Who Do You Think You Are?

Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.


Many of us daydream about what it would be like to be someone else, but actually passing yourself off as a different person takes a lot more time and trouble. Titus Oates (1649–1705) had good reason to make the attempt.

He was a ghastly child. Sickly, with a permanently runny nose and dribbling mouth, he suffered from convulsions and as he grew older walked with a pronounced limp and developed an irritating voice, halfway between a bark and whine. His face was startlingly ugly, bright red in color and with almost no chin, so that his face appeared to be an extension of his corpulent neck. His character was no more appealing than his appearance. He was dim-witted, dull, and a habitual liar: Nobody liked him, not even his own father. After being expelled from school for cheating his teacher out of his tuition fees, he went to Cambridge, where he was thrown out of one college for stupidity and sent down from a second one for laziness. Leaving without a degree, he just pretended he had one anyway. This enabled him to get a license to preach from the bishop of London and, in March 1673, he was installed as the vicar of Bobbing, in Kent. So began a fantasy life that would be responsible for one of the most absurd and tragic episodes in British history.

Oates’s father, Samuel, was the son of a Church of England clergyman. As a young man, he had left the church to become a radical Baptist preacher and chaplain in Cromwell’s New Model Army, but by the time Titus was born, he had swung around again and converted back to Anglicanism. This rather flexible relationship with Christian belief was about the only character trait he passed on to his son.

Oates was no more popular as a parish priest than he had been at school or the university. A heavy drinker, he was rude and foulmouthed to his flock and lasted less than two years before they arranged to get rid of him. Returning to the family home in Hastings, he stood in as curate to his father but decided he would rather have the local schoolmaster’s job. So he accused him of sodomy. This blatant lie was quickly uncovered, and to escape a court appearance for perjury, Oates decamped to London and set out to sea as a naval chaplain.

It was on board the Adventure, bound for Tangier, that Oates claimed he first heard rumors of the “Popish Plot” to assassinate Charles II, but his maritime career was cut short when he was discovered performing homosexual acts, or “Italian love,” as it was then more delicately known. Sodomy was a hanging offense; it was only the fact that he was a clergyman that saved his skin.

Undaunted by his narrow escape, Oates bluffed his way into becoming chaplain to the Earl of Norwich. Within a few months, he was sacked for being generally unsuitable and constantly inebriated. His career options rapidly narrowing, he decided to try his luck as a Catholic. Pulling the wool over the eyes of an eccentric (and possibly insane) priest called Father Berry he was received into the Church of Rome in March 1677. Shortly afterward he met Father Richard Strange, head of the English Jesuits. There is strong evidence that Strange became Oates’s lover at this stage—it would be hard to explain why else he would bother with such an unattractive addition to the order.

Strange arranged for Oates to study with the Jesuits at Valladolid under the pseudonym Titus Ambrosius. Once again, it didn’t last long. The Spanish booted him out when they realized he had no grasp whatever of Latin. Oates returned to England, boasting of a divinity degree from the University of Salamanca (which, of course, he had never even visited). Encouraged by Strange to try elsewhere, he enrolled in another Jesuit seminary in France under another false name: Samson Lucy. Here, his engaging personal habits—drinking, smoking, swearing, and lying—made him so unpopular that a fellow seminarian attacked him with a frying pan. In a pattern that was by now tediously familiar, he was expelled and returned to London empty-handed. What fleeting attraction Catholicism had exerted over him had gone. Now all he wanted was revenge on the Roman Church—and the Jesuits in particular—that had so snubbed him.

He didn’t have to wait long. An elderly friend of his father’s, Dr. Israel Tongue, a virulent anti-Catholic, proposed producing some pamphlets using Oates’s firsthand “knowledge” to expose the so-called “Jesuit menace.” Together they hatched what purported to be an undercover report on the Church of Rome’s plans to assassinate Charles II and replace him with his Catholic brother, James. It was a lie from top to tail: a half-digested string of rumors, myths, and suppositions that the two men attempted to craft into a coherent story. It used every emotive device it could muster: a Europe-wide conspiracy at the highest level, private armies being amassed, secret cabals convened in London taverns, large injections of finance from treacherous Catholic families, even a special weapon that fired silver bullets, which would be used to do the deed while the king was out walking.

Charles II did this every day, regular as clockwork. He had even bought a piece of land so he could take his daily “constitutional walk” from Hyde Park to St. James’s without leaving royal soil. Constitution Hill, in what was then called Upper St. James’s Park (now Green Park), got its name from these walks. On August 13, 1678, the king was intercepted on his customary stroll and handed a copy of Tongue and Oates’s ramblings. The document listed the names of nearly one hundred “plotters,” most of them Jesuit priests. Every slight that the twenty-nine-year-old Oates had ever suffered had been poured into one lurid, win-or-bust piece of deception. Charles was unimpressed and inclined to ignore it, putting the matter into the hands of his first minister, the Earl of Danby. His brother James felt differently. He was outraged by the implications and publicly demanded an investigation.

With the “plot” now out in the open, Oates took the initiative. Before a magistrate called Sir Edmund Godfrey, he swore on oath that his allegations were true. He was an energetic but far from convincing liar. His evidence was confused and contradictory. He made forty-three separate charges, naming the names of prominent English Catholics in a more or less random list. Godfrey was skeptical, but Oates was summoned to appear before the Privy Council. Shrewdly cross-examined by the king himself, Oates warmed to his theme. He increased the number of charges to eighty-one—throwing in Samuel Pepys and the archbishop of Dublin for good measure—and then produced his trump card. It was a letter from Edward Coleman, a genuinely fanatic Catholic and secretary to James’s wife, Mary of Modena, Duchess of York, written to Father La Chaise, personal confessor to King Louis XIV of France. Barely had this shocking revelation become the subject of heated debate in every tavern and coffeehouse in London, when a few days later, the body of Sir Edmund Geoffrey was found on Primrose Hill, strangled and impaled on his own sword. The Privy Council jumped to the conclusion that papists were to blame and gave Oates carte blanche to crush the plot. He couldn’t believe his luck. As one contemporary observed: “His greatest pleasure was to speed hither and thither accompanied by soldiers, enjoying complete power to imprison those he chose.” He even took the chance to settle a score by arresting his old headmaster, whom he hadn’t forgiven for expelling him as a boy.

Samuel Pepys was seized and sent to the Tower of London. After the jury took just fifteen minutes to reach their verdict, Edward Coleman was hanged, drawn, and quartered and thirty-four other people—including several Catholic priests and the archbishop of Armagh—were executed for treason. Public panic set in: Anyone even remotely suspected of being Catholic was driven out of London and not allowed back within a ten-mile radius. The House of Commons was searched for gunpowder and there were rumors of a French invasion on the isle of Purbeck in Dorset. By the end of 1678 Parliament had passed the second Test Act ruling that only Protestants could sit in the Houses of Parliament. Anyone in public office had to swear allegiance to the Crown and take an oath of “supremacy” confirming that the monarch was supreme head of the Church of England. Many people—including the king—doubted the truth of Oates’s allegations, but he was rewarded with an apartment in Whitehall, an annual allowance of £1,200, and his own coat of arms.

