Podcast Episode 268: The Great Impostor


Ferdinand Demara earned his reputation as the Great Impostor: For over 22 years he criss-crossed the country, posing as everything from an auditor to a zoologist and stealing a succession of identities to fool his employers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review Demara’s motivation, morality, and techniques — and the charismatic spell he seemed to cast over others.

We’ll also make Big Ben strike 13 and puzzle over a movie watcher’s cat.


In 1825, Thomas Steele proposed enclosing Isaac Newton’s residence in a pyramid surmounted by a stone globe.

In 1923 Arthur Guiterman found a rhyme for wasp.

Sources for our feature on Ferdinand Demara:

Robert Crichton, The Great Impostor, 1959.

Robert Crichton, The Rascal and the Road, 1961.

Frank E. Hagan, Introduction to Criminology: Theories, Methods, and Criminal Behavior, 2008.

Joe McCarthy, “The Master Imposter: An Incredible Tale,” Life, Jan. 28, 1952.

Susan Goldenberg, “Unmasked,” Canada’s History 91:1 (February/March 2011), 31-36.

Ray Cavanaugh, “Brother, Doctor, Soldier, Lies,” National Catholic Reporter 51:20 (July 17, 2015), 16.

David Goldman, “The Great Impostor,” Biography 4:8 (August 2000), 24.

“Ferdinand Waldo Demara, 60, An Impostor in Varied Fields,” Associated Press, June 9, 1982.

Tim Holmes, “Ferdinand Waldo Demara: One of the Greatest Imposters the World Has Ever Seen,” Independent, Aug. 29, 2019.

Kevin Loria, “The True Story of a Con Artist Who Conducted Surgeries, Ran a Prison, Taught College, and More,” Business Insider, Feb. 20, 2016.

“Americana: Ferdinand the Bull Thrower,” Time, Feb. 25, 1957.

Samuel Thurston, “Champion Rascal,” New York Times, July 26, 1959.

“Top 10 Imposters,” Time, May 26, 2009.

“‘The Great Imposter’ Reportedly a Cleric,” Associated Press, Jan. 8, 1970.

Thomas M. Pryor, “Universal to Film ‘Great Impostor’; Career of Ferdinand Demara Jr. Will Be Traced — Lilli Palmer’s Pact Extended,” New York Times, March 12, 1959.

John Schwartz, “Ideas & Trends; James Gatz, Please Call Your Office,” New York Times, March 11, 2001.

Eric Pace, “Notes on People,” New York Times, April 6, 1978.

“Fake Surgeon a Success; Canada to Oust American Who Served Navy in Korea,” New York Times, Nov. 21, 1951.

“Navy Drops Bogus Surgeon,” New York Times, Jan. 30, 1952.

“Schoolmaster a Fraud; ‘Surgeon’ During Korea War Is Unmasked in Maine,” New York Times, Feb. 15, 1957.

Samuel T. Williamson, “Life Is a Masquerade,” New York Times, Dec. 3, 1961.

Glen Hallick, “Local Veteran Reflects on Service in the Korean War,” Stonewall Argus and Teulon Times [Manitoba], July 25, 2013, 14.

Glenn R. Lisle, “Waldo Demara Was a Daring Imposter,” Ottawa Citizen, Jan. 20, 2006, A15.

“The Original ‘Impostor’,” Newsday, Oct. 13, 1996, A.41.

“Korean War Veteran Wells Met the Great Imposter,” Scarborough [Ontario] Mirror, Nov. 12, 2012, 1.

Marty Gervais, “My Town,” Windsor [Ontario] Star, May 31, 2003, A5.

Darren Mcdonald, “The Great Imposter,” Chilliwack [B.C.] Times, Nov. 11, 2005, B2.

John F. Morrison, “‘The Great Imposter’: Jack Doe of All Trades,” Philadelphia Daily News, March 30, 1983, 22.

Pat MacAdam, “The Great Impostor’s Last Victim,” Ottawa Citizen, April 11, 1999, A3.

John Affleck, “Bold Look Into Minds of Conmen,” Gold Coast [Southport, Queensland] Bulletin, June 18, 2016, 55.

