They Were Who They Weren’t: 6 Audacious Impostors

Throughout history, people have changed their identities and become someone completely different. Sometimes it was to avoid consequences in their previous lives, and sometimes it was to be something grander than they were. I wrote about the most famous impostors several years ago in the post We Love Who They Aren't: 7 Famous Impostors. Here are a few more stories of fake identities I’ve come across since then.

1. Esther Reed

In 1999, a 20-year-old woman named Brooke Henson disappeared from her family home in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, and was never seen again. In the same year, 22-year-old Esther Reed left her home in Washington state and never wanted to be seen again. She fled after pleading guilty to stealing her sister’s checkbook. Reed took the name of Natalie Fisher, got her GED, and took classes at Cal State. She later became Natalie Bowman and enrolled in Harvard Extension School, where she joined the debate team. At some point after leaving Harvard, she was investigated by the US military when she tried to get a certificate from the Army's Assault School. That was the last of Natalie Bowman. Reed then took on the identity of Brooke Henson, whose case was still open as a missing person. Reed enrolled at Columbia University as Brooke Henson in 2004. An employment background check in 2006 led to the missing person case from Travelers Rest. Ordered to take a DNA test, Reed flew the coop once again. She went to Chicago and took the name Jennifer Myers.

Jon Campbell, the detective in charge of Henson’s case, suspected she had been murdered, but no body was ever found. So he began to pursue the fake Brooke Henson. Through talking to everyone who knew Bowman/Henson, Campbell discovered that she may have been Esther Reed from Seattle. Reed’s family was astonished to hear from the detective; they thought Esther had been murdered by the Green River Killer soon after she disappeared. Reed was put on the Secret Service’s Most Wanted List for identity theft and receiving nearly $100,000 in fraudulent student loans. Reed was finally found in Chicago in 2008, during a police sweep in an unrelated murder case. When police asked for identification, she presented a phony license, but then broke down and admitted she was Esther Reed. Reed pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in federal prison. 

2. George Psalmanazar

We don’t know much about the real George Psalmanazar, but he was believed to have been born in France between 1679 and 1684 under some now-lost name. In order to travel to Rome on the cheap, he decided to take on the identity of an Irish pilgrim. That didn’t work, because people in Europe knew about Ireland and saw through his tales. So he came up with something much more exotic: He became a native of Japan, complete with odd customs that he’d read about, but had little basis in reality, like sleeping in a chair and eating raw meat. As he traveled Europe over the course of several years, he eventually switched to being a native of Formosa (now Taiwan). He made up a language that no one knew, which fooled most everyone he met. A Scottish priest converted the heathen from Formosa and took the newly-named George Psalmanazar to London, where he became quite famous.

In 1704 he published a book on Formosa, its history, language, and customs, which were made up by Psalmanazar. An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa tells of a land where people eat mainly snakes and young boys are sacrificed, and the upper classes lived underground -which explained Psalmanazar’s pale skin. There were always some who questioned his story, and Psalmanazar admitted the hoax in 1706. He paid no real consequences for the fabrications. 

3. Prince Mike Romanoff

Herschel Geguzin was born in Lithuania, but he eventually became Prince Michael Alexandrovitch Dmitry Obolensky Romanoff, the toast of Hollywood. His extensive travels, friendships, and brushes with the law left him with enough experiences to pull the wool over the eyes of many wealthy Americans. However, many saw through him or found out about his masquerade, and didn't mind because he was so entertaining! Eventually Romanov went legit and opened a restaurant in Beverly Hills that catered to his famous friends, many of whom invested in the business. How Romanoff achieved such acclaim is a fascinating story. The short version is that everyone loved to be the friend of a prince.

4. Šćepan Mali

In 1767, a Balkan farmer managed to convinced the authorities in Montenegro and in other countries of Europe that he was Tsar Peter III of Russia, who had been murdered in 1762. Šćepan Mali took advantage of rumors that the Tsar had fled Russia incognito and traveled to Montenegro. Šćepan Mali (Stephen the Small) was also new in town, so why not? He became the leader of Montenegro in 1768, and ruled with an iron hand. Montenegro under Šćepan managed to ward off the Ottoman army, which cemented the leader’s reputation.

