CLOSE
Original image

They Were Who They Weren’t: 6 Audacious Impostors

Original image

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.

Original image
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
Miss Cellania
10 Famous Birthdays in May
Original image
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some of our favorite historical figures were born in May. We couldn't possibly name them all, so here are just a few of the notable people we'll be celebrating.

1. SIGMUND FREUD: MAY 6, 1856

Getty Images
Getty Images

Sigmund Freud is known as the Father of Psychoanalysis. The Vienna psychiatrist developed a theory of the unconscious mind, where the id, ego, and superego struggle to balance each other out in the human psyche. Freud attributed his patients' neuroses to childhood trauma, often cloaked in a sexual conflict. His work was at first deemed perverted, but his ideas started to spread after a series of lectures in the U.S. in 1909. After Freud's death in 1939, Freudian theory was hailed as genius in mainstream culture. But beginning in the 1960s, Freud's theories started to fall out of favor in academia and are largely discredited today. However, his attempts to map the psyche gave us the language we still use to discuss personality and mental health.

2. FRED ASTAIRE: MAY 10, 1899

Getty Images
Getty Images

Fred Astaire began dancing when he was just four years old. Soon he and his sister Adele were in a performing arts school and started dancing professionally. First came vaudeville, then Broadway, and when Adele married, Fred headed to Hollywood. Producers were at first reluctant to cast Astaire as a leading man because of his looks, but his dancing soon won them over. Astaire appeared in dozens of films between 1933 and 1981, 10 of them with with dance partner Ginger Rogers. Although his later films did not revolve around dance numbers, Astaire was seen dancing in an episode of Battlestar Galactica as late as 1979, when he was 80 years old.

3. MARTHA GRAHAM: MAY 11, 1894

Getty Images
Getty Images

Martha Graham wanted to dance from an early age, but her parents disapproved, so she didn't study dance until college. Her wildly emotional dancing led her to performances in New York, and in 1926 she established the Martha Graham Dance Company. Through the company, Graham promoted modern dance as a spiritual and emotional outlet. Over time, she came to be seen as a genius of the genre. Graham danced until she was in her '70s, and continued to choreograph dances until her death at age 91.

4. KATHARINE HEPBURN: MAY 12, 1907

Getty Images
Getty Images

Katharine Hepburn caught the acting bug in college and headed to the stages of New York upon graduation. She was spotted in a Broadway production and was offered the lead in RKO's 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement. That kicked off a movie career of more than 60 years, in which she was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won four. Hepburn was a certified box office draw, but off screen she refused to behave like a Hollywood star. She spoke her mind, wore pants, and even appeared in public without makeup occasionally. Hepburn was also known for her devotion to the love of her life, actor Spencer Tracy, who was separated from his wife but refused to divorce her. The last of nine films they made together was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967, just before Tracy died. Hepburn continued making movies through 1994, when she was 87 years old.

5. PIERRE CURIE: MAY 15, 1859

Getty Images
Getty Images

French physicist Pierre Curie is often overlooked in favor of Marie Curie, his brilliant student and later wife. Together they discovered radium and polonium, and did extensive research into radioactivity. Pierre, Marie, and Henri Becquerel jointly won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for their research. Curie might have gone onto many further discoveries, but he was killed in 1906 when a horse-drawn cart ran over him in Paris. If he had lived longer, Curie might have also succumbed to illness caused by radiation, as did his wife, daughter, and son-in-law—all Nobel Prize winners.

6. MARY CASSATT: MAY 22, 1844

Mary Cassatt via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Renowned American painter Mary Cassatt wanted to become an artist, but her parents objected and her Philadelphia art school didn't take women students seriously. So she went to Paris and studied privately under teachers from Ecole des Beaux-Arts, as the school did not admit women. Gradually, Cassatt's works sold and her reputation grew. She drew the attention of Impressionist Edgar Degas, and worked with him for years. By 1886, she left the Impressionist movement behind, and afterward refused to be defined by any art genre. Cassatt's body of work often featured women and children in their everyday lives. Her most memorable painting, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, broke with tradition by portraying a child in a naturalistic, casual pose instead of a formal portrait.

7. SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: MAY 22, 1859

Getty Images
Getty Images

Arthur Conan Doyle is best remembered for his many short stories and novels featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes. But Conan Doyle worked full time as a medical doctor until an illness convinced him he had to choose between writing and medicine. Years later, Conan Doyle volunteered with the British army to fight in the Second Boer War, but because of his age (40), he was only allowed to serve as a medical doctor. Upon his return from South Africa, he entered politics in Scotland, but he lost his only race. In 1907, Conan Doyle became involved in a real criminal case in which he helped George Edalji, a solicitor of Indian heritage, beat an animal cruelty conviction by employing the observational technique that Sherlock Holmes used. The fallout from that case led to the establishment of the appeals system in Britain. Conan Doyle also wrote a science fiction novel The Lost World, published in 1912. It was so successful that he wrote four sequels.

8. MARGARET FULLER: MAY 23, 1810

Getty Images
Getty Images

Born in Massachusetts in 1810, Margaret Fuller was a precocious child who learned several languages but was not welcome at college because of her sex. She became friends with both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who admired her philosophical thinking. Fuller became a literary critic for the New-York Tribune and a well-known intellectual.

In 1845, Fuller made history with Woman in the Nineteenth Century, often considered the first major feminist work published in the United States. This groundbreaking book began as an essay in Emerson's transcendentalist journal The Dial called "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women," in which Fuller argued that men and women must see each other as equals before they can transcend to divine love. Fuller reasoned that ignoring our commonality was the base of much of America's sins, from the slaughter of Native Americans to the slavery of African Americans.

Fuller went on to become a foreign correspondent and the first American female war correspondent, covering the Italian revolution. She also fell in love with an Italian man and had a child with him. On their return trip to the U.S. in 1850 aboard a merchant ship, a hurricane struck the ship near Fire Island, killing all three. Only Fuller's 20-month-old son was found.

9. SALLY RIDE: MAY 26, 1951

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel into space, aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Ride was a nationally ranked tennis player when she was a teenager. Billie Jean King urged her to turn pro, but Ride went to Stanford University instead. She earned both a bachelor of arts in English and a bachelor of science in physics in 1973, and a PhD in physics in 1978. Ride then immediately applied for NASA's astronaut program. She flew two shuttle missions, in 1983 and '84, and was scheduled for a third, but that mission was canceled after the Challenger explosion in 1986. After leaving NASA in 1987, Ride devoted her life to encouraging students to study science—especially girls. She founded the organization Sally Ride Science for just that purpose, and wrote five children's books encouraging interest in science. Ride died of cancer at age 61 in 2012.

10. "WILD BILL" HICKOK: MAY 27, 1837

Getty Images
Getty Images

James Butler Hickok was a farmer, soldier, stagecoach driver, spy, lawman, scout, sharpshooter, gambler, and Wild West showman. Many of those occupations came after "Wild Bill" Hickok gained publicity for killing three men in an 1861 shootout. The newspapers followed his exploits from that time on, often embellishing the details until Hickok was more of a legend than the adventurer he was. His various occupations took him to different parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Hickok was playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota, when Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head and killed him in 1876. The hand Hickok was holding at the time—a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights—became known as the "dead man's hand."

Original image
Idaho Potato Museum via Facebook
arrow
Miss Cellania
9 Bizarre Food Museums
Original image
Idaho Potato Museum via Facebook

What’s your favorite food? Chances are, there’s a museum dedicated to it somewhere. You might want to include one or more of these museums in your next vacation road trip.  

1. JELL-O GALLERY // LEROY, NEW YORK

Pearle Wait of LeRoy, New York, invented a fruit-flavored gelatin dessert in 1897 that he wife named Jell-O. Appropriately, the town is home to the Jell-O Gallery, a museum dedicated to the gelatin that took America by storm. Visitors will learn the history of Jell-O, see memorabilia and advertising from Jell-O history, and learn about cooking in the past century. The museums operated by the non-profit LeRoy Historical Society, and is not supported by Kraft/General Foods, which owns Jell-O. The museum is open seven days a week through December, and weekdays January through March.    

