The true story of a con artist who conducted surgeries, ran a prison, taught college, and more

When writing her fantastic exploration into the psychology of con artistry, “The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time,” Maria Konnikova stopped meeting with the thieves, imposters, and in some cases, psychopaths she was writing about.

“They are really good; they are really charismatic. Even if you know they’re bad people, you walk away thinking they’re good people,” she tells Business Insider. “And it’s really scary to see that happening – it’s not pleasant, because it really makes you realize that it’s just so easy for people to fall for their lines.”

But there are some con artists that Konnikova just couldn’t turn down an opportunity to meet, were it still possible.

“I totally want to meet Demara,” she says, referring to Ferdinand Waldo Demara, a character she follows throughout the book. “That guy was so good.”

Keep scrolling to learn about the man who may have been the most successful con artist in history.


The poster for a 1961 film based on Demara’s exploits says it all.

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Universal Studios

“His face was on the cover of magazines and he was on TV; he still got away with it,” Konnikova says. Here he is, featured in Life Magazine.

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Life Magazine, January 28, 1952

He was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on December 12, 1921.

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Library of Congress

“His first con was tiny,” says Konnikova. “He conned a chocolate shop in his hometown into giving chocolates to his entire class when he had no money to pay for them.”

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Not Demara.
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Public Domain

“That’s no big deal, but after that there was no turning back,” she says.


Demara got what he wanted — and it was a thrill.

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Demara meets with Groucho Marx, who told him that it’s always a pleasure to meet someone as crooked as he is.
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YouTube/ Groucho Marx – You Bet Your Life

Next up he joined a monastery — pretending to be a monk was something he returned to time and again throughout life. At one point he even helped found a religious college.

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Public Domain

He taught psychology at Gannon College in Pennsylvania (under a false name, without a degree).

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Wikimedia Commons/Dasandman008

And studied law under a fake name at Northeastern University.

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Magicpiano/Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps most notorious was his stint aboard a Canadian naval vessel during the Korean War.


He’d stolen the identity of Dr. Joseph Cyr, who knew him as “Brother John Payne of the Brothers of Christian Instruction.”

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National Museum of Health and Medicine

And became the shipboard surgeon aboard the HMS Cayuga.

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US Navy

His only knowledge came from a text he’d convinced another doctor to write — for the troops, in case there was no doctor around.

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Wikimedia Commons

At one point, he conducted surgeries on 19 rescued Korean soldiers, who were full of bullets and shrapnel.

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The Great Imposter Trailer 1960/Video Detective/YouTube

The brave and generous surgeon’s fame spread — all the way back to the real Dr. Joseph Cyr.

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Pixabay/Public Domain

But even after Demara was found out, the Canadian Navy didn’t press charges.

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United States Navy

And Demara continued his run, eventually becoming a warden in a Texas prison.


He was ousted after showing a magazine story about himself to a prisoner.

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REUTERS/Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/Handout via Reuters

According to Konnikova’s book, he convinced his biographer — who named him “The Great Imposter” — to give him money to support him in his efforts to “go straight” time and time again.

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Barnes and Noble

Eventually he returned to his religious-impersonation roots, operating as a chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital of Orange County in Anaheim, California, but he was too famous to keep the deception going for long.


They let him stay on though, and he died there in 1982.

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Groucho Marx – You Bet Your Life/YouTube