Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues
Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues

Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues

D.G. Hewitt - July 14, 2018

Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues
Mary Baynton claimed she was the daughter of Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII. Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Baynton

Royal families have long been obsessed with keeping illegitimate children secret. Inevitably, however, many supposed children of kings and queens have come forward over the centuries, many claiming to be the ‘long-lost children’ of monarchs and, as such, the rightful heirs to power, wealth and even whole kingdoms. One of the most fascinating cases from English royal history is that of Mary Baynton, a seemingly ordinary woman who, in 1533, announced that she was in fact Princess Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII.

Despite the fact much research has been done into this curious affair, relatively little is known about Mary Baynton. What is known is that she was the daughter of Thomas Baynton, a relatively wealthy and well-connected man based in the town of Bridlington, Yorkshire. And it’s also known that, at the age of just 18, Mary turned up in the town of Boston, Lincolnshire, and loudly proclaimed herself to be Princess Mary, the only child of Henry VIII’s and his first wife Katherine of Aragon. What motivated her, nobody can say for sure. However, this was a turbulent time in England and, given all the chaos and uncertainly, it seems that at least a few people were taken in by the young lady’s claims.

Mary made her claims to be Princess Mary in September of 1533, almost around the same time that the real Princess Mary was declared illegitimate and thus removed from the line of succession. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, had given birth to a new baby, Princess Elizabeth, and so Mary was out in the cold. Indeed, the real Mary was living in relative exile, a long way from Boston, Lincolnshire. It was this political turbulence that allowed Mary’s claims to be believed, albeit for only a short while. She bemoaned the way her father, Henry, had left her destitute and, according to some accounts, some people gave her money and some even pledged to support her in her fight to be recognized as a legitimate heir to the throne. In fact, there’s even evidence to suggest some of her most loyal (or gullible) supporters offered to pay for her to sail to Spain to win the support of the Spanish king.

Unsurprisingly, Mary’s claims got the attention of the authorities. The records show she was cross-examined by three officials (Nicholas Robson, Thomas Brown and Robert Pulvertoft) but, in the end, she was dismissed as a ‘self-deluded lunatic.’ Since Boston was a long way from the seat of power, Mary’s claims were regarded as being of no real threat to Henry and it seems she was left alone. Indeed, since the historical records show no evidence of Mary being persecuted, historians largely agree that she was left in peace and probably grew tired of her pretense and settled down to a quiet, non-eventful life in a dull corner of Tudor England.

Nevertheless, the case of Mary Baynton is widely held up as a prime example of the chaotic nature of royal succession and the question of legitimacy and illegitimacy in Tudor times. What’s more, some historians believe that, far from believing Mary’s outlandish claims, some nobles saw her as an impostor but nevertheless supported her in order to destabilize King Henry or at least show their opposition to his policy of divorcing wives. Of course, Henry survived this, and many other threats to his power, and would go on to take four more wives.

Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues
After a life of fraud and posing as other people, Victor Lustig ended up on Alcatraz. Smithsonian Magazine.

‘Count’ Victor Lustig

America in the 1920s was a paradise for confidence tricksters and other impostors. The post-war boom years were a wild time, with fortunes being made and lost, and countless individuals blowing huge amounts of cash on outlandish schemes they hoped could pay off big time. But nobody took advantage of this heady atmosphere quite like Victor Lustig, arguably the greatest conman in American history. After all, this is the man who posed as a European aristocrat and sold the Eiffel Tower not once, but twice.

Born in a small town in Austria-Hungary in 1890, Lustig was soon making a living from crime. Despite his intellect, he struggled in formal education and, by 19, had moved to Paris and was a heavy gambler. Obviously, he didn’t like those odds, so he decided to use his intelligence and natural charms to scam people out of money. In particular, he targeted wealthy travelers aboard trans-Atlantic cruise ships, for instance by posing as a Broadway producer needing funding for a forthcoming show. It was here, while criss-crossing the Atlantic, that the persona of ‘Count Victor Lustig’ was born. With a regal title to go with the sharp intellect, cunning and gentlemanly charms, he would make a killing.

Most famous of all, Count Victor Lustig arrived in Paris in 1925 and soon hatched a plan to ‘sell’ the Eiffel Tower. With the help of forged paperwork , he posed as a government official informed some of France’s richest metal merchants that the landmark was due to be taken down and sold for scrap. After identifying a particularly gullible ‘mark’, he hinted that a sizable bribe would help win the lucrative contract. Of course, when this was paid, Count Victor promptly fled the country, confident that the duped man would be too embarrassed to call the police. The first time he tried this, he was right. The second time, however, the conned man did indeed call the police. Count Lustig was rumbled and was forced to flee to the United States.

