The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.
- The Usual Suspects
How do you catch a man who is always one step ahead? One who exists but still doesn't? One who takes someone else's identity but follows his own ideals? Well, the answer is, you can't. There are very few people out there who can actually outdo what the 'devil' did. That one man was Ferdinand 'Fred' Waldo Demara, the greatest impostor in the history of mankind.
Right or wrong, good or bad, the man was a talented genius. And that is why his story deserves to be told. His life is like a movie. Because none of it seems true. However, all of it is.
In the 60 years that he was here on God's green earth, he became many other people but hardly ever lived as himself. His impersonations ranged from a sheriff's deputy to an assistant prison warden, a civil engineer to a cancer researcher, an orderly at a hospital to a doctor of applied psychology, a lawyer to a teacher, an editor to a child-care expert, a monk to a ship's doctor. Yup, a freaking surgeon!
Of course, we can't narrate all those incidents, but there was one particular feat that stands out. And it was the one that won him notoriety. It is important for an impostor to remain anonymous. Making new identities or taking someone else's. Impostors probably have a solemn silent oath - always stay under the radar.
However, Fred was different. He was the king of all impostors. Most people do it for money or Ponzi schemes. But he did it only to gain temporary respectability. He belonged to a well-to-do family which suddenly went bankrupt during the Great Depression. So Fred, as a teenager, ran away in search of a better life.
He even joined the US Military. That's where it all started. He borrowed the name of a fellow army mate and went away - Absent Without Leave (AWOL). In the first few months, he took up a few jobs in a monastery and even in the Navy. When he did not reach the ranks he wanted, he faked his own suicide and ran away.
But the FBI caught him and threw him in jail for 18 months. As soon as he was released, he took up another fake identity. Now even more careful to evade capture, the journey of the great impostor was set to begin.
The incredibly talented Demara was blessed with an amazing IQ and photographic memory. The biggest adventure in his journey, like I said before, was the one that gained him unwanted fame. He pretended to be Dr Joseph Cyr, a Canadian trauma surgeon, during the Korean War. Demara alias Cyr was on board a Canadian destroyer called HMCS Cayuga.
It was then that 16 wounded Korean soldiers came on board the Cayuga. Many of them were seriously injured and on the verge of dying, unless operated upon. So, everyone turned to the only "surgeon" on the ship. Fred asked the staff to take the injured men to the operating room and he disappeared.
No, he did not run away or jump off the ship, he disappeared to his room. Where he picked up a book on general surgery, did a quick glance through the chapters, let his photographic memory do its magic and was in the OT within minutes. He came out with 16 successful surgeries, including taking a bullet out, and zero casualties.
The miracle was reported in a Canadian newspaper. Unfortunately, the news reached the real Dr Cyr as well. When the captain of the ship learnt of this, he was in denial. Moreover, Demara convinced him that had he not been a real doctor, those surgeries would've been impossible. The Canadians did not press any charges and Fred returned to the US. He could've let the men die, but he did the right thing. Upon return, he sold his story to LIFE magazine.
In doing so, he killed his own career. In his last chameleon act, he decided to become a chaplain at a hospital in California. Though his true identity had been revealed, he had been real good with the patients there and shared a good rapport with the owner, so he was allowed to live out his days there. Soon, obesity and diabetes took over. His legs had to be amputated.
He never had much financial strength. His motivation for being an impostor, in his own words, was "rascality, pure rascality." Aged 60, in the same hospital, the glamorous Ferdinand Waldo Demara met a very sad end. He evaded the world but life caught up with him.
His life was more like a fairytale. But he did things for others too. Apart from those 16 men who forever remained grateful to him, he also opened a school for religious teachings (which is now known as Walsh University). He worked with many patients too and also opened a school in prison. Hard to call him a criminal, isn't it? But he was declared one.
He may not have been a righteous man, but he certainly had an intriguing story. The movie The Great Impostor is based on Fred's life.