Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Ferdinand Waldo Demara had lied and cheated all his life. But he’d also helped many people. So what do you think? Was he a good man—or a sick liar? Demara was born in Massachusetts, in 1921. His family was wealthy, and life was comfortable. At school, Demara wasn’t a great student, but he read books on a great many subjects. And he also had a photographic memory, which made learning much easier. In 1932, the Depression wiped out his father ‘s business. Suddenly, the family was poor. Demara lost the comfortable life he knew, as well as his social status. These losses affected him deeply. As a teenager, he left home and joined a monastery. But a monk’s life was too quiet for him, and he didn’t stay long. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Demara was eager to serve his country. He joined the navy, but soon became bored with navy life. One day, he had a meeting with the base commander. When the commander wasn’t looking, Demara lit a match soaked with paraffin. He dropped the match into a wastebasket and watched the papers burst into flames. During the confusion that followed, Demara made his move. He stole official stationery from the commander ‘s desk and quickly tucked it in his shirt. Soon after that, Demara faked his own death. Everyone thought he’d drowned. Then he wrote letters on the official navy stationery to create a new identity—Dr. Robert Linton French. As Dr. French, Demara got a job at a college in Pennsylvania. Although he’d barely finished high school, he was now head of the school of psychology. Then, unfortunately for Demara, the navy tracked him down. He spent the next 18 months in a military prison. In 1950, Demara was hired as an administrator at the Notre Dame Normal School in Maine. Why not? He had papers to prove that he was a zoologist and a cancer researcher. His new name was Dr. Cecil Hamann. Demara became friends with Dr. Joseph Cyr, a Canadian doctor. Demara promised to help him get a license to practice medicine in the United States. Give your credentials to me, Demara said, and I’ll make sure they get into the right hands. But Dr. Cyr had no idea who he was dealing with. Demara took the papers and used them to join the Royal Canadian Navy—as a doctor. Soon Demara was on board a navy ship. The Korean War was raging as the ship headed in that direction. Now Demara faced the biggest challenge of his life. He had to treat people’s illnesses and injuries—without having one minute of training or practice! One day the ship’s captain complained about his three impacted teeth. Moments before taking them out, Demara grabbed a medical book and read what to do. One night, during a violent storm, 16 South Korean soldiers came on board. All were wounded; all needed attention. Demara picked shrapnel from their wounds, then cleaned and bandaged them. He stopped arteries from bleeding. He successfully collapsed the lung of a soldier who had tuberculosis. Then he opened up a soldier’s chest and removed a bullet lodged close to his heart. By then, he’d read quite a lot about medical care. Demara admitted later that he’d prayed he wouldn’t kill anyone. Yet all the while he felt a self-confidence he couldn’t understand. And he found the experience tremendously exciting. He continued working as a doctor in Korea. People loved him. But meanwhile, back in Canada, the real Doctor Cyr kept hearing about the wonderful work he was doing in Korea, so he called the Royal Canadian Navy. Demara insisted he was really Dr. Hamann. But the navy soon realized his story was false, and Demara was dismissed. In 1952, Demara sold his story to a popular magazine for $2,500. He sent all but $500 to his mother. The magazine story caused Demara problems. Now, when he’d create a new identity and apply for a job, many people already knew who he was. Demara then applied for a job in the Texas prison system. As references he listed Dr. Hamann and a child counselor named Fred Demara. Using the name Ben W. Jones, he got the job. He rose quickly in the ranks of the prison system. Finally, he became an assistant warden. But then a prisoner recognized him from the magazine story. Demara sneaked away in the night before he was caught. forgery, theft, and being drunk in public. But the state of Texas dropped all charges against him. Why? People there were quite embarrassed that Demara had managed to fool prison officials. Calling himself Frank Kingston, Demara next found work at a school for the mentally retarded in New York. One day he heard about a school in the little island town of North Haven, Maine. The school desperately needed a teacher. If it didn’t get one fast it would be forced to close. In the summer of 1956, Demara arrived at North Haven. He was now posing as Martin Godgart, a highly qualified teacher. The islanders loved him. They felt he was a truly gifted teacher. Outside of class, Demara helped children with their reading lessons. He urged his students to read everything they could get their hands on. He organized kids to fix up the homes of elderly widows, and he ran a bible school. He also started a Sea Scout unit for teenage boys. One of his students, David Cooper, remembered Demara’s photographic memory. Cooper said, “When the mail arrived by boat, we’d have Mr. Godgart skim a magazine. Later we’d test him on it. He’d repeat the articles word for word!” It wasn’t long, though, before Demara became restless. He started to behave strangely, even at school. One of his students, Eric Hopkins, recalled that time. “One day he pulled a loaded gun, a little black revolver, out of his pocket. He put it on the table for us boys to see. Just then my mother walked in. She was shocked when she saw the gun.” Hopkins’ mother, June, had already been wondering about Godgart. He’d often been a dinner guest at their home. After several beers, his stories about his past seemed to change. A couple of times, he’d showed them the picture of himself from the magazine article. (He had cut off the captions.) He’d tease the family, saying, “Wouldn’t you like to know?” June Hopkins sent away for a copy of the magazine. When she discovered who Martin Godgart really was, she found a way to get Demara’s fingerprints. The next time he came to the house, June Hopkins saved his water glass. Then she sent it to investigators at the state capital. They compared the prints from the glass to the prints in Demara’s criminal record. Of course, the prints matched. On Feb. 14, 1957, two state police detectives arrived at the school. As they approached him, Demara asked, “What took you so long to get here?” The detectives took Demara away. He walked out silently—not saying so much as a goodbye to anyone. In court, Demara pleaded guilty to being a fake. But, he argued, he hadn’t done anything to hurt anyone. The judge took pity on him. “This has to stop somewhere,” he said, “even if your motives were good.” He placed Demara on probation. After Demara left the island, he was in the spotlight again. Newspapers told the story of the Great Imposter. Twice more he was featured in national magazines. He also appeared on TV. In 1959, his biography was published. And in 1961, a movie of his life story called The Great Imposter hit the theaters. Demara was actually famous for being himself! But when the thrill of fame wore off, Demara became deeply unhappy. He called the Hopkins family and told them they were being watched. He tried a few more disguises. li-i 1970, he became the Reverend Fred Demara, the minister of a church in Washington. Then he dropped out of sight until 1982, when he died in California. His doctor remembered him as “the most miserable, unhappy man I ever knew.” Eric Hopkins, his former student, said, “To tell the truth, I was happy when I heard he’d died. A lot of people really liked him—but in no way was he the folk hero some people made him out to be. He actually scared us as kids. I lived with a subconscious fear of him for a long time after he left.” Another resident of North Haven, Lewis Haskell, had a different opinion. “Whoever he was, he was the best,” Haskell said. “I’m honored to have known him, and to have been deceived by him.”


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