Even his close call in Paris wasn’t enough to convince Lustig to stop the impersonations and scams and go straight. In America, he ran an infamous money counterfeiting scam, convincing greedy victims that his ‘Rumanian Box’ could fake any currency bill. He managed to get away with this, and other cons for years, and was only undone when he was betrayed by a scorned mistress. In 1935, Lustig was arrested in New York and eventually sentenced to 20 years on Alcatraz. He died 12 years into his sentence, leaving dozens, if not hundreds of false identities and many more victims behind him. And for anyone who is inspired rather than appalled by Lustig’s lies and cons? Well, his ‘Ten Commandments of the Con’ are still widely published today and are even seen as the ultimate guide to carrying out the perfect swindle.


Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues
Frederick Emerson Peters even had the audacity to pose as a President’s son. Wikipedia.

Frederick Emerson Peters

Famously, when Frederick Emerson Peters was found lying dead in a New Haven hotel room, his shirt pocket contained five checks. All of them had different names on them. This was a man who spent decades posing as other people. Not only would he pretend to be ordinary Americans, he even had the audacity to pose as some of America’s most famous individuals and, for the most part, he got away with it. His was a story that combined unique skill with unparalleled gumption and even today, he is regarded as one of America’s most infamous impostors.

Relatively little is known about F.E. Peters’ early years. He was born in West Salem, Ohio, in 1885 and, clearly a honest life was not his thing because, by his teens, he was already an accomplished conman. Highlighting just how brazen he was, by 1902, at the age of just 17, Peters was passing himself off as Theodore Roosevelt II, the son of the President. What’s more, it was working. He would make countless purchases in shops and restaurants using bad checks and would always be gone by the time the victims knew they had been conned.

Even when he was arrested and imprisoned in 1915, Peters refused to go on and straight and narrow. During his decade behind bars, he used his time to study and plan future cons in the prison library, identifying the trade in rare books and museum pieces as the perfect opportunity for his unique skill set. Upon his release, then, he returned to his old ways, adopting dozens of difference aliases. He even posed as Franklin D. Roosevelt. So audacious were his efforts to pass bad checks that many victims just kept them as souvenirs.

By the 1950s, Peters had made it onto the FBI’s most wanted list, an impostor among murderers and gangsters. In 1959, he was found in a non-descript hotel room, dead from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 73. The forged checks filling his pockets were evidence that even old age couldn’t tame this compulsive liar and persistent impostor.

Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues
Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt went from petty criminal to national folk hero after he posed as an army officer. Wikipedia.

Freidrich Wilhelm Voigt

The curious case of Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt is proof that it’s not just Americans who love a good conman story. The German impostor, who came to prominence at the start of the 20th century, is still seen as something of a folk hero in his native country. Indeed, the impostor’s most audacious act inspired a famous play and the popular support he enjoyed meant that, despite his crimes, he was ultimately granted a royal pardon. So, who was ‘The Captain of Kopenick’?

Voigt was born in a small town in Prussia (now located in modern-day Russia) in 1863. He showed a complete disregard for authority from an early age and, by the age of 14, he had not only been expelled from school, he had been imprisoned for 14 days for theft. Despite his father’s best efforts to help train young Friedrich as a shoemaker, the life of crime was just too tempting. The problem was, he wasn’t that good at getting away with it. Indeed, between 1864 and 1891, Voigt spent a total of 25 years behind bars. While much of this was for theft, he was also convicted of forgery.

Aged 57 and freshly free from a 15-year spell in prison, Voigt moved to the port city of Hamburg. However, he had family connections in Berlin and saw the city as the perfect location for his ultimate scam. He collected individual pieces of a Prussian officer’s uniform and took a train to the city. Here, in full uniform, he headed to an army barracks and ordered 20 men to follow him. This being Prussia, the men were conditioned to always obey authority, and so they followed Voigt’s instructions to the letter. Voigt marched his small army to the town of Kopernich, just 20 miles outside of Berlin. Here, they took over the town hall and Voigt stated that he had been ordered to inspect the cash reserves. He pocketed a significant sum of money and then simply disappeared.

