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"The first attempt to chronicle picaresque manners and speech in England was due to the printer, Robert Copland. His "Hye Way to the Spyttel Hous" (pr. after 1535) described in more than a thousand lines of verse the vagrants and impostors whose manner of life leads them to St. Bartholomew's Hospital."--The Literature of Roguery (1907) by Frank Wadleigh Chandler

"Such was the last of these three impostors. Moses threw himself into an abyss by an excess of ambition to cause himself to be believed immortal. Jesus Christ was ignominiously hung up between two thieves, being covered with shame as a recompense for his imposture, and lastly, Mahomet died in reality in his own bed, and in the midst of grandeur, but with his bowels consumed by poison given him by a young Jewess, to determine if he really was a prophet."--Treatise of the Three Impostors (1719) by anonymous

"She remembered that on her husband’s left shoulder, almost on the neck, there used to be one of those small, almost imperceptible, but ineffaceable birthmarks. Martin wore his hair very long, it was difficult to see if the mark were there or not. One night, while he slept, Bertrande cut away a lock of hair from the place where this sign ought to be—it was not there!" --Martin Guerre, from Celebrated Crimes (1839-41) by Alexandre Dumas

"No matter whether you are a physician, a teacher, or a clergyman, if you can give increase of life to others and make them sensible of the fact, they will be attracted to you, and you will get rich."--The Science of Getting Rich (1910) by Wallace Wattles

"Two shrewd adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, decide that India isn't large enough for them, and aspire to become rulers of Kafiristan. Disguised as a mad priest, Dravot, taking Carnehan with him as a servant, makes his way safely to the prospective kingdom. Dravot gains unlimited power over the native tribes, who think him a god and give him a gold crown. Another is made for his companion, and they rule their new empire jointly. Finally Dravot blunders by demanding a wife. The wench allotted to him puts his godhood to test by biting him. On seeing his blood the people pronounce him an impostor, subject him to a cruel death and Carnehan to fearful tortures. The latter, wrecked in body and mind, lives to reach India, carrying the head of Dravot in a bag."--A Kipling Primer (1899) by Frederic L. Knowles

"Our goal is precisely to say that the king is naked (and the queen too). But let us be clear. We are not attacking philosophy, the humanities or the social sciences in general; on the contrary, we feel that these fields are of the utmost importance and we want to warn those who work in them (especially students) against some manifest cases of charlatanism. In particular, we want to ‘deconstruct’ the reputation that certain texts have of being difficult because the ideas in them are so profound. In many cases we shall demonstrate that if the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing." --Fashionable Nonsense (1997) by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont

This page Impostor is part of the fantasy series.Illustration: Screenshot from A Trip to the Moon (1902) Georges Méliès
This page Impostor is part of the fantasy series.
Illustration: Screenshot from A Trip to the Moon (1902) Georges Méliès
Henri Robin and a Specter (1863) by Eugène Thiébault
Henri Robin and a Specter (1863) by Eugène Thiébault

Related e



An impostor is a person who pretends to be somebody else, often to try to gain financial or social advantages through social engineering, but just as often for purposes of espionage or law enforcement.

Pretenders for various thrones used to be common. Numerous men claimed they were Dauphin, the heir to the French throne who disappeared during the French Revolution, and there were three false Dimitris who were serious pretenders for the throne of Russia.

Very daring impostors may pretend to be someone else who really exists, although fast news media has made this rather difficult. Usually they just misrepresent their financial status, educational status, social status, family background or in some cases, their gender. Impostors are usually aware of not being who they say they are, however there are borderline cases who may have ended up believing their own tall tales. People may make false claims about their past or background without being full-blown impostors; non-existent military service seems common.

Many temporary impostors are criminals who maintain the façade for a time of a caper to defraud their victims (like Wilhelm Voigt).

Others, like US prankster Joey Skaggs, do it as a prank or to make a point of some kind. The latter usually reveal the truth sooner or later. Some, like John Howard Griffin, have adopted other identity for purposes of research, investigation or experiment. Note that although impostors usually misrepresent their background, their intentions may not be criminal as such. They may wish to start anew with a new identity or "go native"; i.e. adopt identity and customs of other people.

Sometimes women have masqueraded as men to obtain privileges only men can have or work in male-dominated professions. Some of them have fought as men at least in Napoleonic Wars and American Civil War. Sometimes, an organization or individual who has been fooled keeps quiet to avoid the embarrassment and therefore allows the impostor try the same thing elsewhere.

Of course, the most successful impostors are those whose duplicity is never revealed so that we know nothing about them.



  1. I place on or upon, set upon, lay upon.
  2. I impose upon, put upon, inflict upon.
  3. I establish, fix, impose (e.g. a tax).