Gradually, though, public opinion began to turn. No “great plot” materialized. Serious contradictions in Oates’s evidence began to emerge and the judges started to find in favor of those he had accused. In 1681 he was thrown out of his grace-and-favor lodgings. In 1684 he was arrested at a city coffeehouse, tried for defamation, fined the enormous sum of £100,000 (equivalent to almost $20 million today), and thrown into prison for calling the king’s brother James a traitor. Worse was to come when James came to the throne, intent on revenging his fellow Catholics whom Oates’s lies had condemned to death. The one-time savior of the English monarchy was now vilified in pamphlets as a “Buggering, Brazen-faced, Lanthorn-jawed, Tallow-chapt Leviathan.” He was retried, this time for perjury, sentenced to life imprisonment, stripped of his clerical status, and forced to endure a public flogging. He received more than a thousand lashes while being dragged behind a cart from Aldgate to Tyburn, a distance of more than three miles. To rub salt in the wound, he had to appear five times a year in different parts of London, spending a whole day in the stocks and being pelted with eggs and kitchen slops.

Notwithstanding his horrific injuries from the flogging and regular beatings from his jailers, Oates survived, and with the accession of William of Orange in 1688, he was free once more. Undeterred by his experiences, and his powers of persuasion still intact, he got a job as a royal spy, the new king paying him an allowance to keep an eye on possible French Jacobite plotters. In 1693, hideous though he was, Oates married a wealthy young widow, and despite the sniggering about his homosexuality, the couple went on to have a daughter. Somehow, he got yet another job as a minister, this time as a Baptist. It was no more successful than any of his other clerical posts. One of his parishioners, Heather Parker, disliked him so much that, on her deathbed, she expressly asked that he be barred from attending her funeral. When the day came, Oates’s response was to occupy the pulpit and preach an interminable and irrelevant sermon to delay the ceremony, causing a riot in the church, and being thrown out, yet again, by his own congregation.

It was to be his last expulsion, but not his last appearance in court. In 1702 he was fined at Westminster for hitting a woman over the head with his walking stick. She had confronted him about his sermons criticizing the Church of England and accusing Charles II of being a closet papist. A man in his mid-fifties hitting a woman is particularly pathetic. Prison had not improved his manners or diminished his insolent self-regard. He was what he always had been, an insecure coward and a bully. His delusional fantasies had signed the death warrant of thirty-five entirely innocent men, changed the law of the land, and disrupted the lives of thousands of English Catholics. He spent his last years in obscurity writing religious tracts that nobody read and haunting the Westminster law courts as a spectator. He never tired of complicated, self-justifying stories.

If Titus Oates had any redeeming features, history does not record them. The same cannot be said of Alessandro, Count Cagliostro (1743–95). He too was a liar and a charlatan, but he became a genuine celebrity all over late eighteenth-century Europe. Magician, Freemason, alchemist, forger, spiritualist, and healer, he inspired both Goethe’s Faust and Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It’s hard to think of another historical figure whose story also links Pope Pius IV, Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, Casanova, and William Blake.

Born Giuseppe Balsamo in one of the poorest parts of Sicily, he lost his father while still a child. His mother couldn’t afford to educate him, so at the age of fifteen, with the help of relatives, he was sent to a nearby monastery. The Fatebenefratelli, or “Do-Good Brothers,” were Augustinian monks famed for their network of hospitals. Medicine and chemistry were well taught and Giuseppe was a gifted pupil, spending his free time in the library, poring over books of occult lore. But he was still a Sicilian street brat at heart and—rather like Oates—foulmouthed, belligerent, and lazy. During mealtime readings of the lives of the saints, he swapped their names for those of notorious Palermo prostitutes. The monks rapidly tired of these games and let him go. Bright and unscrupulous, he settled into a life of petty crime and soon became a gang leader. Using what he’d learned in the monastery, he was also able to pose as a convincing alchemist. In this guise he convinced a goldsmith called Marano that he had sold his soul to the devil and could locate a cave in the mountains stuffed full of gold, but that first he would need sixty ounces of the precious metal to perform some expensive preliminary magic. The venal and credulous Marano fetched the money and, at midnight, set out for the hills, where he was promptly ambushed by six of Giuseppe’s accomplices dressed as devils armed with pitchforks and, according to the terrified merchant, blowing blue and red flames. They beat and robbed him and left him for dead. Giuseppe pocketed his share of the cash and left Palermo, never to return.

The attention to detail is impressive. The costumes weren’t strictly necessary for the robbery, but they gave life to a tale that was told and retold and that always left Marano looking a fool. This imaginative approach to crime—with the victims appearing to deserve their comeuppance—was to become Giuseppe’s trademark.

Arriving at Messina on the other side of the island, he lodged with his well-to-do uncle, Joseph Cagliostro, before swiftly making off with some of his money and his surname. As Giuseppe Cagliostro, he set out on a series of escapades in Egypt and Turkey in the company of a mysterious adept called Althotas, an alchemist who spoke several Eastern languages. To fund their travels, they hawked a chemical formula devised by the old magician that supposedly transformed rough fibers of hemp so they appeared to be silk. These could be sold to merchants at a profit, a rather more practical alchemy than turning base metal into gold.

By 1765 he was in Malta, in the service of the secretive Knights Hospitaller, Europe’s richest and most powerful charitable institution. The Grand Master was himself an alchemist, and Giuseppe’s training as an apothecary came in handy: He ground medicine during the day and concocted his own potions in the evenings. After three years, he decided it was safe to return to Italy and, in 1768, surfaced in Rome, carrying letters of recommendation from the Grand Master himself. These secured him the patronage of Cardinal Orsini, whose secretary he became. Rome had a thriving Sicilian community: sharp-witted, resourceful immigrants keen to make money, from whom Giuseppe learned how to forge paintings and antiquities and sell them to tourists. At the same time, he put his medical skills to good use, presenting himself as a physician and peddling the fruits of his Maltese experiments: an “elixir of life” that was said to delay the aging process.

Not long after he arrived, he fell in love with and married a fourteen-year-old Roman girl called Lorenza Serafina Feliciani, from a poor family. She was both heart-stoppingly beautiful and more than a match for her husband in cunning. Without her, Giuseppe Balsamo might never have promoted himself to the giddy heights of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. They were a brilliant team—he was handsome, charismatic, and ruthless; she was prepared to do anything to achieve a life of luxury and privilege. Giuseppe used her charms to entrap wealthy men whom he could then blackmail. On meeting the consummate con man, the Marquis of Agliata, he went even further, trading his wife’s sexual favors in return for instruction in how to forge official documents. Soon he could produce letters of credit, wills, army commissions, even titles. A string of new identities followed. Styling themselves “the Colonel and Mrs. Pelligrini,” they met Casanova. He was captivated by them but warned them to be careful: Forgery was a risky business and carried the death penalty. He needn’t have worried: Rome was already becoming too small and the Inquisition too suspicious. The Pelligrinis disappeared and the Count and Countess di Cagliostro took Europe by storm.

Over the next two decades, they lived and worked in France, England, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Russia, and Poland. In Germany they met another great impostor, the Count de Saint Germain, who made a decent living by claiming to be two thousand years old. As ever, Cagliostro listened and learned. In Strasbourg, he encountered the fashionable theory of animal magnetism and incorporated it into his act. In London, the chance discovery of an old manuscript inspired him to revive the ancient Egyptian Order of Masons, publicizing it as a return to the authentic roots of Freemasonry. Renting a house on Sloane Street, he billed himself as the “Grand Coptha.” Serafina was the Grand Priestess, able to transfer the eternal spirit simply by breathing on a person’s cheek. The order not only admitted women to the lodge, it also held elaborate ceremonies in which participants of both sexes wore nothing but diaphanous robes. Acolytes were taught the names of seven secret angels to ease their path to earthly riches and immortality. Polite London society was mesmerized and subscriptions poured in.