It took a few hours for the soldiers and the town officials to realize they had been duped. By then, Voight was many miles away. A man hunt was conducted. The Prussian Army was livid, though the public and even Kaiser William II were both amused rather than angered by the tale. When Voigt was apprehended in Berlin a few days later, he was tried in a military court. Thanks in no small part to the Kaiser’s interference, he was sentenced to just four years behind bars and ended up serving even less than this. Upon his release, he embraced life as a celebrity for a few months before moving to Luxembourg. He died in 1922, financially destitute but still a German folk hero.

Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues
False Margaret was executed for posing as the deceased Maid of Norway. The National.

False Margaret

One of the most infamous impostors in Scandinavian history was the so-called False Margaret. Over the years, her real name and any other information about her has been lost to history. Now, all that’s really remembered is that, in the year 1300, a woman landed in the port city of Bergen claiming to be Margaret, Maid of Norway. Far from having a happy ending, the episode soon became a morality tale, serving as a warning of what happens when you lie – especially about something so politically sensitive as being the heir to the Norwegian throne.

It was in 1290 that Margaret, Maid of Norway, was lost at sea. After the death of her grandfather, King Alexander III in 1286, she had been named as Queen of the Scots. She was also, as the daughter of King Eric II, a princess of Norway. This dual role meant that she was required to cross the North Sea, and it was on such a crossing to Orkney that she died. Her body was recovered and King Erik formally identified it as being that of his daughter. The king then died in 1299, leaving his brother, Haakon V, to take over the throne.

Just one year later, however, a ship arrived from Germany. A lady stepped onto Norwegian soil and declared that she was Margaret. Far from drowning, she claimed she had been exiled to Germany. Here, she took a husband and now, with him at her side, she had returned to claim her rightful inheritance. Understandably, the people of Bergen were skeptical. Not only did they remember King Erik confirming his daughter’s tragic demise but, according to the records, this pretender looked to be a woman of 40 when the real Margaret would have still been a teen.

While a few people did believe her claims, King Haakon V would hear none of it. In 1301, both False Margaret and her husband were burned at the stake. However, to some of her supporters, this only served as evidence to back up her claims. Even today, some claim that she may well have been the real Margaret – after all, since she was a female, she would never have inherited her father’s throne anyway. In the years following her execution, a small cult grew up around the royal pretender and a church was even built in her honor. Today, all that remains is a fascinating story and a lingering doubt as to whether an impostor really was burned at the stake, or if a real princess suffered a grave injustice.

Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues
Even today, some people believe Anna Anderson really was Russian royalty. Siberian Times.

Anna Anderson

In the summer of 1918, a Bolshevik firing squad executed the deposed Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, along with his family and a handful of close servants. The bodies were then buried in an unmarked grave. Before long, however, rumors started circulating: could it be that one or more of the former ruler’s five children had escaped with their lives? Above all, it was alleged that the imperial family’s youngest member, the Grand Duchess Anastasia, had somehow been smuggled out. For decades, girls, and then grown women, came forward claiming to be Anastasia. But none were so adamant in their claims than Anna Anderson.

The story began in Berlin in 1920. A young woman was taken into hospital following a failed suicide attempt. She carried no ID and refused to speak to confirm her name. The nurses had no choice but to keep her locked up. After a few years, however, she started to talk. And she revealed that she was actually none other than the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Her story was fantastic, and captivated the public in Berlin and then around the world. The pretender claimed that jewels she had sewn into her corset managed to stop her would-be assassins’ bullets. She then managed to flee Russia and head to Germany in the hope of finding sympathetic relatives. Soon, however, she realized the futility of her plan and decided to try and end her own life, eventually ending up in the mental hospital.

Soon, prominent individuals were expressing their belief in Anderson’s claims. The son of the Romanov family doctor and even a cousin who played with Anastasia as a child argued that the mysterious woman knew things only the Grand Duchess herself would know. But others weren’t so sure. Tsar Nicholas II’s sister, who survived the revolution, dismissed the tale as nonsense, for example. Nevertheless, despite all the skepticism, the royal pretender’s supporters helped her build a life outside of the mental hospital, and even helped her travel to the United States where, in 1968, she married a professor. The couple settled down in Virginia, though Anderson continued to maintain she was born into Russian royalty.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the bodies of most of the Romanov family were located and exhumed from the mass grave the Bolsheviks had buried them in. Some 16 years later, the remains of the final royal victims were found. DNA tests were carried out and it was confirmed that Anderson was not Anastasia. Even this wasn’t enough for her most ardent supporters – indeed, even to this day, there are some who claim she really was the Grand Duchess. However, Anderson – or the mentally ill Polish factory worker Franziska Schanzkowska as she was identified as way back in 1927 – will forever be remembered as one of the greatest impostors of the 20th century

 

Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues
Claude des Armoises was by no means the only woman who pretended to be Joan of Arc. Pinterest.

