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Fake it 'til you make it

Why have fakes and fantasists always fascinated us? Is it the conviction and sheer hard work that goes into a convincing act of fraud, the nerve to carry it off, or the fantasy that one day we may do a Walter Mitty and create a little fiction ourselves? This week Gareth Gwynn uncovered the fantastical world of Welsh cultural lodestone Iolo Morganwg in The Greatest Ever Faker and we thought you might fancy learning about more fascinating frauds.

Eric Idle taking delight in one of his many female characters from Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Catch Me if You Can

Frank William Abagnale, Jr is the most well known modern day frauds, as his story became the subject of the film Catch Me If You Can, which starred Leonardo di Caprio. It truly is the stuff of Hollywood: Abagnale made his living as a confidence trickster and imposter between the ages of 15 and 21, assuming alter egos that included a physician, a lawyer, a pilot (“very much aware that I had been handed custody of 140 lives, my own including... because I couldn’t fly a kite”) and ironically, a US Bureau of Prisons agent. He escaped from police custody on one occasion by jumping off a moving airliner, but after serving five years in prison he became a lecturer on fraud for the FBI academy.

No business like fraud business

In 1943, Tanis Chandler was twenty, and spent her days typing in a Hollywood brokerage office dreaming of becoming a movie star. Like many starlets, she struggled, but unlike others, she adopted an unusual solution. A shortage of male actors because of the war meant roles for men were plentiful, so she put on some trousers and applied to a casting office as ‘Robert Archer’. She was immediately awarded the role of a sheikh in a Warner Brothers film, called The Desert Song. She, or rather ‘Robert Archer’, was then cast in ‘My Reputation’. She got away with it again, until the director asked her to remove her shirt in a scene, and she had to confess. The story made the news, and she continued her acting career, but as Tanis Chandler.

A right royal deception

Enemies of King Henry VII claimed to have found Richard of Shrewsbury, the Duke of York, who had supposedly died in the Tower of London. His claim was a threat to the Tudor dynasty and gained much support outside England, much to Henry’s fury. In Vienna, on a visit, he was treated as the legal King of England. The legal battle to declare him an imposter nearly bankrupted Henry’s fragile finances, costing him over £13,000. The ‘Duke of York’ later declared himself to be Perkin Warbeck, the son of Jehan de Werbecque, a merchant from Tournay in Flanders.

Web of intrigue

Thousands of people supported a young woman, 19 year old Kaycee Nicole Swenson in Kansas, who was dying of leukaemia. They read accounts of her illness, her bravery, rang her, emailed her and grew close to her mother Debbie, who kept a journal of her experiences as the mother of a dying child. In 2001 Kaycee Nicole died, which distressed her online friends, but Debbie refused to provide any details of a funeral. A group of online detectives, the “ScoobyDoos”, decided to investigate and discovered that Kaycee had never existed; there were no records and no obituary. Eventually Debbie Swenson, a 40 year old woman from Kansas, revealed that she was Kaycee. The photos of the site were those of Debbie’s neighbor, used without her knowledge.Debbie remained unrepentant about duping people, saying that Kaycee was real as a composite of cancer victims Debbie had known. The FBI investigated but said they were unable to prosecute as Debbie Swensen had not benefited monetarily from the hoax.

My father, Sidney Poitier

Another fraud that made it on to the big screen (Six Degrees of Separation, which starred Will Smith) was that of David Hampton, who pretended to be the son of actor and director Sir Sidney Poitier. He enjoyed lavish hospitality at the hands of the Hollywood acting community, including Melanie Griffith and Gary Sinise. He would claim that Poitier was meeting him in restaurants, receive free drinks and attention and then claim that Poitier was suddenly unable to attend. Frequently requests for loans would be made which people gladly supplied. He was busted when he was caught in bed with another man at the home of Osborn Elliott, the deal of the Columbia School of Journalism, who called the police. Hampton was not prosecuted but had to pay back $4,500 he’d swindled out of people using Poitier’s name.

Woman of Means

Cassie Chadwick, born Elizabeth Bigsley in 1857, was one of the most successful con artists ever. At the age of 14 she was caught forging cheques that she claimed were inherited from a long lost British uncle. The court decided she was insane and released her. She continued her dubious career. While pretending to be a clairvoyant named Madame Lydia DeVere in 1882 she married her first husband. Unfortunately the media coverage of the wedding alerted several of her victims to her false identity and they demanded repayment, whereupon her new husband ditched her after a year. Three husbands later, in fifteen years time, she began claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie, the steel king. For eight years she borrowed money from banks under this identity – the banks handed over the cash as they were too worried about any controversy over Carnegie having an illegitimate daughter to ask many questions. She stashed away an incredible $20m. In 1904 she was caught, after an astute bank manager didn’t believe her story, and was jailed for 14 years. She died of a heart attack in 1907.

Doctor Who?

James Barry was a military surgeon in the British Army, graduating from the Univeristy of Edinburgh Medical School, serving in India and Cape Town, improving conditions for wounded soldiers and natives and eventually becoming Inspector General in charge of military hospitals. He performed the first caesarean section in Africa in which the mother and child survived. Except he didn’t. Because ‘he’ was Margaret Ann Bulkley, who’d chosen to live as a man so she could attend university and become a surgeon. Her gender was only discovered after her death, making her the first qualified female British doctor or surgeon.

The Fairytale Princess

Another blue blooded bombshell was the case of Princess Caraboo, in fact a cobbler’s daughter called Mary Baker. Princess Caraboo was found in Almondsbury near Bristol in 1817, wearing exotic clothes and muttering in a strange language. She claimed (via the translation skills of a sailor who oh so fortuitously also appeared at the same time and could speak her language) that she was from the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean and had escaped from pirates. She was treated like royalty for ten weeks, until the jig was up when her former landlady, Mrs Neale, recognized her. The family with whom “Princess Caraboo” was staying were mortified at the deception and rather than look like a laughing stock, carted her off to America, where she continued happily to play the Princess. Returning to England she continued the deception, as she did when she travelled through France and Spain. She gave up the trick when she returned to England and settled down as Mary Baker. She was never charged.

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