The basic business plan was the same wherever they went. Arriving in a city, they rented grand and luxurious rooms and announced the establishment of a brand-new school of medicine and philosophy. The services they offered wove together Masonry, alchemy, animal magnetism, and Giuseppe’s trusty elixir of life—with an unmistakable background throb of sex. Cagliostro led the healing and the rituals; the Countess sat looking ravishing and offering a direct connection to the spirit world, like some elegant piece of mystical wireless technology. As one Parisian chronicler remarked:

There was hardly a fine lady in Paris who would not sup with the shade of Lucretius; a military officer who would not discuss war with Caesar, Hannibal or Alexander; or an advocate or counsellor who would not argue legal points with Cicero.

Premium services such as the elixir and the spirit consultations had to be paid for, but the healing was free and open to all. This was a brilliant marketing ploy: once the news spread, the sick and the poor queued up at the premises, adding philanthropy to the Cagliostros’ burgeoning reputation. What’s more, the treatments seemed to work. In Strasbourg more than fifteen thousand people claimed they had been cured; in Bordeaux the crowd greeting their arrival was so vast the local militia had to be deployed; and in Lyon, Cagliostro fever led to the building of a vast new Masonic temple to house his Egyptian Rite.

As is the way with fads, the excitement soon faded. Most of the cures came from the placebo effect, from people’s own belief in the magical powers on offer. Once that started to waver, the success rate dwindled and Cagliostro was forced to make even more extreme claims: that he could travel in time; he had been with Christ at the wedding at Cana; he could make himself invisible. When business started to fall off, it was time to move on.

This served them well for several years, and they amassed quite a fortune. Then things started to go seriously awry. Cagliostro’s attempt to seduce Catherine the Great with a love potion was a hopeless failure. She declared him a fraud and a menace and had him thrown out of Russia. In London a team of tricksters, intent on relieving him of his alchemical formulas, took advantage of his ignorance of English law and summonsed him for debt. Much of the money he had made inducting men and women into his Egyptian order went to bribe his way out of debtor’s prison. In France, his friend Cardinal de Rohan became embroiled in the affair of the diamond necklace implicating Marie Antoinette. Without a shred of evidence, Cagliostro was thrown into the Bastille. Even there he left a lasting impression: Graffiti he scrawled on his cell wall was said to have predicted the Bastille would be “pulled down” in 1789.

Ejected from France, almost bankrupt and tired of their rootless and increasingly hazardous travels, Serafina persuaded Cagliostro to return to Rome. It was a terrible mistake. The Inquisition had Freemasonry in its sights and the great illusionist was caught trying to recruit two papal spies into his Egyptian order. To save herself, Serafina testified against him. Cagliostro received a death sentence, but after an audience with the pope, this was commuted to life imprisonment. The unique life of Giuseppe Balsamo, Count di Cagliostro, ended in a stone box high up in the fortress of San Leo, near Urbino. For four years, his only connection with the outside world was through a tiny trapdoor. Tormented by his captors, starving and louse ridden, he gradually lost his mind and died of a stroke in 1795. As a heretic, he was refused the last rites and buried in the grounds of the castle in an unmarked grave. So many people refused to believe the news that Napoleon was forced to commission an official report, detailing beyond doubt that Cagliostro—inventor of the elixir of life—really was dead.

Some years earlier, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) had visited Sicily, fascinated by rumors that Cagliostro wasn’t really a count at all, but a jumped-up guttersnipe from Palermo. He tracked down Cagliostro’s mother, who was living with her daughter and two grandchildren crammed into a one-room apartment. Rather touchingly, they were thrilled to hear that their Giuseppe had done so well for himself, but disappointed that he hadn’t thought to help them. Goethe later sent them some money but the visit proved far more valuable for him. The idea of a man whose life is based on a lie and who claims to possess supernatural powers found its niche in history many years later in his great play Faust. Cagliostro’s journey from poverty, to fame and riches, to penury and disgrace has an undeniably mythic quality. Even today, some people make claims for him as a great seer, with the courage and energy to do what few of us manage: to dream up a better life for himself and then to live it. Just as Oates had exploited people by playing on their nameless fears of impending doom, Cagliostro tapped into the common sense that there is more to life than meets the eye; that what happens to us is driven by unseen forces. It may be that he succeeded because people wanted to believe him.

Cagliostro never admitted his humble origins and most impostors never do. Some are unveiled by others; some move through a succession of disguises; very few unmask themselves. One who did was George Psalmanazar (1679–1763), who first appeared in England in 1704, feted as a prince of Formosa, the first from his remote land (modern-day Taiwan) ever to visit Europe. It was the culmination of several years roaming the Continent trying on personalities. The first of these was as an Irish pilgrim on his way to Rome—the pilgrim’s cloak gave him the right to beg for money—but people’s knowledge of Ireland proved to be annoyingly widespread, so he developed a new persona: that of a “heathen” from Japan, fond of swearing and eating heavily spiced raw meat and sleeping upright in a chair. In Germany, he enlisted as a mercenary, using his leisure to methodically build up corroborative evidence of his new identity: a “Japanese” alphabet of twenty characters that read from right to left; the rules of “his” language and pagan religion; and a calendar of twenty months. By the time he reached the Netherlands in 1701, he had adjusted his point of origin to the even more obscure Formosa and called himself Psalmanazar, a name he had borrowed from the biblical Assyrian king Shalamaneser, adding the foregoing P for a natty alien flourish.

In Holland he met an ambitious young Scottish army chaplain called Alexander Innes. One of the legacies of the anti-Catholic paranoia that Oates had left in his wake was a deep antipathy to the Jesuits. They were believed to run a secret international spy ring designed to undermine Protestantism and make converts at every turn. Psalmanazar said he had been tricked into leaving his homeland by a Jesuit in disguise, which had left him with a strong aversion to Catholicism. Whether or not Innes believed him, he at once saw a chance for professional advancement. Here was a potentially high-profile convert in the opposite direction. Now all that was needed was for him to be received into the Church of England. The plan worked. The bishop of London was thrilled by the heathen-turned-Anglican and proudly introduced him to the great and the good of London society. Not only was Innes lavishly praised for having brought about the conversion, he also retained the lucrative rights to Psalmanazar’s public appearances, exhibiting him as a glamorous “royal” to a paying audience.

Given that even educated English people of the time knew next to nothing about the Far East (and even less about the island of Formosa), Psalmanazar was able to get away with some madly outlandish claims. Its capital Xternetsa, he revealed, was presided over by the Emperor Meriaandanoo and men went naked except for a decorative plate of silver or gold covering their sexual organs. Though now reformed, he himself had once been a cannibal, because in Formosa it was legal to eat adulterous wives. Men did not generally marry until they reached fifty, but thereafter did so as often as possible because a supply of baby boys was in constant demand as live sacrifices to their god, who appeared sometimes as an elephant, sometimes as an ox. Psalmanazar wore a snake around his neck because, he explained, that was how Formosans kept cool. Within a year he had produced a book that became an immediate bestseller. A Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan, painted elaborate pictures of Formosan life, language, and culture. It was ingenious, sensational, and entirely bogus.

