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Move Over, Frank Abagnale – Who Was the Great Imposter?

Move Over, Frank Abagnale – Who Was the Great Imposter?

Many people have heard of Frank W. Abagnale, Jr., the check forger-turned-FBI consultant whose life was depicted in the popular movie Catch Me If You Can. Abagnale cashed over a million dollars in fake bank checks during a five-year crime spree before his 21st birthday. He also successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and a university professor before he was caught in France.

Before Frank William Abagnale, Jr., however, there was Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. Like Abagnale, Demara was a serial impersonator, but much more prolific. His masquerades included civil engineer, sheriff’s deputy, assistant prison warden, doctor of applied psychology, hospital orderly, lawyer, child-care expert, monk, editor, cancer researcher, and teacher. Demara became known as the Great Imposter.

Ferdinand Demara, Jr. was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on December 21, 1921. A Roman Catholic, he dropped out of Catholic high school and entered a monastery. Although he soon left the monastic life, he reportedly later looked back on this time as the best in his life. Although an American by birth, he joined the Canadian Navy in March 1951. Appearing at the Saint John, New Brunswick recruiting office, he offered his services as a doctor, using the name Joseph Cyr. Canada at the time was involved in a war in Korea, and doctors were in great demand. His credentials were not rigorously checked, and “Dr. Cyr” was quickly commissioned as a surgeon-lieutenant and assigned to the medical ship Cayuga, which did duty in the war zone.

Like Abagnale, Demara was extremely intelligent and a quick study. Although Abagnale worked for about a year as a doctor, in his role he did not personally treat patients. Demara, however, performed numerous minor operations, and once treated the infected tooth of the Cayuga’s commander. He picked up the needed skills by reading textbooks, with the help of his assistant and liberal use of anesthetics and antibiotics.

After a raid on the west coast of Korea, three seriously wounded South Korean commandos were brought aboard the Cayuga. Demara ordered the wounded men prepared for surgery, while he disappeared into his cabin with a surgery textbook. When he came out, Demara saved the lives of all three men, and even performed major surgery on one to remove a bullet from his chest.

News of Demara’s exploits brought him media attention. One of those who read the newspaper reports was the mother of the real Dr. Joseph Cyr, who was then practicing in Grand Falls, New Brunswick. Dr. Cyr realized that he had earlier struck up a brief friendship with Demara, who was posing as a monk, and Demara had stolen his medical credentials before joining the Canadian Navy. The Royal Canadian Navy, embarrassed by the entire incident, declined to press charges against Demara. Instead, they honorably discharged him with back pay, then returned him to the United States.

Demara’s newfound fame made it harder for him to continue his life as an imposter. He sold his story to Life magazine and worked a series of short-term jobs. He once used fake credentials to get a position as a prison guard in Huntsville, Texas; however, he was forced to quit after an inmate found an article in Life magazine about him. He later returned to his religious upbringing, working as a counselor at a mission in downtown Los Angeles, and receiving a certificate from a Bible college in Portland, Oregon. During his lifetime, Demara became friends with several famous people, including actor Steve McQueen.

Demara’s life story was told in the 1960 book, The Great Impostor, which became a New York Times bestseller and was adapted into a 1961 film by the same name starring Tony Curtis as Demara. Unlike Abagnale, however, Demara did not go on to fame and fortune. In the last years of his life, he worked as a Baptist minister and then as a counselor at a hospital in Anaheim, California. When his past was discovered, he was almost dismissed from the hospital. However, the hospital chief of staff, who had become Demara’s close friend, personally vouched for him and he was allowed to stay. He was a very active counselor, ministering to a wide range of patients. Because of limited financial resources, Demara lived at the hospital until the end of his life. He died of heart failure in 1982.