List of impostors

Traité des trois imposteurs by anonymous (date unknown, edition shown 1777)
Traité des trois imposteurs by anonymous (date unknown, edition shown 1777)


False nationality claims

False Royal Heritage Claims

Academic impostors

  • Dr. Charlotte Bach (1920–1981), fringe evolutionary theorist who was not a doctor
  • Marvin Hewitt (born 1922), who became a university professor without any credentials
  • James Hogue (born 1959), who most famously entered Princeton University by posing as a self-taught orphan
  • Marilee Jones (born 1951), Dean of Admissions at MIT and best-selling author who claimed advanced degrees in science fields. After ten years in the post, she was revealed to have only a high school diploma.
  • George O'Leary (born 1946), who, in 2001, was hired and fired within 5 days as the head football coach of the University of Notre Dame, when it was discovered that he did not have a master's degree from "NYU-Stony Brook University" (a non-existent institution), as stated on his résumé.
  • Scott Thompson (born 1957), who, in 2012, was hired as the CEO of Yahoo!, on the basis of holding a bachelor's degree in accounting and computer science. It was discovered four months later that he did not hold a computer science degree; he thus left the company.

False minority national identity claims

Multiple impostors

  • Frédéric Bourdin (born 1974), "the French Chameleon"
  • Barry Bremen (1947–2011), known in the sports world as "The Great Imposter", after pretending to be an MLB umpire, an NBA All-Star, and a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, among other things
  • Ferdinand Waldo Demara (1921–1982), "The Great Impostor", who masqueraded as many people from monks to surgeons to prison wardens
  • Christian Gerhartsreiter (born 1961), German impostor and convicted murderer who claimed to be a member of the Rockefeller family, among other things
  • Stanley Clifford Weyman (1890–1960), American multiple impostor who impersonated public officials, including the U.S. Secretary of State and various military officers
  • Laurel Rose Willson (1941–2002), who claimed to be "Lauren Stratford", a victim of satanic ritual abuse, and later on, Holocaust survivor, "Laura Grabowski"
  • Mamoru Samuragochi (1963-), who claimed to be a "deaf composer", though it was later revealed that his hearing ability has already improved and most of his works were written by Takashi Niigaki, condutor of "Onimusha Soundtrack", produced by Samuragouchi.

Women who lived as men

Many women in history have presented themselves as men in order to advance in typically male-dominated fields. In most cases their exact relationship to their male presentation was never recorded unambiguously or at all; if or how they would fit into modern Western transgender categories can never be certain.

  • Joan of Arc (1412–1431), French heroine and Catholic saint who disguised herself as a man to fight the English
  • James Barry (c. 1790–1865), born Margaret Ann Bulkley who successfully lived as a male military surgeon in the British Army
  • Frances Clalin (c. 1830–after 1863), disguised herself as a man named Jack Williams in order to fight for Union forces during the American Civil War
  • Nadezhda Durova (1783–1866), a woman who, while disguised as a man, became a decorated soldier in the Russian cavalry, during the Napoleonic Wars
  • Catalina de Erauso (1592–1650), Basque nun-soldier in the Spanish colonial army
  • Pope Joan (fl. 1099), a woman who allegedly ruled as pope, although most modern scholars doubt the historicity of this account
  • Dorothy Lawrence (1896–1964), English reporter, who secretly posed as a man to become a soldier during World War I
  • Hua Mulan, legendary figure from ancient China who disguised herself as a man to join the army, when her father was too old for it
  • Deborah Sampson (1760–1827), a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to serve in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War
  • Mary Anne Talbot (1778–1808), Englishwoman who wore male dress and became a sailor during the Napoleonic Wars
  • Loreta Janeta Velazquez (1842–c. 1902), Cuban-born woman who claimed that she masqueraded as a male Confederate soldier during the American Civil War

Military impostors


  • Bampfylde Moore Carew (1693–1759), a Devonshire man whose popular Life and Adventures included picaresque episodes of vagabond life, including his claim to have been elected King of the Beggars
  • Alan Conway (1934–1998), who impersonated Stanley Kubrick during the early 1990s
  • Chevalier d'Eon (1728–1810), French diplomat, spy and soldier, whose first 49 years were spent as a man, and whose last 33 years were spent as a woman
  • Anoushirvan D. Fahkran (born c. 1970), an Iranian immigrant, who in 1997 legally changed his name to Jonathan Taylor Spielberg and posed as the 16-year-old nephew of legendary Hollywood director Steven Spielberg to enroll in high school
  • Robert Hendy-Freegard (born 1971), English barman, car salesman and conman who masqueraded as a MI5 agent
  • John Howard Griffin (1920–1980), who, in 1959, darkened his skin and traveled in the American South as a black man, to write Black Like Me
  • Alicia Esteve Head (born 1973), Spanish woman who claimed to be a survivor of the September 11 attacks, under the name Tania Head
  • Paul Jordan-Smith (1885–1971), father of the hoax art movement called Disumbrationism
  • Ashida Kim, believed by many to be Caucasian author and self-proclaimed ninja Radford Davis (alternate pen name Christopher Hunter), who wrote numerous books on ninjutsu during the '70s and '80s, noted for refusing to provide details about his teachers, or the lineage of the martial art in which he claims expertise
  • Enric Marco (born 1921), Spaniard who claimed to have been a prisoner in the Nazi German concentration camps Mauthausen and Flossenburg in World War II
  • Steven Jay Russell (born 1957), who has impersonated judges and a doctor, among others, and is known for escaping from prison multiple times
  • William Stirrat, claimed to be Hy Zaret, the writer of the lyrics to the hit song Unchained Melody
  • Treva Throneberry (born 1969), convicted American con artist who spent most of her twenties pretending to be a teenager
  • Arnaud du Tilh (fl. 1556), who took the place of Martin Guerre in the mid-16th century and lived with Guerre's wife and son for three years before being discovered when Guerre returned
  • Binjamin Wilkomirski (born Bruno Grosjean in 1941), who adopted a constructed identity as a Holocaust survivor and published author