Some were dubious from the beginning. Psalmanazar went head to head with Jean de Fontenay, a Jesuit who had actually spent time in Formosa, who asked him why his skin was so fair. He responded by saying that Formosan royalty lived underground. He was invited to speak to members of the Royal Society, where the astronomer Edmund Halley challenged him vigorously. Halley inquired if sunlight ever shone directly down the chimneys of Formosan houses. Since the island was near the equator it was logical that at certain times of year it would do so, but Psalmanazar said it didn’t. Then, sensing a trap, he added, “Formosan chimneys are almost always built at crooked angles and containing bends.”

By 1707 the Formosan craze was over. Psalmanazar’s attempts to capitalize on his fame by marketing a brand of lacquer that he called “white Formosan work” failed to catch on, and after brief stints painting ladies’ fans and working as a clerk to an army regiment, he decided to devote himself to writing. In 1717 he confessed to his friends that the whole thing had been a fraud. It’s a testament to his true character that he wasn’t ostracized. Far from it: The “pretended Formosan” settled quite easily into life as a jobbing member of Grub Street. Already fluent in Latin, he learned Hebrew and his contributions to several large encyclopedias were praised for the accuracy of their research, particularly when describing the customs and culture of ancient peoples. He even produced a corrective article on Formosa, this time basing it on fact. The young Dr. Johnson counted him a close friend, enthusiastically stating that his company was “preferable to almost anyone else.” When Boswell asked him if he ever mentioned Formosa, Johnson replied he was “afraid even to mention China” and as for opposing so learned and devout a man: “I should as soon think of contradicting a Bishop!”

Psalmanazar’s final act of contrition was to write his memoirs. Published after his death, they throw light on his unfathomable decisions to construct and then deconstruct his Formosan identity. Though he never reveals his true name—and no one has ever been able to do so since—he does say that he was born into a poor family in southern France and was educated by Jesuits, and that his father left home when he was young. Psalmanazar’s troubles began when he was sacked as a tutor to a rich family for refusing the sexual advances of the mistress of the house. His “prodigious” gift for languages offered a way out and a chance to earn a living as someone else. Fastening on Formosa afforded him “a vast scope to a fertile fancy to work upon.” In another age, with his talent for finegrained invention, he might have made a superb fantasy novelist.

Unlike Oates and Cagliostro, Psalmanazar was, in the end, a truthful man. He underwent a religious experience after reading William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), an eighteenth-century self-help manual that also changed the life of his friend Dr. Johnson. Law’s mystical work advised surrender to God on the grounds that God’s wisdom is beyond rational inquiry. This new philosophical outlook, coupled with a deep absorption in his scholarship, somehow released Psalmanazar, enabling him to come to terms with what he called the “vile and romantic account” that had briefly made him famous. He reinvented himself as a pious and respected English man of letters, his last and happiest persona. But there is in the memoirs, written in his eighties, still a mischievous twinkle in his eye: “I never met with, nor heard of any one, that ever guessed right, or any thing near it, with regard to my native country.” His last secret—who he really was—he took with him to his grave.

Almost half a century later, another example of self-appointed foreign royalty came to light in the West Country in the exotic persona of Princess Caraboo (1791–1864).

In April 1817 a beautiful young woman in a turban knocked at the door of a cobbler in the village of Almondsbury in Gloucestershire, not far from Bristol. She spoke an unintelligible language, but gestured that she needed a place to sleep. Unsure what to do, the cobbler’s wife took her to Mr. Hill, the overseer of the poor. He would normally have locked her up as a vagabond but instead chose to escort her to the manor house to seek advice from the local bigwig, Samuel Worrall, the county magistrate and town clerk of Bristol. Worrall’s manservant (who was Greek and spoke several European languages) could make no sense of her either, so it was arranged for her to spend the night at the village inn. There, she insisted on sleeping on the floor rather than a bed, and on seeing a picture of a pineapple on the wall, she said the word ananas. Offered a cup of tea, she covered her eyes and muttered what seemed to be a prayer before drinking it.

The next day she was taken back to the manor house for a second interview. Samuel Worrall’s American wife, Elizabeth, took a liking to her, showing her some furniture decorated with Chinese scenes and coaxing her into revealing her name was Caraboo. But the Greek manservant was suspicious and Worrall himself—known as “Devil” Worrall and a notorious drunkard—irritably intervened and declared she was a beggar and must be sent to Bristol to be tried for vagrancy. During her brief incarceration there, a Portuguese sailor was found who claimed to understand her language. He explained that she was from an island called Javasu. Her mother had been killed in a war against the Boogoos (who were cannibals), and she had been kidnapped by pirates (killing one of them in the process). She had escaped by leaping from the pirate ship as it passed through the Bristol Channel and swum ashore. What’s more, she was a princess.

This rather altered things for “Devil” Worrall. He had been trying to publicize his struggling private bank and was most accommodating when his wife insisted the “princess” be brought back to Knole Park as an honored guest. She stayed with them through the summer, delighting throngs of visitors. She showed off her fencing and archery skills, swam naked in the lake, performed a war dance involving a gong, prepared a spicy chicken curry, and prayed to “Allah Tallah” from the treetops. The Worralls’ Greek manservant brooded in the background. Once, he woke her in the middle of the night yelling “Fire!” but the princess showed no sign of alarm. A written sample of Princess Caraboo’s native language found its way to Oxford University, where linguists gave their opinion that it was a fake, so Mr. Worrall invited the learned Dr. Wilkinson from Bath to settle the matter once and for all. Wilkinson, who lectured on everything from electricity to washable wallpaper, immediately brushed all doubts aside. The incisions on the back of her head could only be the work of oriental surgeons and her language was, of course, Rejang, a dialect of Sumatra.

A delighted Worrall encouraged Dr. Wilkinson to publish his findings in full in the local paper, and this proved to be the princess’s undoing. Mrs. Neale, a landlady from Bristol, identified her as a former lodger who had entertained the household by reciting a made-up language. When confronted with the news, the princess broke down and confessed the truth to Mrs. Worrall: She was really Mary Baker, a cobbler’s daughter from Titheridge, in Devon.

The Worralls (and the ludicrous Dr. Wilkinson) became laughingstocks, but they decided that punishing the girl would only make things worse. It would be less embarrassing if she just disappeared, so they put her aboard a ship sailing for Philadelphia. Worrall’s bank collapsed soon afterward, forcing him to resign as town clerk. For a few months Mary made theatrical appearances in America and wrote letters to Mrs. Worrall, keeping her up-to-date with her progress as a minor celebrity. By the year’s end the letters stopped coming. Nothing more was heard of her until “Princess Caraboo” suddenly reappeared on Bond Street in London. Later she toured other European countries, but the shows were not a success and she returned to Bristol, where she got married (oddly enough, to a man called Baker) and gave birth to a daughter.

The details of her life before she became Princess Caraboo are sadly typical of many poor women of her time. She had contracted rheumatic fever as a child, after which, her father said, she had “never been right in the head.” Worn out by spells as a farm laborer and a domestic maid, but always a tomboy, she left home at nineteen and set off on the road, living rough. Half starved and depressed, she tried to hang herself, but stopped at the last minute, afraid of committing a mortal sin. When she reached London she was seriously ill—the scars on the back of her head that Dr. Wilkinson had found were in fact the result of a clumsy operation in a poorhouse hospital.

