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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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A Brief History of Black Friday
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The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year. But where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they'll give you some good talking points tomorrow, when you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m.

HOW DID BLACK FRIDAY BECOME SUCH A BIG SHOPPING DAY?

It's hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail free-for-all, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially commenced.

In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.

SO RETAILERS WERE ALWAYS HOPING FOR AN EARLY THANKSGIVING?

You bet. They weren't just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.

BRILLIANT! HOW DID THAT WORK OUT?

Not so well. Roosevelt didn't make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving." State governments didn't know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.

By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.

WHY CALL IT BLACK FRIDAY?

If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they'll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day's huge receipts as their opportunity to "get in the black" and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term "Black Friday" are a bit less rosy, though.

According to researchers, the name "Black Friday" dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that's played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city's streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as "Black Friday" to reflect how irritating it was.

SO WHERE DID THE WHOLE "GET IN THE BLACK" STORY ORIGINATE?

Apparently store owners didn't love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.

DO RETAILERS REALLY NEED BLACK FRIDAY TO TURN AN ANNUAL PROFIT?

Major retailers don't; they're generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn't be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.

IS BLACK FRIDAY REALLY THE BIGGEST SHOPPING DAY OF THE YEAR?

It's certainly the day of the year in which you're most likely to be punched while reaching for a Tickle Me Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top days of the year for stores, but it's the days immediately before Christmas—when procrastinators finally get shopping—that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.

Snopes's data shows the 10-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year's busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.

DO PEOPLE REALLY GET INJURED ON BLACK FRIDAY?

Sadly, yes. One of the most tragic Black Friday incidents happened in 2008, when 34-year-old seasonal employee Jdimytai Damour was killed after a crowd of hundreds of people from the approximately 2000 people waiting outside knocked him own and stampeded over his back after the doors opened at 5 a.m. at the Wal-Mart on Long Island, New York.

In 2010 in Buffalo, New York, several shoppers were trampled trying to get into a Target. One of the victims, Keith Krantz—who was pinned against a metal door support and then shoved to the ground—told a CNN affiliate he thought he would be killed. “At that moment, I was thinking I don't want to die here on the ground,” Krantz said.

In Murray, Utah, 15,000 shoppers swamped a mall with such force, the local police had to respond to break up skirmishes and fistfights, and keep shoppers from ransacking stores.

In 2008, a fight broke out between a young girl and a man at another Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, over a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television. It was $798, marked down from $1000. The New York Times reported that the not-so-aptly-named Nikki Nicely, 19, leaped onto a fellow shopper’s back and began pounding his shoulders violently when he attempted to purchase the television. “That’s my TV!” shouted Ms. Nicely, who then took an elbow to the face. “That’s my TV!” The fight was broken up by a police officer and security guard. “That’s right,” Nicely cried as her adversary walked away. “This here is my TV!”

HOW CAN THIS KIND OF THING BE AVOIDED?

In an effort to keep a few would-be clients from personal injury law firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created a special checklist for retailers expecting large crowds.

So what’s OSHA’s advice? Consider using bullhorns. Hire a team of police officers. Be prepared for “crowd crushing” and “violent acts.” Set up barricades. And, above all else, if charging shoppers come running, stay out of the way.

Haley Sweetland Edwards contributed to this story, portions of which originally appeared in 2009.

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Pop Culture
A Speedy History of the Hess Truck
Hess Corporation
Hess Corporation

Unless you know someone crazy about air fresheners or caffeine pills, holiday gifts purchased at gas stations don’t usually provoke much excitement. But if you were one of the millions who grew up in the northeast, the annual release of the Hess toy truck at Hess gas stations—usually green, always labeled with a Hess logo, always boxed with batteries—was and is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus and his sleigh.

The idea for an affordable, quality children’s toy sold at service stations at thousands of Hess locations in 16 states was courtesy of Leon Hess, the college dropout-turned-fuel magnate who began selling oil door-to-door in 1933 and graduated to gas stops by 1960. Hess decided he would trump the cheap merchandise given away by gas stations—mugs, glassware—by commissioning a durable, feature-heavy toy truck modeled after the first oil tanker he ever bought for his company. Unlike most toys of the era, it would have headlights that really worked and a tank that kids could either fill up or drain with water.

Most importantly, Hess insisted it come with batteries—he knew the frustration suffered by kids who tore into a holiday present, only to discover they’d have to wait until it had a power source before it could be operated.

The Hess Tanker Truck went on sale in 1964 for $1.29 and sold out almost instantly. Hess released the toy again in 1965, and then introduced the Voyager Tanker Ship in 1966. For the next 50 years, hardly a year went by without Hess issuing a new vehicle that stood up to heavy play and offered quality and features comparable to the “real” toys on store shelves. Incredibly, fathers would wait in line for hours for an opportunity to buy one for their child.

The toy truck became so important to the Hess brand and developed such a strong following that when the company was bought out in 2014 and locations converted to the Speedway umbrella, new owners Marathon Petroleum promised they would keep making the Hess trucks. They’re now sold online, with the newest—the Dump Truck and Loader, complete with working hydraulics and STEM lesson plans—retailing for $33.99. Bigger, better toy trucks may be out there, but a half-century of tradition is hard to replicate.

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