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Putting the 'con' in 'con artist'

By Simon Caterson - posted Thursday, 10 June 2010

Imposters are people just like you and me, only more so. Their often outrageous impersonations can be both stranger than fiction and a normal part of daily life.

In addition to its status as a hoaxing superpower, Australia has produced many world-class imposters, from the Tichborne claimant, a butcher from Wagga who gained immense fame in the 1860s by claiming to be the missing heir to an ancient English aristocratic title, through to Helen Demidenko, the multi award winning Australian novelist of Ukrainian descent who turned out to be the rather less exotic Helen Darville, daughter of English immigrants.

Though characters such as these may seem unlikely to us now, each appeared genuine to many people prior to their unmasking. The Tichborne claimant managed to convince the mother of the real Roger Tichborne that he was her long lost son despite the absence of any physical resemblance, shared social background, or indeed any effective memory of “his” former life.


Not every imposter is a brazen fantasist and indeed there are many less flamboyant, and in their way more frightening, con artists living among us right now. These everyday imposters can be all the more effective in deceiving us because they appear to be just like everyone else.

There have been cases in history of high born imposters “slumming it” to make an escape - we may think of the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie posing as a maid-servant in order to get back to France after the defeat of the Jacobite army at Culloden.

During a recent Australian tour of the play Waiting for Godot, British actor Sir Ian McKellen, best known for his role as the wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movies, reportedly sat on benches dressed in costume as a tramp and received gold-coin donations from passers-by. Apparently he didn’t make much money that way but no doubt gained valuable publicity for his play through the subsequent reporting of the stunt in the media.

Fake beggars notwithstanding, generally the impersonation that an ambitious imposter will choose is of someone possessing greater authority and prestige rather than less. There have been innumerable fake professionals - doctors, lawyers, spies, academics, even pilots. In his memoir Catch Me if You Can, American con man Frank Abagnale claimed to have been all set to co-pilot a jet airliner, and to have practised law, worked as a hospital administrator and taught sociology at university, all without any relevant qualifications.

One of modern history’s greatest imposters, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, actually performed major operations - apparently successfully - on patients while posing as a naval surgeon during the Korean War and at various times worked as a school teacher, assistant prison warden and for a while passed himself off as a Trappist monk. In order to enter a myriad of different occupations, Demara relied on little more than fake credentials, a photographic memory and a tendency to lose his temper should anyone have the temerity to query his qualifications.

The variety and ingenuity of Abagnale and Demara’s impostures may seem outlandish, but how do we really know that the professionals we deal are qualified to perform the service they provide? If, for instance, you or I were stopped in the street by a couple of serious types identifying themselves as plain-clothes police, would we think to question their veracity?


Just last week in an ordinary street in inner suburban Melbourne a man was reportedly robbed three times by two men who stopped him in Church Street, Richmond, searched his car twice and then went to his house. On each of these three occasions the fake police allegedly removed valuable property such as the victim’s passport, driver’s licence and a laptop.

It seems the victim only discovered he had been tricked when he went to the Richmond police station to enquire after his property and received a call from home informing him that his house had been raided. Until then, according to the real police, he had no reason to think he had been tricked. “[The victim] didn’t ask for ID at any stage because they seemed to know what they were doing,” Sergeant Nathan Kaeser told The Age.

At one time or another each of us has been deceived or felt betrayed by someone we thought we could trust. One person who actually knows just how easily the fake police scam can work from the viewpoint of the faker rather than the victim is entertainer and self-proclaimed “honest con-man” Nicholas J Johnson.

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About the Author

Simon Caterson is a freelance writer and the author of Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri (Arcade).

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Simon Caterson

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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