Mary had many other adventures during her five- or six-year absence from the West Country. She was briefly admitted to Magdalen Hospital, a home for fallen women, but was asked to leave when it became clear she hadn’t ever actually worked as a prostitute. When asked why she had come there in the first place, she said simply that she’d liked the look of the brown dresses and straw hats the inmates wore. Once, walking over Salisbury plain, disguised as a man for safety, she was captured and imprisoned by a band of highwaymen. On another occasion, she became pregnant, identifying the father as an Exeter bricklayer called John Baker or a Frenchman she had met in a bookshop. The child didn’t live long and Mary was on her way once more. She fell in step with a group of Romanies, who may have inspired her to invent her “Javasu” language, and worked as a cook for a Jewish family, whose religious rituals possibly provided material for her own arcane incantations.

Just before appearing from nowhere as Princess Caraboo, she was sacked as a children’s nanny by Mr. and Mrs. Starling, of Islington, for frightening the young Starlings with hair-raising tales of being born in the “East Indies.” Mrs. Starling declared her anecdotes so wild she could “not even begin to recollect a quarter of the girl’s vagaries.” Mary had also set fire to two beds in a week.

A contemporary account of Princess Caraboo’s life noted her remarkable ability to maintain her story in the face of repeated questioning and called her performance “an instance of consummate art and duplicity.” On arriving in Bristol from London, Mary noticed the Breton beggar girls, and copied their dress by adopting a turban. She pretended to be French, but when questioned by a French official, she said she was Spanish. When the inevitable Spaniard was produced, she improvised her own lingo out of her own head.

It now seems clear that her great deception began only to avoid being locked up for the night for vagrancy. Finding herself believed by so many of the good folk of Almondsbury, the temptation to avoid, by any means, a return to her degrading and aimless past must have been impossible to resist. What she lacked in formal education she more than made up for in imagination, quick thinking, and an excellent memory. The local gentry were content to go along with her fantasy rather than betray their own ignorance, and when “experts” on foreign countries were called in to question her, the princess invariably kept a judicious but enigmatic silence. But she listened carefully, squirreling away their overheard conversations to use later. As with Psalmanazar, celebrity changed and calmed her. The adulation of her many admirers seemed to assuage the restlessness and suicidal urges of her youth. She did not find riches with her fame, but maybe she found herself and, with that, the contentment that had eluded her for so long.

For the last thirty years of her life Mary lived a genteel existence, quietly supplying leeches to Bristol Infirmary. Her past only occasionally rose up to embarrass her when local children called out “Caraboo!” She fell dead in the street on Christmas Eve 1864, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her daughter, also called Mary, carried on the leech business, living alone in a house full of cats, where she died in a fire in 1900.

Take away the pretensions to royal blood, and Princess Caraboo’s story is echoed a generation later in the adventures of Louis de Rougemont (1847–1921). He came to public notice via a series of fantastic articles published in London’s Wide World magazine, in which he recalled his thirty years in the wilds of Papua New Guinea and the Australian Outback.

His story went like this: Originally Swiss, he had been shipwrecked in 1864 en route to northern Australia on a Singaporean pearling boat. Rescued by his dog Bruno, who dragged him from the depths by his long hair and then towed him ashore by his tail, he spent two years on an uninhabited island, keeping fit by doing gymnastics on the sand and taking rides on the backs of turtles. He steered the turtles by poking his left or right toe into the appropriate eye according to which direction he wanted to travel and then ate them, using their blood to nourish the corn he planted in their upturned shells. Liberated by some passing natives in a canoe, he went back to their village, where he married an Aboriginal tribeswoman called Yamba and was treated as a god. He was given the name Winnimah (meaning “lightning”) because he could shoot down birds in midflight with his bow and arrow. He would lead the tribe into battle against other villages, wearing stilts and dressed as a wizard. At sea he was a fearless sailor, once killing a whale single-handedly and on another occasion wrestling a crocodile.

De Rougemont’s articles did not go unchallenged. Like Psalmanazar, he received a public grilling, in his case by members of the Royal Geographical Society. They were unimpressed by his inability to show them where he had been on any map, and by his sparse grasp of any of the native languages he had supposedly learned in the wild. In due course, an investigation by the Daily Chronicle revealed that de Rougemont’s real name was Henry Louis Grin, and that he had a wife and seven children in Australia. He had run away from his responsibilities after various harebrained inventions failed to sell, including an automated potato digger that didn’t work, and a diving suit that drowned the first man who tried it. He had augmented his knowledge of northern Australia with research in the Reading Room at the British Library. Exposed by the press, de Rougemont (or Grin) turned it to his advantage, touring South Africa in 1899 as “The Greatest Liar on Earth,” though a similar tour to Australia didn’t go down at all well and he was booed offstage.

In 1906 he appeared in the huge aquarium at the London Hippodrome, where he successfully demonstrated his turtle-riding skills, but his last business venture (producing an apparently inedible substitute for meat) came to nothing during World War I.

After that, de Rougemont lived, according to his obituary in the New York Times, in “a simple style” in London as Louis Redmond until his death in a workhouse hospital in 1921.

Compared to Cagliostro, his career as an impostor was fleeting. The world had moved on since the days of Psalmanazar and Princess Caraboo. Rationality was the order of the day. Modern communications offered fewer places to hide, and science had learned much with the passing of the years. Though de Rougemont was a plausible liar and armed with in-depth research, he couldn’t resist pushing things too far. His claims of encountering flying wombats were never likely to survive expert scrutiny.

One who did survive expert scrutiny, unsuspected, and for an entire lifetime, was James Barry (1792–1865). Even without the concealment at its heart, Barry’s life would rank as extraordinary. Graduating as a doctor at thirteen, he joined the British Army and was appointed assistant surgeon before his fifteenth birthday. His first posting was to Cape Town, where he became personal physician to the governor, Sir Charles Somerset. In 1826 he found fame as the first British doctor to perform a successful caesarean section. Slightly built and just above five feet tall, James Barry was also famous for his sharp tongue and quick temper, challenging several men to duels (though he never killed anyone). After tours of duty in Mauritius and Jamaica, he was posted to St. Helena as resident surgeon. Here his argumentative streak led to a court-martial for “conduct unbecoming,” and although he was exonerated, he was sent home to England. In 1851 he was appointed deputy inspector general of hospitals in Corfu, where his innovations in the hygiene and diet of patients set new standards that were to inspire Florence Nightingale. Barry was considered too senior to serve in the Crimea, but he nevertheless visited it and met the Lady with the Lamp, giving her the worst dressing down of her life. She was later to write: “I should say [he] was the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the army.” After many more medical reforms and other successes, Barry was retired (against his wishes), settling in Marylebone, London, where he died of diarrhea during an epidemic in 1865.

He had left strict instructions that his body was to be left in the clothes he died in and sewn up in a sheet before his burial. Although the senior doctor had already examined him and signed his death certificate, as his corpse was being laid out, a female attendant noticed something unusual. It was the body of a woman—and one that had, at some point, borne a child. The funeral at St. Paul’s went ahead regardless and Barry was buried (as a man) in Kensal Green cemetery, but the scandalous news soon leaked out. Some said Barry was a hermaphrodite, others that she was a woman; many refused to believe any such thing. But as there was no postmortem, no definitive judgment could be made and the army decided to lock Barry’s records away for a century.

Thanks to some heroic research in the 1950s by the historian Isobel Rae, we now know that James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley, the daughter of a Cork grocer. She had started dressing as a boy from the age of ten. Her mother, Mary-Ann, was the sister of a real James Barry, a professor of painting at the Royal Academy. The family fell on hard times after Margaret’s father was jailed for debt in 1803, so her mother and some influential friends of her uncle James conspired to smuggle her into medical school.

The disappearance of Margaret Bulkley and the appearance of James Barry were carefully orchestrated. Mrs. Bulkley and “James” traveled up to Edinburgh posing as aunt and nephew, and the new “James Barry” enrolled at the university. To protect the secret, they cut themselves off from friends and family. Only the conspirators knew who they were. From then on, Margaret always wore an overcoat and lied about her age to avoid questions about her smooth chin and high voice. Her graduation in 1812, though no one suspected it at the time, made her the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain.

As for the question of her baby, it seems likely that it was conceived as a result of her relationship with Lord Charles Somerset, governor of the Cape Colony. Their close friendship had given rise to rumors of a gay affair at the time, and Barry made an unexplained excursion to Mauritius for several months where it is possible she gave birth. No record of the fate of the child has survived and her mother, of course, never even so much as hinted at its existence.

It’s barely credible that such a successful and public individual managed to conceal the secret of her sex for more than sixty years. The pressure to keep up appearances must have been extraordinary, and her aggressive demeanor part of that front. Once dismissed as a transvestite, or some sort of intersexual freak, neither description does justice to this astonishing person. Man enough to flirt with women, and feminine enough to give birth to her lover’s child, James Barry must rank as the most successful impostor of all time.

A single change of identity was enough to last Margaret Bulkley for a lifetime, but Ignácz Trebitsch Lincoln (1879–1943) seems to have suffered from multiple personality disorder. He was variously an actor, arms dealer, post-office worker, oil speculator, British Liberal MP, vicar, and German spy. His spiritual loyalties were even looser than those of Titus Oates, veering from Judaism to Presbyterianism, working as an Anglican missionary, and finally ending up as a Buddhist monk. Like Oates, he combined a desperate desire for recognition with a breathtaking dishonesty. Unlike Oates, he was also highly intelligent and immensely likable.

Ignácz Trebitsch was born in the small town of Paks in central Hungary, one of at least fourteen children. The scant attention he received no doubt explains much of his future behavior. In 1895, his family moved to Budapest and the sixteen-year-old Trebitsch enrolled at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Dramatic Art. He lied to get in and dropped out after a year. Falsehood and inability to stick to one course were to be the hallmarks of his career. At eighteen, pursued by the police for stealing a gold watch, Trebitsch fled abroad. He spent almost no time in his homeland again. As his biographer Bernard Wasserstein put it: “Travel for Trebitsch was not a source of amusement or of intellectual enrichment; it was a disease.”

In London, he met the Reverend Lypshytz of the Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews. Trebitsch had been raised as an Orthodox Jew and was woefully short of cash, so he knew at once what to do. The prospect of a regular income as a Presbyterian missionary was easily enough to induce him to convert to Christianity. Sent to Montreal, Canada, he squandered large amounts of the society’s money without denting the religious persuasion of anyone. In 1901 he married Margarethe Kahlor, the daughter of a German sea captain, and brought her back to England, where she had four sons and he spent her inheritance. He served briefly as an Anglican curate in Appledore in Kent—just forty miles from Bobbing, where the Reverend Oates had enraged his flock—adding the word Lincoln to his name by deed poll to make himself sound more English. It was one of more than a dozen names he was to use in his career.

In 1904 I. T. T. Lincoln, as he now styled himself, failed the exams for the priesthood and started casting around for gainful employment. His eye fell on Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, Quaker philanthropist, Liberal grandee, and confectionery magnate. Expertly charming his way into Rowntree’s affections, Trebitsch Lincoln got himself appointed as his research assistant for a book he was planning on poverty in Belgium. The work involved frequent visits to the Continent and the linguistically gifted Trebitsch was ideal. He set to the task with alacrity, using Rowntree’s name, money, and access to British embassies around Europe to live life to the full, and supplementing his already generous income (or so he later claimed) by moonlighting as a German double agent.

The innocent Rowntree was impressed by his energy, and it occurred to him he was just the sort of person Britain needed as an MP. He used his influence with the Liberal Party to take him on as candidate for the safe Conservative seat of Darlington: The only Hungarian citizen ever to be formally adopted by a major British political party. Hurriedly securing British naturalization, Mr. Ignatius Lincoln stood in the general election of January 1910. Endorsed by his fellow Liberals Churchill and Lloyd George, and delivering his speeches in a thick Hungarian accent, he ridiculed his opponent’s trade policy by claiming it was forcing Germans to eat their own dogs. To everybody’s amazement, he won. Though by only the slender margin of twenty-nine votes, it was an astounding achievement: The sitting Unionist MP was Herbert Pike Pease, a prominent local figure whose family had founded the Stockton and Darlington railway and who basically owned the town. Lincoln’s victory earned him a cartoon in Punch. He took his seat in the House, but because MPs were unpaid at the time, he was soon in considerable debt. When a second general election was called in December, he stood down, pleading insolvency.

This freed him to concentrate on a more straightforward career as a fraudster. With financial backing from the unsuspecting Rowntree, he floated a series of public corporations to exploit oil wells in central Europe, raising large amounts of investment on the stock market, not repaying borrowed money, and ruining the shareholders in the companies he started, all of which collapsed. Desperate, he resorted to forgery to obtain further loans, but by 1914 he was bankrupt again.

When World War I broke out, Trebitsch Lincoln, as a former Austro-Hungarian citizen with a German wife, found himself in an awkward situation. He was also fearful of arrest, lest his forgeries be discovered. Never one to take the easy option, he decided he would become a spy—ideally as a double agent in a neutral country.

He didn’t mind who took him on. He offered his services to the British first, but they ignored him. He then went to Holland and tried the Germans. The Germans were dubious, but decided to give him a go. So he returned to England and promptly offered to sell German secret codes (that he didn’t have) to the British. While he was getting nowhere with them, his past caught up with him (as he had feared it would) and he had to leave in a hurry for the United States to avoid arrest for fraud. Here he sold his story to the papers: the British MP turned German master spy.

Infuriated by his antics, the British government sought his extradition, and Trebitsch was arrested by the Americans and packed off back to London. While in prison awaiting trial, he was given a job in the censor’s office at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, reading mail written in German. He was taken there and back each day in a prison van. Making friends with his guards, on the way home one evening, he somehow persuaded them it would be a good idea if they all stopped off for a drink. So while the guards went to the bar, Trebitsch went to the bathroom and escaped out of the window.

He went on the run, making his way back to the States and supporting himself by writing yet more brazen (and largely fictitious) accounts of his spying career for the newspapers. The British, after much difficulty and a series of fiascos involving the U.S. federal police and the Pinkerton detective agency, managed to track him down and extradite him a second time. He stood trial and was sentenced to three years for fraud, which he served in Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight. In 1919, having done his time, he was stripped of his British citizenship and deported to mainland Europe.

He headed for Germany, where the extreme right-wing journalist Wolfgang Kapp and a cadre of anti-Semitic former German army officers were plotting the overthrow of the Weimar Republic. Trebitsch, with his effortless ability to get on with absolutely anybody, was appointed press officer to the group, in which capacity he met the young Hitler. With his fellow Nazi Dietrich Eckart, Hitler had flown to Berlin intending to join the coup. But on catching sight of Trebitsch’s distinctly Jewish physiognomy, so the tale goes, the deal was off. “Come on, Adolf,” said Eckart. “We have no further business here.” Another version casts Trebitsch in an even more pivotal historic role: It is said that he saved Hitler’s life by bundling him onto a plane as he was about to be arrested.

The putsch took place in 1920, when Kapp and six thousand German naval commandos under General Walther von Lüttwitz marched on Berlin. The occupation was short-lived (the rebels were brought down in less than a week by a general strike) but, for a brief glorious moment, Mr. Ignatius Lincoln was minister of information—the only former British MP ever to serve as a member of a German government. The revolt having failed, Trebitsch went south and took refuge in Munich, the heartland of fascism. There he devoted himself to Byzantine intrigues with extreme right-wingers in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. In Budapest he became involved with a loose alliance of rabid monarchists and fervent anticommunists known as the White International. Many of its members were so murderously anti-Semitic that they preferred to avoid delegation and personally kill Jews, but Trebitsch, as ever, charmed them all. After which, true to form, he betrayed them, selling their secret plans to the Czechoslovak government. Because of his reputation, no one but the Czechs believed that the (for once) genuine documents were actually genuine. Trebitsch then set off for Italy to campaign for the fascists, but they didn’t trust him an inch and threw him out. As a deportee from the United States, Britain, Austria, and Italy, he was becoming quite famous: Time magazine called him “the man no country wanted.”

Trebitsch didn’t care. He chose a country where no one had ever heard of him and went there: China. Calling himself Puk Kusati, he dabbled in forged passports and worked for three different warlords as an arms dealer, dashing off a few pieces of anti-British propaganda in his spare time. Then in 1925, after a revelatory epiphany, Trebitsch Lincoln surprised everyone by suddenly converting to Buddhism and becoming a monk. As Chao Kung, he was an assiduous student, meditating for six years and rising to the high rank of bodhisattva. He had his shaven head branded with the twelve circular symbols from the Buddhist wheel of life and became the first Westerner to found his own Buddhist monastery in the East. But old habits die hard: On entering the sacred portal, initiates were required to hand over their worldly goods to Abbot Chao Kung, and he passed the evenings seducing nuns. His Shanghai monastery would be the closest thing he had to a settled base for the rest of his life. In 1931 he published an autobiography in which, despite having written an earlier book entitled Revelations of an International Spy, he denied ever having had any involvement in espionage. He wrote only of his newfound passion for Buddhism and his vision for world peace.

The outbreak of World War II spurred the old Trebitsch back into action once more. The city of Shanghai was also the base of the Far Eastern section of the Gestapo. Trebitsch contacted the bureau chief, Joseph Meisinger, the “Butcher of Warsaw,” who had ordered the execution of thousands of Jews. Like many an anti-Semite before him, Meisinger was completely taken in by Chao Kung/Trebitsch. Under the guise of a peace mission, Chao Kung offered to deliver every Buddhist in the East to the German/Japanese cause. His price was a face-to-face meeting with Hitler, where he would prove his power by conjuring three Tibetan sages out of thin air. Incredibly, both Rudolf Hess and von Ribbentrop enthusiastically endorsed this plan, which only foundered when Hess flew to Scotland in 1941. Two phials of sacred Tibetan liquid were found in his plane. Shortly after that, Chao Kung did something entirely out of character: He wrote to Hitler denouncing the Holocaust. It was to prove his death warrant. When the Japanese invaded Shanghai in October 1943, he was summarily arrested. He died a few days later from “a stomach complaint,” poisoned on the instructions of the Nazi high command.

What are we to make of Trebitsch Lincoln? The very least one can say of him is that he never wasted a day. The range of people he persuaded to trust him is amazing—Yorkshiremen, Nazis, Buddhists: None of them is especially noted for their gullibility. Like Cagliostro, he seems to have had an almost magical talent to impress and inspire people that he himself wasn’t fully able to control. And it is just possible that his final religious conversion—to Tibetan Buddhism—marked some sort of genuine spiritual homecoming.

In 1925, the year of his mystical experience, he had tried to return to England to see his twenty-three-year-old son, John, who was awaiting execution for murder. John Lincoln was a British soldier who had bludgeoned a traveling salesman to death while drunkenly trying to burgle his house. Despite a petition with more than fifty thousand signatures asking for the hanging to be delayed so that Trebitsch could visit his son for the last time, the authorities went ahead as planned. They even refused him a temporary entry visa to go to the funeral. When informed of John’s death as he waited for a boat at The Hague, he broke down and wept, exclaiming in despair: “My sins have been visited on my son!”

No one reads Trebitsch Lincoln’s books these days, but it is curious to discover that the author of the twentieth century’s bestselling books on Tibetan Buddhism was yet another impostor: Tuesday Lobsang Rampa (1910–1981). He rocketed to fame in 1956 with the publication of The Third Eye, a riveting account of growing up in Tibet. Despite having been rejected as an obvious hoax by several publishers and receiving horrendous reviews (only the Times charitably called it “almost a work of art”), it became a massive international bestseller. The publishers, Secker & Warburg, admitted that they, too, had had doubts about its authenticity but thought it would make a good read anyway. They prefaced it with a statement saying that many of the author’s stories were “inevitably hard to corroborate.” On one occasion, to test his veracity, Lobsang Rampa’s editor at Secker & Warburg read out some phonetic Tibetan to him, to which he didn’t react. When he was told that he had just failed to understand a single word of his “own language,” Lobsang Rampa threw himself on to the floor, apparently writhing in agony. His excuse was that that he had been horrifically tortured by the Japanese during the war and had blocked out all knowledge of Tibetan through self-hypnotism.

In fact, he had done no such thing. Tuesday Lobsang Rampa was Cyril Henry Hoskin, a plumber’s son from Devon. There was a stark contrast between his actual character and his literary alter ego: Hoskin had never been outside England and didn’t even have a passport. Exposed by the Daily Mail in 1958, based on information acquired by a private detective in the pay of Heinrich Harrer (author of the classic travelogue Seven Years in Tibet), Hoskin was unrepentant. He explained that the spirit of a Tibetan monk had possessed him after he fell out of a tree in his garden in London while trying to photograph an owl.

Some of Tuesday Lobsang Rampa’s disclosures must stretch the credulity of even the most devoted fan. He claimed to have had a splinter inserted into his pineal gland in Tibet, which had activated his “third eye.” The operation took place when he—or the monk who possessed him—was eight, he said, and was accompanied by a slight “scrunch” as the splinter went into his skull and a “blinding flash.” He learned from the monk who carried out the procedure that this would enable him to “see people as they are, and not as they pretend to be.” Whether this, or some other gift, was responsible, “Lobsang Rampa” went on to produce another eighteen books. In Doctor from Lhasa, he tells how he learned to fly a plane, was captured by the Japanese during World War II, spent time in concentration camps as the official medical officer, and was one of very few people to survive the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In The Rampa Story, he describes journeying through Europe and the United States, enduring further capture and torture, before transmigrating into the body of Cyril Henry Hoskin. His first name, Tuesday, marked the day of the week on which his “reincarnation” took place. Nor did he restrict himself to mere terrestrial travel, recounting a visit to Venus aboard a space ship and meeting two aliens—helpfully named the Tall One and the Broad One. His fifth book, Living with the Lama, he admitted, was not Lopsang Rampa’s work at all: He had taken dictation from Mrs. Fifi Greywhiskers, his Siamese cat.

To avoid continual public ridicule, Hoskin left England in the early 1960s, settling first in Ireland and then in Calgary, Canada. When he died in 1981, he left much of his fortune to his beloved cats. His Lobsang Rampa series had sold more than 4 million books, and they continue to sell.

