July 01, 2022

The Great Impostor> One man’s years of brilliant deception came to an end on small Maine island

The people of North Haven have never celebrated their brief association with the Great Impostor, the man whose cross-country career as a brilliant fraud ended mysteriously on this remote island 40 years ago.

There is no tourist weekend dedicated to his quirky memory, no pageant at the town hall in which locals adopt the many guises that once made Ferdinand Waldo Demara a national celebrity as the undisputed master of deception.

A performance like that would require about 20 actors just to play Demara. Among the roles would be Demara the Trappist monk, Demara the college dean, Demara the prison warden, Demara the Navy surgeon, and Demara the popular North Haven school teacher who left the island in handcuffs one stormy February day without saying a single goodbye.

To complete the cast with those he duped on North Haven alone would require the participation of nearly all the 350 islanders who live here year-round. To the very end, most locals believed that Demara really was that likeable bear of a fellow named Martin Godgart who helped the poor, taught Bible school, played Santa Claus, and established himself as one of the best teachers they had ever known.

In a private home that doubles as the island museum, the historical society keeps a small archive on the Great Impostor. Newspaper and magazine stories chronicle his incredible string of scams, his unmasking on North Haven, the best-selling book about his rootless life and a movie starring Tony Curtis that made Demara a cult hero.

Aside from that, Demara, who died 15 years ago, is little more than an intriguing distant memory on North Haven. Some older islanders recall him as a friendly oddball. Those in their middle years remember him as an affable and gifted teacher from their high school days. Those too young to have met Demara know him through the stories passed down like folklore from their parents.

“Whoever he was, he was the best,” said Lewis Haskell, a 77-year-old former selectman who has lived all his life on North Haven. “I am honored to have known him, and to have been deceived by him.”

Yet not everyone agrees with Demara’s nice-guy legacy — the misguided soul who did wrong in an effort to do right. Eric Hopkins, a 46-year-old artist whose family knew Demara best, said he was not the “Likeable Rogue” and “Gentle Masquerader” once portrayed on television shows and on the pages of Life magazine.

“To tell you the truth, I was happy when I heard he had died,” said Hopkins, who was about 6 when his parents tipped off police about the poseur in their midst. “A lot of people really liked him here, but he wasn’t the folk hero people later made him out to be. He scared the hell out of us as kids, and I lived with a subconscious fear of him for a long time after he left.”

According to Robert Crichton’s 1959 biography, “The Great Impostor,” Demara was a self-destructive genius with a remarkable ability to assume the identities of others in order to kill off parts of himself.

Dana Smith, who was the principal on North Haven at the time, believes that Demara got a drug-addict’s rush while planning the theft of another’s identity.

“He got a momentary high out of being someone else,” said Smith, who lives in St. George and has lectured on Demara’s life. “It would start with stealing credentials, then interviewing for a job, then each time impressing people enough to get it. But that was the climax. Once the drudgery set in, he’d get bored and move on.”

Perhaps Demara himself offered the best explanation for doing what he did so well.

“Because I am a rotten man,” he admitted in the book.

Life of deception begins

Demara, who grew up poor in Lawrence, Mass., left home as a teen-ager and joined a Trappist monastery. Finding the austere life unsuitable for someone who loved to talk, he joined the Army. When he tired of the Army, he visited the family of his tent-mate in New Orleans, endeared himself to the parents, and walked out with all of the young man’s personal records hidden in a suitcase. Under his new identity, he entered another Trappist monastery.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, however, Demara felt a patriotic need to do what he could for his country. So he joined the Navy. Bored with ship life, he devised a clever plan to ascend the military ranks. During a private meeting with a base commander, he used a paraffin-soaked match to set fire to the office wastebasket, then stuffed his middy blouse with official stationery and envelopes during the confusion.

After faking his drowning suicide, Demara used the pilfered stationery to acquire the necessary academic credentials of a Stanford psychologist and decommissioned naval officer. Demara was dead, and from his ashes rose the esteemed Dr. Robert Linton French.

At a fledgling college in Pennsylvania, Demara, who barely finished high school, wrangled a post as dean of the school of psychology. When the Navy caught up with him, he served 18 months in a military prison.

