Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

These Wikipedia subjects are not who they claim to be

Illustration for article titled These Wikipedia subjects are not who they claim to be
Screenshot: Catch Me If You Can, based on the life of Frank Abagnale (YouTube)

We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,070,641-week series, Wiki Wormhole. 


This week’s entry: List of Impostors

What it’s about: From Mrs. Doubtfire to Don Draper to Nicolas Cage in Face/Off, pop culture is full of people who are not what they seem. Disconcertingly, there are also a lot of real-life Armin Tamzarians out there, pretending to be someone they’re not.

Biggest controversy: At least in the 21st century, the most controversial impostors are ones who lie about their ethnicity. From Rachel Dolezal, the misguided white lady who ran a branch of the NAACP while claiming to be black, to Iron Eyes Cody, the crying Native American in the famous anti-littering ads of the 1970s, who turned out to be Italian-American. Other fake Native Americans include Grey Owl (Englishman Archibald Belaney); The Education Of Little Tree author Asa Earl Carter; Cherokee writer Jamake Highwater (actually Jewish journalist Jackie Marks); and Red Thunder Cloud (born Cromwell West, a black man who falsely claimed to be Catawba, but genuinely learned the Catawba language and was its last fluent speaker). There was also Helen Darville, who drew on nonexistent Ukrainian heritage for her novel The Hand That Signed The Paper, about a Ukrainian family that collaborates with the Nazis. (She was in fact Australian.)

Strangest fact: There’s a whole separate category on papal impostors. Antipopes were rival claimants to the Holy See, usually with the support of some faction within the Church, or of either the Roman or Byzantine Emperor. One of the earliest antipopes, Hippolytus, held that distinction for nearly 18 years in the early 200s, opposing the reign of three separate legitimate popes, and was later canonized. Clement III had the support of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, and as such was antipope for over 20 years, concurrent with four different popes in Rome. However, some antipopes’ reigns were as short as one day. In 1124, Celestine II won a contested papal election, but violence broke out during his investment ceremony, and he resigned before officially being enthroned to avoid further violence, thus setting a record for shortest papacy at negative several hours.

Thing we were happiest to learn: If you’re a fan of royal impostors, Russia’s got you covered. Nicholas II Romanov, the last Tsar, abdicated during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and was killed the following year, along with his wife and five children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei. But some Russians refused to believe the children were dead, and a wave of impostors cropped up to confirm those beliefs. Marga Boodts claimed to be Olga; Maddess Aiort and Michelle Anches both claimed to be Tatiana; Granny Alina claimed to be Maria; Heino Tammet and CIA agent Michael Goleniewski both claimed to be Alexei; and Anna Anderson not only claimed to be Anastasia, she tried to prove it in court, in a legal battle that ran all the way until 1970, when a judge finally decided she hadn’t presented enough evidence. (Long after her death in 1984, DNA evidence proved she wasn’t related to the Romanovs.) Anatoly Ionov claimed to be Anastasia’s son (conceived after she escaped execution and went into hiding, naturally). And Larissa Tudor made no claims whatsoever, but looked so much like Tatiana that rumors dogged her throughout her whole life that she was in fact the Tsarina under an assumed name.

Another fake Anastasia surfaced as recently as 1990. Then-90-year-old Natalya Bilikhodze claimed to be the Grand Duchess, in hiding for 70 years, and at age 100, traveled to Russia to lay claim to “the Romanov fortune,” which almost certainly no longer existed.


There was also Šćepan Mali (Stephen The Little), who pretended to be Peter III, who was Tsar for six months in 1762 before his untimely death. Mali turned up five years later in Montenegro, claiming to be Peter, and his claim was so good he ended up ruling Montenegro until his death in 1773.

We’ve also previously covered not one, but three False Dmitrys, who each pretended to be the son of Ivan The Terrible over the span of a dozen years, each with some amount of short-term success.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: People are apparently pretty easily fooled. Moviegoers know of scam artists like Frank Abagnale and David Hampton, whose stories were told in Catch Me If You Can and Six Degrees Of Separation, respectively. But they’re just part of a larger tradition of con men (and women) pretending to be someone else for personal gain. Michael “The Great Impostor” Sabo had over 100 known aliases in the FBI database. Cassie Chadwick passed herself off as the daughter of Andrew Carnegie. Gerald Barnbaum stole a doctor’s identity and used it for 20 years. And James Reavis used his real name, “but created a complex, fictitious history,” to back up his claim as the rightful owner of Arizona.

Also noteworthy: There’s also an unfortunate category of “military impostors,” who lied about their service. Former Fox News analyst Joseph A. Cafasso dined out on his experiences with Special Forces during the Vietnam War, which turned out to be entirely fabricated—he served in the Army for just 44 days in 1976. Likewise, historian Joseph Ellis claimed to have served in Vietnam; he in fact taught at West Point during the war. British historian Jack Livesey claimed 20 years of service with the Parachute Regiment; he had at least served in the army, but only for three years, as a cook. And Erich von Stroheim, whose Hollywood career stretched from D.W. Griffith’s 1912 film An Unseen Enemy, to directing a string of films in the ’20s including Foolish Wives, Greed, The Merry Widow, to a supporting role in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, claimed to be an Austrian aristocrat who had served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In fact, he was the lower-middle-class son of a hatmaker and a lifelong civilian.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Related to the impostor is the charlatan, who claims not to be someone else, but to have some area of expertise (usually medical) that they do not in fact possess. Notable charlatans Wikipedia mentions include Bernie Madoff, who ran an $18 billion Ponzi scheme; Charles Ponzi, inventor of said scheme; anti-vaxxer Joseph Mercola; and Grigori Rasputin, because this list just can’t stay away from the Romanovs.

Further Down the Wormhole: That Fox News analyst may not have been in the Special Forces, but if he had, he may have been involved in an invasion of America’s most recurring enemy: The People’s Republic of Pineland. We’ll look at repeated invasions of this fictional country in central North Carolina next week. Stay safe, everybody!


Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in fall 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.