2. THE SPAM MUSEUM // AUSTIN, MINNESOTA

The Hormel company has its headquarters in Austin, Minnesota, a few miles south of Minneapolis. That’s also the home of the Spam Museum. Hormel opened a small company museum in the local mall in 1991, but quickly found that all their visitors cared about was Spam, so now that classic canned meat has its own building downtown. Exhibits include the history of Spam, cooking demonstrations, Spam memorabilia, and a soundtrack from Monty Python.

3. INTERNATIONAL BANANA MUSEUM // NORTH SHORE, CALIFORNIA

In 2005, the International Banana Club Museum was named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most items devoted to any one fruit in the world.” The IBC Museum was established by Ken Bannister and the club in 1975, and amassed its collection of 17,000 banana items from club members who gained “banana merits.” The collection was sold in 2010 and is now the International Banana Museum. It is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.   

4. WYANDOT POPCORN MUSEUM // MARION, OHIO

Wyandot Popcorn Museum via Facebook

Marion, Ohio, is the self-proclaimed Popcorn Capital of the World, due to the existence of the Wyandot Popcorn Company, which was based in the area since the 1930s. The company now focuses on chips, but its legacy is enshrined in the Wyandot Popcorn Museum, which boasts an extensive collection of restored antique popcorn poppers. These commercial poppers range from movie theater models to snack wagons to factory poppers, some over 100 years old. The museum shares space with the Wyandot Historical Society in the town’s historic former post office building. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. through October, and weekends only the rest of the year.  

5. NATIONAL DAIRY SHRINE MUSEUM // FORT ATKINSON, WISCONSIN

The National Dairy Shrine is a professional group formed in 1949 promote the milk industry. The National Dairy Shrine Museum is a place to learn about all facets of the dairy industry, from the history of midwest dairy farmers to the production of butter, ice cream, cheese, and other products. The Shrine also has educational programs, a Hall of Fame honoring leaders in the industry, scholarships and internships, and more. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

6. NATIONAL MUSTARD MUSEUM // MIDDLETON, WISCONSIN

Barry Levenson was once Wisconsin’s Assistant Attorney General, but his real passion is mustard. He’s been collecting different mustards since 1986, and eventually left his law career completely to devote his time to the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum he founded in 1992. In 2000, the growing museum moved to its permanent location in Middleton and became the National Mustard Museum. There you can see 5,624 different mustards and a collection of mustard memorabilia. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Admission is free, as the museum is supported by donations and mustard sales.   

7. INTERNATIONAL VINEGAR MUSEUM // ROSLYN, SOUTH DAKOTA

International Vinegar Museum via Facebook

The world’s only vinegar museum was founded by Lawrence "Vinegarman" Diggs to showcase the many  varieties of vinegar and its many uses. The International Vinegar Museum has 350 different varieties of vinegar, a test kitchen, and vinegar tastings for visitors. The museum is open during the summer only. If you plan to visit Roslyn, the best time would be in June during the International Vinegar Festival.  

8. THE IDAHO POTATO MUSEUM // BLACKFOOT, IDAHO

Idaho Potato Museum via Facebook

Idaho produces more potatoes than any other state, so it only makes sense that they would have a museum dedicated to the state’s crop. The Idaho Potato Museum is housed in the historic Oregon Short Line Railroad Depot in Blackfoot. You’ll learn about potato history, growing potatoes, and the importance of potatoes to Idaho’s economy. The newest addition to the museum is the Potato Station Cafe, which specialized in French fries, of course. The Idaho Potato Museum is open six days a week from April through September, and weekdays from October through March.  

9. HARLAND SANDERS CAFÉ AND MUSEUM // CORBIN, KENTUCKY

Harland Sanders fed travelers at his gas station on Corbin, Kentucky, during the Great Depression, and then opened a restaurant, where he developed his method of pressure-frying chicken, which he breaded with 11 herbs and spices. Kentucky Fried Chicken grew out of that restaurant, which for a time had a motel attached. Sanders set up a sample hotel room inside the restaurant so that travelers could see what the rooms looked like before making the decision to stay. The motel is gone, but that restaurant was restored as the Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum, with many of the original artifacts, including the sample motel room. There is a modern KFC outlet attached. Some of the museum’s artifacts are displayed at the fast food unit, and you can sit down and eat your chicken in the museum.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios