who Wouldn't Talk

200wouldnttalk.jpgGeorge DuPre served in World War II and returned home to Calgary. Over time, he told about his adventures as a spy in the British Intelligence to inspire local Boy Scouts. He lectured about how he smuggled pilots out of occupied France and was captured and tortured by the Nazis, but never gave them any information. This drew the attention of Readers Digest magazine, who found DuPre to be an upstanding citizen and commissioned Quentin Reynolds to write a book. The Man Who Wouldn't Talk was released in 1953 and became a bestseller. Readers Digest published a condensed version in the magazine in November of that year. That's when men who actually served with DuPre during the war noticed. The Calgary Herald investigated and found DuPre's story did not hold up under scrutiny. Infact, he had served his entire World War II career in England and had never been to France! When the newspaper published an expose, author Reynolds and Readers Digest editor DeWitt Wallace were stunned. The magazine printed a retraction, and the book publisher offered a refund to those who bought the book. It was then reclassified as fiction.

The Great Imposter

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Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. began his life of deception in 1942, when he used an assumed identity to walk away from the US Army after one year of enlistment. He used forged credentials to find employment as a lawyer, a psychologist, a sheriff's deputy, a monk from two different orders, a teacher, and other positions. Demara was arrested and imprisoned several times. The impersonation he became famous for began in 1951 when he signed up for Canada's Royal Navy under the name of Dr. Joseph Cyr. At the time, the navy was desperate for surgeons and did not thoroughly check his background. Demara served aboard the HMCS Cayuga in the Korean War. He performed routine medical procedures and surgery by studying medical texts as needed. After removing a bullet from a war casualty, "Dr. Cyr" was profiled in a Canadian newspaper. The mother of the real Dr. Cyr read the account and called her son to ascertain that he was not, in fact, in Korea. This led to Demara's unmasking and dismissal from the Royal Navy. No charges were filed, as the navy assumed that Demara was still a doctor, if not the doctor he said he was. Demara's story was the subject of the book The Great Imposter by Robert Crichton, which was made into the 1961 movie The Great Imposter starring Tony Curtis.

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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How Austrian Soldiers Saved the 1964 Olympics
Allsport Hulton/Archive
Allsport Hulton/Archive

Although the Austrian city of Innsbruck has a well-deserved reputation as a winter sports mecca, it was dangerously low on snow and ice in the weeks leading up the 1964 Winter Olympics. So the organizers called in the troops.

Austrian soldiers went to work carving 20,000 blocks of ice away from the top of the mountain and then toting them down to make luge and bobsled tracks. In order to salvage the skiing events, the soldiers had to lug 40,000 cubic meters of snow from the tops of mountains down to the slopes that had been chosen for the various races. On top of that, they brought down an extra 20,000 cubic meters just in case anything bad happened to the first batch of snow.

And oh, how something bad did happen! Ten days before the opening ceremony, it started raining. As you probably know, rain and snow aren't the closest of chums, so much of the work that had already been done on the courses melted. The Austrian army again came to the rescue, though, taking to the slopes and tamping down the remaining snow by hand and foot. Thanks to this bit of resourcefulness, the games went on as planned.

Things aren't quite that tricky today, though. Artificially produced snow made its debut at the 1980 Winter Olympics, but the old "bring in some outside snow" tactic isn't totally dead. When the snow forecast for the Vancouver freestyle skiing and snowboarding venue Cypress Mountain looked grim in 2010, the organizers started trucking in loads of snow from other locations. Engineers then spread the snow on top of carefully situated bales of hay to give the slopes their desired shape. (How do you get bales of hay on a ski slope? You drop them from a helicopter.)

Of course, there's such a thing as too much winter weather for the Olympics, too. Snow and rain plagued the 1998 Nagano Games and led to lengthy delays and postponements for some events.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

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