With current controversy over identification of Rachel Dolezal I'm reminded of the explanation by Archie Leach (who reinvented himself as Cary Grant) -
I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point.There's a long history of people reidentifying themselves for idealistic, commercial or other reasons.
Archibald Belaney (1888-1938), exposed in Lovat Dickson's Wilderness Man: The Strange Story of Grey Owl (Macmillan, 1974) and Armand Ruffo's less persuasive Grey Owl: the mystery of Archie Belaney (Coteau, 1996), successfully posed as Ojiibwa sage Grey Owl and produced three bestsellers about life as a leading member of the First Nations.
Contemporary Buffalo Child Long Lance (1890-1932), star of the 1930 film The Silent Enemy and author of the 1928 autobiography Long Lance, claimed to be a crack aviator, a war hero (appointed to West Point and awarded the Croix de Guerre) and sparring partner of Jack Dempsey.
Sadly he was not a "full-blooded Blackfeet Indian" who had been raised in a tipee and hunted buffalo from horseback. His name was not Buffalo Child Long Lance; he was African-American rather than a member of the US or Canadian First Nations and his father was a janitor rather than a chief.
His career is discussed in Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance: The Glorious Impostor (Red Deer Press, 1999) by Donald Smith and Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities (University of North Carolina Press, 2000) by Laura Browder.
The Education of Little Tree, a supposed memoir by 'Native American' Forrest Carter was revealed to be by Asa Earl Carter, an Alabama Klansman and a George Wallace speechwriter for George Wallace and member of the Ku Klux Klan.
More recently high profile historian Ward Churchill has featured in claims - accurate or otherwise - that he was not an American Indian, with the American Indian Movement Grand Governing Council for example saying he
has fraudulently represented himself as an Indian, and a member of the American Indian Movement and has been masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark glasses and beaded headband.Belaney's peer Karl May (1842-1912) - who had earlier been imprisoned for impersonating German secret service agents and policemen - gained fame for 'wild west' genre novellas, presented as autobiographical although he didn't venture west to the English channel. Adoption of a false persona didn't inhibit sales, which were above 50 million copies after 1912.
He was rivalled by Lev Nussimbaum (1905-1942), aka Essad Bey, whose stranger than fiction life was explored by Tom Reiss in The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange & Dangerous Life (Random House, 2005).
'Louis de Rougemont' (1847-1921), aka Louis Grin, gained fame for journalism about his travels - which apparently did not extend much beyond the Reading Room of the British Museum. He was exposed after enthusing over the marvellous "flight of the wombat", implausible given that wombats are burrowing creatures with the aerodynamic qualities of a bag of cement.
He was more successful than Jean Christoph de Lancourt de Brenil, supposed companion of Jack London, master of 25 languages, war hero, equestrian, aviator and long distance walker.
Rougement biographies include Ron Howard's The Fabulist: The Incredible Story of Louis de Rougemont ( Random House, 2006).
Memoirist Nasdijj, author of The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams (Ballantine, 2003) and Geronimo's Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me (Ballantine, 2004), has been attacked over claims that he is a Navajo Indian and for inventing key elements of his autobiography. That is unsurprising if he is, as alleged, white erotica author Timothy Patrick Barrus.
The critically acclaimed Love and Consequences (Penguin, 2008), supposedly a memoir by Margaret Jones about "growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a half-white, half-Native American foster child who ran drugs for gang-bangers", was revealed to be a fabrication by Margaret Seltzer.
Jones apparently didn't have a Native American parent, didn't run drugs for gang members and wasn't an underprivileged foster child. Instead she grew up in upmarket Sherman Oaks and graduated from an elite private Episcopal day school. Critics noted that she also appeared to have made up a foundation that she claimed was helping "to reduce gang violence and mentor urban teens".
As I've noted elsewhere in this blog, some people seem to have shifted their identities on the basis of commercial opportunities rather than ideology
Joseph 'Yellow Kid' Weil (1877-1975) successfully posed as a major investor from Chicago, borrowing executive offices in several banks. His victims were then invited to the bank to meet that institution's CEO, duly being impressed by the surroundings and handing over large amounts of cash. Weil's ghosted memoir Con Man: A Master Swindler's Own Story (Broadway, 2004) features an afterword by Saul Bellow.
Competitor 'Count' Victor Lustig (1890-1947), described in The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower (Doubleday, 1961) by Floyd Miller, forged French government stationery and invited six scrap metal dealers to a confidential meeting at the Hotel Crillon, where he introduced himself as the Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Posts & Telegraphs and sought bids for the Eiffel Tower. One dealer provided several hundred thousand francs payment in advance, along with the customary bribe. Lustig was caught when he sought extra sweeteners.
The 'Eiffel Tower' exploit has attracted more attention than scams in the 1890s that saw fraudsters extract several hundred thousand dollars from US millionaires by selling Trajan's Column, the Arch of Constantine, the Colosseum. Tower of London and the Parthenon.
Swiss hotel pageboy Gottfried Kopp for example reinvented himself as Austrian aristocrat Godfrey von Kopp to 'sell' the Arch of Constantine to US restaurant magnate John R Thompson for US$0.5 million. The US millionaire paid a US$100,000 deposit before sailing back to New York. Unsurprisingly the Arch never arrived. Kopp went on to 'sell' Trajan's Column to Charles Yerkes for US$250,000.
Stanley Clifford Weyman (1890-1960) impersonated public officials, including the US Secretary of State, the US consul to Morocco, a military attaché from Serbia, a US Navy lieutenant, the US consul general for Romania and a company doctor in Peru, where he threw lavish parties until his credit ran out.
Contemporary Serge Stavisky (1886-1934), like Madame Therese, decided that it was simpler to start his own bank, claiming authorisation from the French government and a wealth that was in fact based on ponzi-style marketing of bonds. His career is examined in Stavisky: A Confidence Man in the Republic of Virtue (Cornell University Press, 2002) by Paul Jankowski.
Cassie Chadwick (1857-1907) pretended to be the illegitimate daughter of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, something that resulted in banks competing to lend her money - a total of US$10 million over eight years. Her scam was reinforced when she forged securities in Garnegie's name. She takes centre stage in John Crosbie's The Incredible Mrs Chadwick: The Most Notorious Woman of Her Age (McGraw-Hill, 1975).
Pennsylvania farmer George Byron (1824-1882) refashioned himself as Major George Gordon de Luna Byron and claimed to be the child of the poet and Countess de Luna, supposedly secretly married in 1809. Byron added 14 years to his age and went into business forging letters and other documents by his putative father, Shelley, Keats and other figures.
In 1849 the New York Evening Mirror sniffed that
We turned from him with the natural disgust we feel for humbugs in general, and literary humbugs in particular.Byron's action for defamation was unsuccessful and he decamped to the UK before reappearing, unabashed, with a self-awarded commission in the US army. He is described in Theodore Ehrsam's Major Byron: The Incredible Career of a Literary Forger (Boesen, 1951) and James Soderholm's Fantasy, Forgery and the Byron Legend (University Press of Kentucky 1995).