In 1950, Demara found his way to Maine. Presenting himself to the Christian Brothers in Alfred as a zoologist from Purdue and a cancer researcher — he had the documents to prove it, of course — Demara was hired as an administrator at the Notre Dame Normal School. As Dr. Cecil Hamann, he even appeared before the Maine Legislature’s education committee to argue that the school should be granted a charter as a four-year college.

Demara later became friends with a Canadian physician named Dr. Joseph Cyr, who hoped to get his license to practice in the United States. Demara asked for the doctor’s credentials, promising to get them into the right hands. He used them instead to get a commission for himself as a Harvard-educated surgeon-lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy.

Before long, Demara was a ship’s doctor steaming to the war in Korea and into the most frightening challenge of his fraudulent life. After successfully pulling three impacted teeth from his captain’s mouth — he frantically looked up the procedure in a medical book just moments earlier — Demara felt the opiate rush of deception coursing through his veins like never before. With no medical training, he proceeded to patch up 16 wounded South Korean soldiers one night as a storm tossed the ship violently. He dressed wounds, clamped bleeding arteries, removed shrapnel and prayed that he wouldn’t wind up killing anyone in the process.

Flush with a mystifying self-confidence even he didn’t understand, Demara then opened up a soldier’s chest and removed a bullet lodged perilously near his heart. When that patient was done, he successfully collapsed the lung of another man suffering from tuberculosis. When the harrowing night ended, Demara flopped onto his bunk, got drunk on rum, and slept for almost two days.

He stayed on in Korea as a doctor, treating patients from a village clinic near port. The people loved him. Meanwhile, in Grand Falls, New Brunswick, the real Dr. Cyr began hearing of all the noble work he apparently was doing in Korea. When he read that the government there was about to issue him a citation of appreciation, he called the Canadian Navy for an explanation.

During an investigation, Demara confessed that he was not really Cyr, but Dr. Hamann, a licensed physician with a few personal problems that needed to be resolved. Further investigation quickly exposed that ruse as well. Eventually a board of inquiry, embarrassed at the Navy’s institutional carelessness, dismissed Demara from military service and told him to go away.

In 1952, drinking heavily and hard up for cash, Demara sold his story for $2,500 to Life magazine. He sent $2,000 to his mother in Massachusetts. The ensuing publicity followed him across the country, however, drumming him out of one job after another. Unable to cope with the world as Fred Demara, he drove to Texas to try on a new disguise. In applying for a job with the prison system there, he called himself Ben W. Jones and used a list of references that included not only Dr. Hamann, but a child counselor from Massachusetts named Fred Demara. As Jones, a genteel Southerner, he got the job. He worked his way through the corrections ranks with unheard of speed, and soon became an assistant warden at the prison in Huntsville.

His rapid ascent was halted abruptly when an inmate recognized his jailer in the Life magazine story. Demara fled in the night, but was later arrested for a variety of offenses that included public drunkenness, vagrancy, forgery and theft. To avoid embarrasing publicity, the state of Texas dropped all charges and told him to go away.

Demara head for North Haven

Demara, morose and increasingly fitful as himself, headed east. While working at a school for the mentally retarded in Brooklyn, N.Y., under the name Frank Kingston, Demara heard on the radio about the plight of North Haven School. Located more than 12 miles by boat from Rockland, the little island school might have to close if it didn’t get a teacher fast.

The delicious impostor’s rush kicked in with a zing.

With stationery from the New York State Board of Education and papers from Brooklyn College, Demara obtained the credentials of a highly qualified teacher. He applied to the school superintendent on the mainland and got the island job.

In late summer 1956, a stranger named Martin Godgart stepped off the ferry in North Haven to begin his new life.

“I remember he came off the boat dressed all in black,” said Hopkins, whose father, Bill, had been principal at the school a couple of years earlier. “My brother William and I were playing good guys and bad guys that day, and to us he sure looked like one of the bad guys.”

Demara was a large and imposing figure — about 6-foot-2 and more than 250 pounds. With his crew cut and full-faced grin, he reminded Hopkins and the other boys of Curly of the Three Stooges.

As Godgart, teacher of English and Latin to the 20 high school students, Demara was a hit with the islanders. Principal Smith wondered at first why a man of Godgart’s academic background would choose to live on a remote island, but he was happy to have him. Using the methods that had served him so well as an impostor, Demara pushed the youngsters to read constantly — not just their textbooks, but manuals, encyclopedias, anything they could find.

