In oral arguments Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court began the process of determining whether the First Amendment protects from prosecution under the federal Stolen Valor Act anyone falsely claiming to have received military decorations and medals.
The federal law imposes prison sentences of up to a year for those convicted under the statute. At issue is the case of a California man who falsely claimed to have been a Marine who had received the Medal of Honor. The man reportedly also lied about being married to a knockout Mexican starlet, rescuing an American ambassador and playing professional hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, but it was his falsehood about military honors that ran afoul of federal law.
The McClatchy Newspapers report on the case in Monday’s newspaper fueled a suspicion that there may be more people running around with false credentials and bogus claims to fame than we might suppose. And for some readers it may have brought to mind the implausible exploits of Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr., one of the more outrageous masqueraders of our time.
“The Great Impostor,” the title of author Robert Crichton’s 1959 biography of Demara, is a reference to Demara that has prevailed. A movie of the same name, starring Tony Curtis as Demara, was based on the biography.
Demara had numerous “careers” — including two in Maine — under assumed names and fake resumes. From 1949 to 1951, the Lawrence, Mass., native taught science and biology under the name of Cecil B. Hamman at Notre Dame Institute in Alfred, where he joined the Order of Brothers of Christian Instruction. During the 1956-57 school year, he taught high school English and Latin as “Martin Godgart” on the Penobscot Bay island of North Haven before being unmasked and arrested.
His most spectacular impersonation came when he joined the Royal Canadian Navy using the identity of Dr. Joseph Cyr of Grand Falls, New Brunswick, a man he had met at Alfred. Assigned as ship’s surgeon to a destroyer working the waters off Korea during the Korean War, “Dr. Cyr” performed shipboard operations — including amputations and major chest surgery — on Korean combat casualties. All patients survived, but when word of his work wound up in Canadian newspapers, he was exposed. The Canadian navy chose not to press charges, and Demara returned to the United States.
Among his other incarnations under phony credentials in a number of states over the years: Assistant prison warden, civil engineer, sheriff’s deputy, lawyer, hospital orderly, doctor of applied psychology, Benedictine monk, Trappist monk, editor, child-care expert and cancer researcher. According to Wikipedia, he last worked as a visiting chaplain (genuine) in a California hospital, where he died in 1982 at age 60.
Upon Demara’s death, Bangor Daily News reporter Emmet Meara interviewed St. George schoolteacher Dana Smith, who had been principal at North Haven High School during Demara’s brief tenure there.
“You could paint him any color you wanted. You could paint him as a scoundrel, a rogue, a good friend because he was a little bit of all. Most of all, he was unusual. But he is a good memory. And that is what life consists of,’’ Smith said of Demara, describing him as “very confident, very personable.”
However, he seemed to be “always looking for the shortcut,” Smith said. “He wanted to be someone, something. He loved titles. But he didn’t want to put in the time and the work. I guess he was too impatient.”
On Valentines Day 1957, two Maine State Police detectives stepped off the mainland ferry to interview the impostor and the jig was up. Acting on a tip, police confirmed the suspicions of some islanders as to “Godgart’s” true identity by comparing his fingerprints with a set supplied by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from Demara’s infamous gig as naval trauma surgeon.
Arrested and taken to Augusta, Demara pleaded guilty in Kennebec County Superior Court to a charge of fraudulently claiming to have held a college degree in applying for a state teacher’s license. He was given a suspended six-month jail sentence and placed on two years probation.
Demara “never hurt anyone on North Haven,” Smith said. “A few people were mad at what happened, but most considered it just another adventure that came and went.” The Great Impostor never told Smith why he had lived a life of deception, but he did explain his motivation to his biographer.
It was, he told Crichton, “Rascality. Pure rascality.”
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.