Claude des Armoises

In 15th century France, the name ‘Joan of Arc’ was widely known, even among illiterate peasants living far from the main cities. However, few people actually knew what the legendary “Maid of Orleans” looked like. It’s no surprise, then, that several women came forward claiming to be Joan. Even the real Joan of Arc’s death in Nay 1431 didn’t stop such women coming forward. Indeed, the most famous example of someone presenting themselves as Joan of Arc came several months after the legendary warrior-saint was burned at the stake. Remarkably, the claimant was not only believed by illiterate peasants but by several people who actually knew the real Joan.

Claude des Armoises – who also went by the name Jeanne la Pucelle – first appeared close to the city of Metz, in May 1436, around five years after Joan of Arc’s grisly end. She claimed that she was Joan of Arc and, while she acknowledged that she had been burned at the stake, she went so far as to claim that divine intervention meant that she had miraculously survived. Many people living in Metz did indeed agree: this was Joan. What’s more, Joan’s own brothers, Jean and Pierre, confirmed she was the real deal, as did the aristocrat Nicole Louve. The rich Louve gave her some money and a horse and the three siblings headed to Orleans and then to other towns and cities across France.

This ‘resurrection’ tour carried on for an incredible six years. Everywhere Claude des Armoises went she divided opinion. Some, including nobles who had fought at the side of Joan of Arc, believed her claims, while others dismissed her as a fraud. However, Claude too the deception too far. Around the year 1400 or 1401, she managed to gain an audience with King Charles VI. The French monarch had met with the real Joan of Arc and she had revealed to him a secret which, in his eyes, proved she had been sent by God to help him defeat the English. Could she repeat this secret to him? She could not. According to some records, it was at this point that Claude confessed to being an imposter and begged his forgiveness.

Little is known of the later years of her life. It’s known that she married the knight Robert des Armoises and started a family with him. However, after she gave up pretending to be Joan of Arc, she largely vanished from history. She left behind a mysterious legacy. Even today, the debate over why so many people believed that Joan of Arc had survived her execution and come back to them continues to occupy scholars of the period. Similarly, the motivations of Claude and other women who pretended to be Joan remains a mystery.

Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues
False Dmitry I jumped out of a Kremlin window when he knew his time was up. Wikipedia.

Grigory Otrepyev

Tsar Ivan IV of Russia – more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible – ruled over Russia from 1533 to 1584. When he died, the throne was passed onto Fyodor I. He should have just held it until Ivan’s son, Dmitry, was old enough to take power. However, in 1591, Dmitry died in mysterious circumstances. So, when Fyodor’s brother-in-law, Boris Gudunov, came to power in 1594, a number of men came forward claiming to be Dmitry, the rightful heir to the throne. All of them tapped into the common belief that Ivan’s son didn’t actually died. And none was more successful than Grigory Otrepyev. Indeed, he was so successful that he did in fact claim the throne and rule Russia for almost a year.

The lack of a clear successor to Ivan the Terrible ushered in what historians of Russia call the ‘Time of Troubles.’ It was into such an atmosphere of political intrigue and uncertainty that the story of ‘the ‘False Dmitry’ began. Otrepyev was born in Russia but was forced to move to Poland as a young boy after the Patriarch of Moscow grew suspicious – and jealous – of his intelligence and obvious charisma. In Poland, he first worked as a teacher and then was employed by the rich Wisniowieckis family. It was here where he started to put forward his story: The Polish aristocrats learned that the man living with them was in fact Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s son, who had been smuggled out of Russia by his mother in order to save his life.

Before long, the tall tale was being believed by many. Some Polish nobles who had known Ivan the Terrible confirmed that the young man did indeed look like the great Tsar. What’s more, his regal demeanor and obvious intelligence and fine education added weight to the claims. Even if the young man claiming to be Dmitry was seen as a fraud, several powerful Poles moved to back him anyway. More specifically, they agreed to support his claim to the Russian throne in return for political favors further down the line. Within a few months, the pretender had a force of some 3,500 men under his command and, in the spring of 1605, he was ready to begin his march on Moscow.