Russian diplomat Prince Geogriy Dolgorukov, who knew the man was an impostor, went to Montenegro to discredit him, by force if necessary. But when it became evident that Šćepan had managed to unite the various tribes of Montenegro under his leadership, Dolgorukov dropped his campaign. Šćepan then himself admitted that he was indeed not the late Tsar, but by then he was so respected that the people of Montenegro proclaimed him Tsar Šćepan I. The Tsar was murdered in 1773 on the orders of the Turkish pasha. After Stephen the Small was gone, the tribes of Montenegro began fighting amongst themselves again.

5. Lori Kennedy Ruff

When Lori Ruff died in 2010, her husband Blake opened a strongbox she kept and was astonished to find evidence inside that his wife of seven years was not who he thought she was. She had told him her parents were dead, and that her childhood photos had been destroyed. Blake Ruff and Lori Kennedy married in 2003 and had a daughter in 2008. Lori never wanted to be close to Blake’s family, and tensions between the two led to a split in 2010. Lori became unglued, and stalked her husband at his parents’ home. On Christmas Eve, she shot herself in her car, parked outside the elder Ruffs' home.

The strongbox held a document that said Lori had changed her name from Becky Sue Turner in 1988. However, an investigation found that the real Becky Sue Turner had died at the age of two. Her identity had been stolen in Idaho. The Blake family wanted to know more, for the sake of Blake’s daughter, but ran into dead ends everywhere they looked. There are no fingerprints, no genetic matches, and no information on the woman who became Becky Sue Turner in 1988.

6. Lennay Kekua

Lennay Kekua was a student at Stanford University when she met Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o sometime in 2009. The story Te’o told the press was that they met after Notre Dame played Stanford, but later admitted that he had met Kekua on Twitter in 2010. He had made up a story about meeting her in person because his family would be suspicious of an online-only relationship. The two fell in love, and corresponded by email, social networking, and by phone while Te’o became a star at Notre Dame. The press ate up the story, especially when Kekua was hospitalized after a traffic accident in 2012. While she was in the hospital, she was diagnosed with leukemia. In September of 2012, both Kekua and Te’o’s grandmother died, either on the same day or within 48 hours of each other. Te’o did not go to Kekua’s funeral ten days later because she did not want him to miss any football games. As one of the finalists for the Heisman Trophy, Te’o’s story of heartbreak amid his sports triumphs was covered diligently in the press. But in January of 2013, it all fell apart.

Photograph from Bandido.

Deadspin, acting on a tip, began to look into Lennay Kekua’s life and death, and found nothing. There was no official record of her as a Stanford student, as an accident victim, as a cancer patient, or even her death. The pictures of Kekua from her Twitter account were traced to another woman, Diane O'Meara, who had no idea they were being used for another online account. However, she pointed Deadspin toward an acquaintance who requested a picture of her holding a handmade sign -his name was Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Tuiasosopo was also an acquaintance of Te’o. As the evidence mounted, it became clear that Tuiasosopo was the man behind the Lennay Kekua Twitter account.

Getty Images

After Deadspin went public with their findings on January 16, 2013, Notre Dame and the rest of the world wondered if Te’o had engineered the deception. Te’o declared that he had been the victim of the hoax. He said Tuiasosopo, who he only knew as Kekua’s cousin, had admitted he was behind the hoax.

Many wondered how someone could be duped so thoroughly. Manti Te’o was a young man, away from home and family for the first time. He is not the only person to fall for someone on the internet who was not who they say they are -but as a star football player, his ordeal was publicized more than most. Te’o has since gone on to play with the San Diego Chargers. And another generation of young people are leaving home and family and meeting people on the internet.

See also: We Love Who They Aren't: 7 Famous Impostors.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.


As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.


Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.


A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.


Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.


The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.


The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 


All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters


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