In fiction



  • The Associate, 1996 film starring Whoopi Goldberg who disguises herself as a white man to get a job on Wall Street
  • Big Momma's House, 2000 American crime comedy film where Martin Lawrence disguises himself as a rotund grandmother
  • Catch Me If You Can, 2002 American biographical crime drama film based on the life of Frank Abagnale, who successfully conned millions of dollars worth of checks as a Pan Am pilot, doctor, and legal prosecutor
  • Changeling, 2008 American drama film, based partly on real-life events – the Gordon Stewart Northcott case in the 1928 "Wineville Chicken Coop Murders"
  • Coming to America, 1988 American romantic comedy film starring Eddie Murphy as a rich African prince who pretends to be poor in the hope of finding a wife
  • Connie and Carla, 2004 American comedy film where two women pose as drag queens
  • Dave, 1993 comedy-drama film starring Kevin Kline who has a side job impersonating the President
  • Face/Off, 1997 American science fiction action thriller film starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, who assume the physical appearances of each other
  • Houseguest, 1995 comedy film starring Sinbad who pretends to be a rich dentist
  • I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, 2007 American comedy film where two straight firefighters pose as homosexual lovers
  • Impostor, 2001 American science fiction film based upon the 1953 short story of the same name by Philip K. Dick
  • The Imposter, 2012 British-American documentary film about the 1997 case of the French confidence trickster Frédéric Bourdin
  • Just One of the Guys, 1985 comedy film about a female high school reporter who poses as a teen-aged boy
  • Juwanna Mann, 2002 American sports romantic comedy film about a basketball star becoming a female impersonator joining women's basketball, after being banned from men's basketball
  • A Knight's Tale, 2001 medieval adventure film featuring a peasant who poses as nobility to compete in a jousting tournament
  • Little Man, 2006 American comedy film about a diminutive, but adult, criminal pretending to be an infant
  • Mrs. Doubtfire, 1993 American comedy film starring Robin Williams who disguises himself as a pleasant, elderly British nanny
  • The New Guy, 2002 American teen comedy film about a high school geek who poses as a dangerous criminal to be more popular
  • Overboard, 1987 American romantic comedy film about a poor carpenter who tricks a rich heiress into believing that he is her husband
  • The Ringer, 2005 comedy film starring Johnny Knoxville who pretends to be mentally challenged to enter the Special Olympics
  • The Secret of My Success, 1987 American comedy film starring Michael J. Fox as a kid from the mail room pretends to be an executive
  • She's the Man, 2006 American romantic comedy film where a female soccer star pretends to be a boy to play on their team
  • Sister Act, 1992 American comedy film starring Whoopi Goldberg as a Reno lounge singer who pretends to be a nun to avoid the mob
  • Some Like It Hot, 1959 American comedy film starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, where two men disguise themselves as female band members after accidentally witnessing the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre
  • Soul Man, 1986 comedy film about a man who undergoes racial transformation with pills to qualify for a black-only scholarship at Harvard Law School
  • Tootsie, 1982 American comedy-drama film starring Dustin Hoffman as a struggling actor who pretends to be a woman in order to get a job
  • Tropic Thunder, 2008 American action comedy film costarring Robert Downey, Jr., who plays an Australian actor who had controversial "pigmentation alteration" surgery to darken his skin for his portrayal of the black character, Sergeant Lincoln Osiris
  • True Identity, 1991 American comedy film starring Lenny Henry as a black man who disguises himself as a white man to escape the mob
  • Two Much, 1995 romantic screwball comedy film starring Antonio Banderas as a man who wants to date two different women, so he pretends to have a twin brother
  • Victor Victoria, 1982 film starring Julie Andrews as a woman who poses as a female impersonator
  • Wedding Crashers, 2005 American romantic comedy film about two party crashers who trick a wedding party into believing they were invited
  • While You Were Sleeping, 1995 romantic comedy film starring Sandra Bullock about a subway fare collector who fools a family into believing she was engaged to their comatose son
  • White Chicks, 2004 American buddy cop comedy film about two African American FBI agents who disguise themselves as two Caucasian women
  • Working Girl, 1988 romantic comedy-drama film starring Melanie Griffith who plays a secretary who takes on the role of her boss, a player on Wall Street
  • Zelig, 1983 American mockumentary film by Woody Allen who plays Leonard Zelig, a nondescript enigma who, out of his desire to fit in and be liked, takes on the characteristics of strong personalities around him

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Impostor" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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