Luckily for Otrepyev, the man sitting on the throne, Boris Gudunov, was far from popular. His many enemies joined the prospective usurper’s men as they marched towards Moscow. After two bloody battles, Gudonov ended up dying of natural causes. Dmitry was crowned Tsar of Russia in June of 1605. He immediately got to work trying to reform Russia. However, his close ties with Poland – he had his debts to repay, remember – soon led to rumors that the new Tsar wanted to impose Roman Catholicism onto Russia. His enemies used this against him and, in May 1606, they stormed the Kremlin. Tsar Dmitry was killed and his supporters massacred.

Interestingly, that was not the end of the ‘False Dmitry’ story. Soon afterwards, two more claimants came forward. They are known to historians as, quite simply, False Dmitry II and False Dmitry III. Only the passing of time made it impossible for men to claim that they were the long lost son of Ivan the Terrible.

Reading About these 10 Most Audacious Imposters from History Will Give You Trust Issues
The story of Martin Guerre – and the man who pretended to be him – inspired films and plays. The Daily Telegraph.

Martin Guerre

Not all impostors pretend they are kings or queens. Nor do they always lie and cheat in order to win fame or riches, as the intriguing tale of Martin Guerre shows. Though it happened more than 500 years ago, this case continues to fascinate historians, writers and playwrights. Moreover, it continues to vex philosophers and moralists. After all, it’s clear that the impostor in the story was not really the bad guy – indeed, would his ‘victims’ have been better off living a lie?

It was in 1548 that the 24-year-old Martin Guerre left his home in Hendaye, south-west France. He had been caught stealing corn and ran away out of shame, leaving his wife and son behind. Then, suddenly, in the summer of 1548, a bearded man claiming to be Martin walked back into their lives. Not only did he look kind of similar to Martin, but he also knew everything there was to know about his life. Most of the town people were convinced. More importantly, his wife saw and heard enough to convince her that her love had returned. They were reunited and, by all accounts, were very happy together and they even had two more children.

Shortly after Martin left town, his own father had died. However, his father’s brother, Martin’s uncle, was still alive. And he was very skeptical indeed. He became even more suspicious when a soldier passing through the town informed him that he had fought along Martin in Spain and that Martin had lost a leg after being hit by a cannon. The uncle persuaded Martin’s wife to support the accusations he brought against him. Three years after arriving into the town, the man claiming to be Martin was put on trial, accused of being an impostor.

The trial was sensational. Dozens of witnesses came forward. Some, including Martin’s four sisters, testified that the man was who he claimed to be. Others, however, disagreed. They claimed he was actually Arnaud du Tilh, a known deviant from a nearby village. Eventually, he was found guilty and sentenced to death for the crime of ‘stealing a heritage’. When it looked like he might be saved after winning the right to a retrial in the nearby city of Toulouse, the real Martin suddenly returned, complete with a wooden leg. It emerged that he and Arnaud du Tilh had served in the same regiment in the wars in Spain. Obviously, Arnaud du Tilh had learned of the wife, child and happy life his comrade and left behind and wanted it for himself.

Four days after the real Martin reappeared, the imposter was hanged from a tree outside the Guerre family home. Since then, the story has inspired numerous plays, books and even musicals, with a number of theories put forward over the years. Some claim that, far from being duped, Martin’s wife knew the man who came to her in the summer of 1548 was not the man she married, but she needed a husband and, moreover, he treated her far better than Martin ever did.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Sneaky Pete and Martin Guerre, Two Men Who Explain Our Attraction to Impostors.” Lorraine Berry, Paste Magazine, January 2017.

“False Dmitry: Russian Pretenders.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“The curious story of ‘Princess Caraboo,’ who came to Bristol in 1817 saying she was royalty from an island in the Indian Ocean.” Stefan Andrews, The Vintage News, December 2017.

“The strange case of Mary Baynton.” Mary Tudor: Renaissance Queen, February 2010.

“The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower. Twice.” Jeff Maysh, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2016.

“Frederick Emerson Peters: Former Ten Most Wanted Fugitive #22.” FBI.

“Queen Margaret, Maid of Norway.” Undiscovered Scotland.

“Anastasia: The mystery resolved.” The Washington Post, October 1994.

Advertisement
Advertisement