Hoskin insisted to the end that he really was “Lobsang Rampa” inside, and the books have an undeniable energy to them. But they are complete fakes, having as little to do with real Buddhism or life in Tibet as Psalmanazar’s book had to do with Formosa. Like Cagliostro’s elixir of life, they are a beguiling attempt to give people what they want: versions of a strange, mystical East, where ancient sages hold all the universe’s secrets, where the laws of time and space don’t hold, and where the tawdriness of the modern world—of life under the kitchen sink—holds no sway.

It’s safe to assume that when eighteen-year-old Archibald Belaney (1888–1938) left Hastings in Sussex for the wide-open spaces of Canada, he had no plans to become an impostor. Like so many of the other people in this chapter, his early life was marked by rejection and abandonment. His father was a drunken wastrel, leaving his mother for a new life in the United States when Archie was only thirteen, and dying some years later in a barroom brawl. His mother, Kitty, had already taken herself off to London, leaving Archie to be raised by his two viciously disciplinarian aunts. He grew up a self-absorbed child, playing at Red Indians alone in the nearby woods and keeping a menagerie in his room, with a strong distaste for authority and the petty snobbishness of English suburban life. After attending Hastings grammar school, he managed a short stint in a timber yard before being sacked for detonating a homemade bomb in the works chimney. In exasperation, his aunts allowed him to pursue his dream of moving to Canada to study farming.

Archie at once fell in love with the wild, unspoiled Canadian outback. He also fell in love with, and married, a Native American woman, Angele Egwuna, an Ojibwa from northern Ontario. His affinity for the land, and for its indigenous peoples, took firm root and, gradually, Belaney began to abandon his English background. He worked as a trapper and guide and soon took to using an Indian name—Washaquonasin, translated into English as Grey Owl, or Walks-in-the-Dark. But dogged by the shadow of his past, in 1912, like his own father before him, he left Angele and their two little daughters, Agnes and Flora, and moved in with Marie Girard, with whom he had a son, Johnny. At the same time, he buffed up his biography. He was now the son of a Scottish father and a half-Apache mother, born in Mexico but since accepted as an honorary Ojibwa.

On the outbreak of World War I, Belaney joined the Canadian Black Watch—as an Indian. He earned the respect of his comrades for his exceptional marksmanship and knife-throwing skills, and for his uncanny ability to move undetected across no-man’s-land. He became a sniper but was wounded badly in his foot. After it developed gangrene, he was sent back to England to recuperate. There, in 1917, he met and married his old Hastings sweetheart, Ivy Holmes. The marriage lasted for five years till Ivy found out about Angele and divorced him for bigamy. Belaney, by then honorably discharged from the army and with a disability pension, headed back to Canada and the great outdoors. He made no attempt to contact Marie Girard, or his first wife, Angele Egwuna (although he never divorced her).

By 1925 he was living with Gertrude Bernard, a beautiful Iroquois woman eighteen years his junior, whom he renamed Anahareo. It was Anahareo who seems to have put the idea into Archie’s head that killing animals for money wasn’t a good thing. With her encouragement, he began instead to write for the Canadian press about life in the wilderness. By the early 1930s, he had become a naturalist for the Canadian National Parks service. The couple lived in a cabin on a lake in central Saskatchewan with Rawhide and Jellyroll, their two adopted beavers, whose lodge took up almost half the cabin.

During this period Grey Owl became famous as the first environmental activist to achieve an international following. A sequence of books about his life with Anahareo followed, and in 1935, at the request of his publisher, Lovat Dickson, the Canadian who ran Macmillan in London, he began a high-profile lecture tour of England. Dressed in full Indian headdress and buckskin, Grey Owl was dubbed the modern Hiawatha. The tour was a huge commercial success, but the workload put a strain on his relationship with Anahareo. In 1936 she moved out with their small daughter, Shirley Dawn, while Grey Owl entered into another bigamous marriage with a medical assistant called Yvonne Perrier. At their wedding in Montreal, he used the name Archie MacNeil, to fit in with his supposed Scottish heritage.

A second international lecture tour saw him mobbed by crowds wherever he went. He was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, and gave a royal command performance, attended by the young Richard and David Attenborough, both of whom later said that the experience had a significant influence on their careers. (Sir David was captivated by the naturalism, and more than sixty years later, Lord Richard was to make a movie of Grey Owl’s life.) Though now a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, Grey Owl’s triumph was short-lived. After an intense schedule of more than two hundred lectures, he returned to his cabin in Canada in 1938 suffering from exhaustion and died of pneumonia shortly afterward.

Within weeks of his death, newspapers began to unearth Grey Owl’s true identity. It wasn’t an edifying picture. The latter-day Hiawatha was an English bigamist who had dyed his hair and his skin to appear more authentic. He had walked out on at least four women, fathering children by three of them. Several native Canadians had clearly been aware of his true identity—or at least his racial origins—but it seems they kept quiet about it: He was such a fine ambassador for their way of life and the land they wanted to protect. Anahareo, the woman to whom he had been closest, always maintained she had never doubted his story. The initial shock was hard for his friends to take. Lovat Dickson, who at first valiantly tried to defend Grey Owl’s reputation, was forced to concede that he, too, had been fooled: “We had been duped,” he wrote in Wilderness Man, his definitive biography of Belaney. “There was no Arcadia.” Grey Owl’s books stopped selling and the conservationist causes he had championed fell out of favor.

But when the dust had settled, people began to reassess his reputation. In 1940 Anahareo published a remarkably positive autobiography, reminding Grey Owl’s huge fan base just how much good he had done. He had cared nothing for money; he had used his fame only to help raise awareness of the threatened habitats of his friends: the beavers, eagles, and bears.

Did Grey Owl’s deception really matter? There is something magnificent in his refusal to conform to modern life. And his achievements, at least, were real: He lived an authentic life among native Canadians, his knowledge of their lore and culture second to none. Most of all, his work as a conservationist changed the thinking of an entire generation:

The voice from the forests momentarily released us from some spell. In contrast to Hitler’s screaming, ranting voice and in contrast to the remorseless clanking of modern technology, Grey Wolf’s words evoked an unforgettable charm, lighting in our minds the vision of a cool, quiet place, where men and animals live in love and trust together.

No one captures the double life of the impostor better than Archie Belaney. On the one hand, an abandoned child, seeking refuge in the company of animals and dreaming of being a Red Indian, growing into a man unable to form a stable relationship with a woman; a loner who drank too much and was capable of acts of cruelty, “almost a madman” on occasions. On the other hand, the powerful and admirable hero, the first ecowarrior, whose books and talks offered a new and genuine connection with nature. You can see how two such complex characters inhabiting a single body might easily drive a man to an early grave. But to produce a human being as singular as Grey Owl, perhaps you can’t have one without the other.

The label “impostor” is invariably meant as an insult, and when contemplating the character of a Titus Oates or an Ignácz Trebitsch Lincoln, or Lobsang Rampa’s claim’s to be transcribing the thoughts of his Siamese, it seems well deserved. But it is not easy to judge all impostors so harshly. Surely we all feel a sneaking admiration for the survival strategies of a Cagliostro or a Mary Baker, or a straightforward respect for the heroism of a James Barry. And when Archie Delaney tells us, “My heart is Indian,” we know he is pointing to an inner transformation that is more complex than simple lying. Impostors unsettle us because they remind us how fragile our own identities can be, and how much of our time is spent fulfilling the expectations of others. As the essayist William Hazlitt observed in his Notes of a Journey through France and Italy (1826): “Man is a make-believe animal—he is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.”

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