Glen Hallick, “Stan Davis Reflects on His Service in the Korean War,” Interlake Spectator, July 25, 2013, 12.

“From Our Pages: 1951,” Kingston [Ontario] Whig, Dec. 27, 1999, 54.

Darrel Bristow-Bovey, “The Man With 50 Lives,” [Johannesburg] Times, Nov. 3, 2017.

When Demara appeared on You Bet Your Life in 1959, Groucho Marx called him “the most intelligent and charming and likable crook I’ve ever met”:

Listener mail:

“Hear Big Ben on the Radio Before You Hear It in Real Life,” Londonist, Sept. 26, 2014.

John O’Ceallaigh, “40 Amazing Facts About Big Ben – As Its Clock Takes on a New Colour,” Telegraph, March 22, 2019.

“The Great Bell – Big Ben,” parliament.uk (accessed Oct. 5, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Big Ben” (accessed Oct. 5, 2019).

“How to Make Big Ben Strike Thirteen?”, Secrets of the Universe, BBC, Nov. 1, 2010.

Wikipedia, “Big Ben Strikes Again” (accessed Oct. 3, 2019).

Jets Hunt, GPS Puzzles and the Sherlock Holmes Mystery: GPS (Global Positioning System) vs. Sherlock Holmes, 2010.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listeners Neil De Carteret and Nala.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 267: The Murchison Murders


In 1929, detective novelist Arthur Upfield wanted to devise the perfect murder, so he started a discussion among his friends in Western Australia. He was pleased with their solution — until local workers began disappearing, as if the book were coming true. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Murchison murders, a disturbing case of life imitating art.

We’ll also incite a revolution and puzzle over a perplexing purchase.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 265: The Great Hedge of India

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 19th century, an enormous hedge ran for more than a thousand miles across India, installed by the British to enforce a tax on salt. Though it took a Herculean effort to build, today it’s been almost completely forgotten. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe this strange project and reflect on its disappearance from history.

We’ll also exonerate a rooster and puzzle over a racing murderer.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 264: Jack Renton and the Saltwater People


In 1868, Scottish sailor Jack Renton found himself the captive of a native people in the Solomon Islands, but through luck and skill he rose to become a respected warrior among them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Renton’s life among the saltwater people and his return to the Western world.

We’ll also catch some more speeders and puzzle over a regrettable book.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 263: Memories of Proust


Confined in a Soviet prison camp in 1941, Polish painter Józef Czapski chose a unique way to cope: He lectured to the other prisoners on Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Czapski’s ambitious project and the surprising importance of literature to the prisoners of oppressive regimes.

We’ll also race some lemons and puzzle over a woman’s birthdays.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 262: A Modern-Day Thoreau


In 1968, Richard Proenneke left his career as a heavy equipment operator and took up an entirely new existence. He flew to a remote Alaskan lake, built a log cabin by hand, and began a life of quiet self-reliance. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll hear Proenneke’s reflections on a simple life lived in harmony with nature.

We’ll also put a rooster on trial and puzzle over a curious purchase.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 261: The Murder of Lord William Russell

Image: Harvard Digital Collections

In May 1840 London was scandalized by the murder of Lord William Russell, who’d been found in his bed with his throat cut. The evidence seemed to point to an intruder, but suspicion soon fell on Russell’s valet. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation and trial, and the late revelation that decided the case.

We’ll also marvel at Ireland’s greenery and puzzle over a foiled kidnapping.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 260: The Rugged Road

florence blenkiron and theresa wallach

In 1934, two Englishwomen set out to do what no one had ever done before: travel the length of Africa on a motorcycle. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron from Algiers to Cape Town on a 14,000-mile adventure that many had told them was impossible.

We’ll also anticipate some earthquakes and puzzle over a daughter’s age.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 259: The Astor Place Riot


The second-bloodiest riot in the history of New York was touched off by a dispute between two Shakespearean actors. Their supporters started a brawl that killed as many as 30 people and changed the institution of theater in American society. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Astor Place riot, “one of the strangest episodes in dramatic history.”

We’ll also fertilize a forest and puzzle over some left-handed light bulbs.

See full show notes …