Sunday, 27 June 2010

Ferdinand Waldo Demara

Ferdinand Waldo Demara was born in Lawrence, Massachusets in 1921 and from a young age was determined to dedicate his life to the Catholic Church.
He joined a Trappist monastery at the age of 14 having impressed the monks with his determination to adopt their way of life despite the demands that would be placed upon him.
His parents believed that the rigorous burden of this lifestyle, with a spartan diet and a vow of silence, would drive him back home in no time but Demara managed to stay for two years and actually earned a place at the monastery as Frater Mary Jerome.
However, shortly after this Demara was asked to leave the order. His failure to be able to adhere completely to the vow of silence had made his continued stay at the monastery impossible.
Demara was devastated and determined to prove the monks wrong.
He took jobs within various Catholic organisations but each time found himself falling out with the people in charge and moving on. Demara also developed a habit for petty theft and stealing cars that lead to various issues with the Police.
Looking for the certainty and discipline that the Church offered elsewhere Demara volunteered for the U.S. Army. This proved as ill-suited as the church with the opportunity to come into conflict with authority never far away. However this time in the Army led to a meeting and incident that would shape the rest of Demara’s life.
His bunkmate at Keesler Field Air Force Base was Anthony Ingolia, an unassuming young man whose family lived in a town nearby. Invited over to the family home one weekend Demara was fascinated by the mass of photographs and certificates that Ingolia’s mother had on display about her son. He listened eagerly as she talked him through the archive much to Ingolia’s embarrasment.
‘What do you see in those things?’ Ingolia asked him.
‘Life’ replied Demara ‘I see a whole life ahead of me.’
A couple of weeks later Demara made an excuse to return to the Ingolia family home and stole all the documents relating to his friend’s life that he could find.
After posing as Ignolia for a while Demara was found out and faced ruin.
His clothes were found by a quayside with a note.
‘I have made a fool of myself. This is the only way out. Forgive me. F.W. Demara.’
However, the note was just another in a growing stack of fake documents that Demara was creating and accumulating...
He emerged next as Dr. Robert Linton French, a psychologist, and over the course of his life Demara would pose as a Civil Engineer, a Sheriff’s Deputy, a Teacher, a Lawyer, a Zoologist and a Prison Warden using aliases such as Jefferson Baird Thorne, Martin Godgart, Dr. Cecil Boyce Hamann and Ben W. Jones.
Demara’s most notorious imposture was as Dr. Joseph Cyr, Naval Surgeon.
Using this persona Demara managed to volunteer for the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and be assigned as Ship’s Surgeon to the HMC Cayuga.
Initially he saw little action and managed to pass quite convincingly without raising any suspicion.
Eventually, the inevitable occurred and a boatload of wounded soldiers pulled alongside the ship.
Three of the men were seriously wounded and would require surgery.
Demara watched as the men were sent through to be prepared for the operations he would have to perform. He went to his cabin and read up on each of the procedures the men would require.
With a combination of speed-reading and the gift of a photographic memory Demara managed to glean enough information for him to feel confident enough to attempt the surgery.
A storm had started to blow as Demara began and the ship rocked as he started to work.
Demara worked through the night, removing a bullet from one man’s chest, tidying up a groin wound and treating a collapsed lung in the final patient.
All of the men recovered from their wounds.
A constant theme in Demara’s pretences was how competent he proved in the fields he entered without any training or qualifications.
Many of the organisations that he ended up working for were more upset at losing a key member of their team than the deception that Demara had involved them in.
The Governor of the prison he worked in as a Warden credited him with single-handedly preventing a prison riot on one occasion and one school that Demara taught at insisted on paying his wages, including back pay, when he was unmasked and received a petition from parents insisting that he be reinstated.
Despite his success on the HMC Cayuga Demara was found out when the real Dr. Joseph Cyr received grateful messages from the families of the survivors and he contacted the Navy to find out who was on that ship.
One byproduct of this discovery was a growing notoriety and a little fame.
Life Magazine paid Demara $2,500 for his story and a book called The Great Imposter’, which was also made into a film starring Tony Curtis as Demara, soon followed.
The natural consequence of this exposure was the pressure it put on Demara’s later poses.
His work as a prison warden ended when a prisoner found a copy of the Life magazine containing his story.
Demara attempted to find work as an actor but, in an ironic twist, the man who had spent the majority of his life pretending to be other people turned out to be a functional performer at best...