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  • The Impostor June 2, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    For ten years a mother and son are separated – war, a prison sentence, the grand tour… – and then  reunited. Only there is a problem. The son is not actually the son, but an impostor. What are the chances that the mother will be taken in?

    This scenario and the subsequent question appear asinine. And yet… There are many well documented cases where parents and other loved ones have met an impostor and have been successfully deceived.

    Beach offers a recent example. In 1993 thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing from near his home in Austin Texas. In 1996 ‘Nicholas’ turned up at the American embassy in Madrid claiming that he had escaped from a paedophile ring. The family – including his mother – took ‘Nicholas’ into their hearts despite the fact that his eyes were the wrong colour and despite the fact that the boy had a French accent. ‘Nicholas’ was, in fact, a twenty-two year old French conman Frédéric Bourdin.

    Of course, three years, from thirteen to sixteen, are a particularly important phase of development when huge physical changes take place. But this is not an isolated case, history is littered with impostors – some extremely unlikely – suddenly appearing to claim the place of someone who has been missing for several years and convincing friends and family alike of their credentials. Josephine Tey used this conceit for her most successful novel: the brilliant Bratt Farrar (1949). But, again, make no mistake, this is also the stuff of fact.

    In 1909 Ramendra Narayan Roy a minor Indian prince died and was publicly cremated. (How final is that!) In 1921 though an impostor (or was he?) managed to convince the family that Ramendra had returned and that he had never been burnt – there had been rumours about a missing body. The courts found in his favour and there are still those who defend his identity to this day.

    And there are many, many more from the various Anastasia claimants, to the Tichborne claimant (whose ‘mother’ died believing that her son had returned to her), but also reaching far back into history: think  Perkin Warbeck (obit 1499 who impersonated Richard of Shrewsbury) or the slave Clemens (obit 16 AD: who impersonated Agrippa Postumus).

    It is extraordinary that most of these cases even get off the ground. Nicholas Barclay had blue eyes, yet Frédéric Bourdin had brown eyes. The Tichborne claimant could not speak French, the mother tongue of the missing Roger Tichborne. And yet, again and again, loved ones were bamboozled.

    Naturally, the impostors managed to work their wicked ways on brothers, mothers and sisters not despite them being family but because they were family. The family wanted the missing member to be alive and so suspended belief. It is no accident that many impostors were sponsored by their own mothers. And likewise it is no accident that many were unmasked by hard-headed family friends or employees who were able to keep a useful distance in the excitement of reunion.

    Other impostors including Perkin Warbeck or the various false Dmitriy (‘sons’ of Ivan the Terrible) or Betrand of Rains (pretending to be Baldwin I of Constantinople) played on the hope not of a family but of a country or a people. These impostors accidentally (or through great cunning) enacted the age old myth of the Return of the King.

    Of course, a good impostor is impossible now with DNA – think of poor Ann ‘Anastasia’ Anderson being unmasked: something else to hate the modern world for. The days when people could be identified because ‘he has the same walk’ or ‘similar ear lobes’ are long over.

    Beachcombing wonders whether there are any cases where, hoping against hope, a returned son or daughter, king or queen really was what they claimed to be: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    10 June 2011: Luis, an old friend of the blog writes in: ‘I’ve just finish reading your post about the impostors and it rang a bell, about the very popular story of Martin Guerre. This is a real event that happened in the 16th century in South of France. A farmer that was missing for 8 years got back to his village to meet with his family. He pretended that he was forced to be enroled in the army and that he managed to escape somehow. Hi wife and everybody in the village recognized him categorically, however after 3 years when he asked a part of the incomes of his uncle, the uncle confronted him, saying that he wasn’t Martin Guerre. They went on a trial and and at the moment the prosecutor was convinced dismissing the case and stating that Martin Guerre was the genuine guy, a man with a wooden leg showed up saying that he was the real one. Martin Guerre, in fact Arnaud du Thil, was sentenced to death. This story has much impressed Jean de Coras, the prosecutor, so much in fact that it was later related by Montaigne in The Essays (book III les boiteux)  … and was told in extenso by Alexandre Dumas, in his Crimes Célèbres:  This is a very well know story because a movie named Le retour de Martin Guerre (featuring Gérard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye) was a huge (and deserved) success. It’s amazing how people is wishful to be fooled prefering a lie than to accept the (uncomfortable) truth, Arnaud du Thil was very convincing because he had met and spent a long time with Martin Guerre, so he picked and learned loads of intimate information that he used with the wife and the villagers.’ KMH, meanwhile, looks at the other side of the coin: ‘Do you have a minimum time period for the returned relative, such as three years?  One case that comes immediately to mind was that of Elizabeth Smart who was kidnapped and held for nine months before returning to her parents. The bizarre case (perhaps involving the Stockholm syndrome)  was well publicised – otherwise she may not been recognised and released from the kidnappers. Just today I came across another case of a female kidnapped and held hostage who was able to return. In this instance the captivity was for 19 years. Her name is Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was abducted at a bus stop at age 11.’ Thanks KMH, and thanks Luis!