Outside the classroom, Demara was an enthusiastic civic booster who threw himself into community projects. He organized island youngsters to fix up the homes of elderly widows, established a Sea Scout unit for the teen-age boys, helped children with reading lessons and ran the Bible school.

“He had a photographic memory, and we had fun with that,” recalled David Cooper, the island mailman and one of Demara’s students that year. “When the mail arrived by boat, we’d have Mr. Godgart skim a magazine and then we’d test him on it. He’d repeat the articles word for word.”

Demara, who lived at Crockett’s boarding home, spent a lot of time with the Hopkins family. He would show up with nickels and Life Savers for Eric and his brothers, and a healthy supply of beer for himself. Although friendly at first, Demara eventually began to act strangely. He would slip into funks of boredom and miss school. As winter settled over the island, he became increasingly reckless, too. The opiate high was fading fast.

“One day he pulled a loaded gun, a little black revolver, out of his pocket and put it on the table for us boys to see,” Hopkins said. “My mother came in and was shocked.”

June Hopkins had been having her suspicions about Demara for a while. He loved to talk when he was drinking, and the stories of his past seemed to change with each bull session. One night he was from New York, the next night from Texas. More than once he pulled out the Life magazine pictures of himself — minus the incriminating captions and text — and teased the Hopkinses.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” he would say with a conspiratorial wink.

Mrs. Hopkins, sensing that she’d seen that article somewhere before, sent away for a copy of the magazine. When it arrived, her suspicions were confirmed: North Haven’s beloved Mr. Godgart was a fake.

With Sherman Baird, a state legislator at the time, the Hopkinses devised a plan to get his fingerprints. Demara always drank his beer from a can; the next time he showed up at the house, Mrs. Hopkins brought him a glass. The evidence was sent to Augusta, where investigators easily traced the fingerprints on the glass through Demara’s extensive FBI file.

Impostor is arrested

On Valentine’s Day, 1957, state police detectives Millard Nickerson and James Milligan arrived at the island by Coast Guard cutter. They rode into the village in the island’s only taxi — Frank Sampson’s old station wagon — and headed toward the school. Demara wasn’t there. As the detectives were about to search the rest of the island, Demara drove into the parking lot in a Chevy borrowed from Smith. As he lumbered toward the school, he spotted the two detectives and stopped.

“What took you so long to get here?” he asked.

Principal Smith watched the scene from a school window.

“Demara then came into the school, picked up a couple of things, and left on the Coast Guard boat without saying a word to anyone,” Smith said. “That was his way.”

Smith stopped by Crockett’s boarding house and picked up some underwear and socks for Demara. Smith took the morning ferry to Rockland and then drove to Augusta, where Demara was awaiting a court appearance. The two men talked briefly, but Smith didn’t pry. When he left, all he knew was that Demara was a troubled man who was not who he claimed to be. Smith and the rest of North Haven would learn the rest later.

Demara stood in front of Justice Armand Dufresne in Kennebec County Superior Court and pleaded guilty to a charge of “cheating by false premises” for not having a Maine teacher’s license. Dufresne took pity on the contrite defendant, reasoning that he really hadn’t done anything unforgivable through his deception, such as stealing money or property.

“But there has to be a stop somewhere, even though your motives were good,” the judge said, before placing Demara on a two-month probation and urging him to go far away.

The islanders never saw Demara again, but they missed their Mr. Godgart. “One of the best-liked persons in the community,” they told the reporters who started arriving by boat. “A fine young man who did a great deal of good here. We’d take him back in a minute.”

The daily newspaper became a steady source of amazement on North Haven as the story of the Great Impostor unfolded over the next few months. They watched the TV as Demara appeared with Jack Paar, Steve Allen, and as a mystery guest on “What’s My Line?” He showed up twice more in Life magazine, and his biography came out in 1959. Two years later, people packed the Knox Theater in Rockland to watch Tony Curtis play Demara in Technicolor.

Finally, the man who always sought respect by becoming someone else had become famous for being himself.

Even that didn’t last, however. Once the thrill of his national celebrity had worn off, and life was no longer a risky game of hide and seek, Demara became an increasingly unhappy man.

“Much later on, he would call our house and say we were being watched,” recalled Hopkins, whose family had been made to feel like squealers by some islanders when their favorite teacher was carted away. “I grew up with this subconscious sense that someone out there was going to come and get me.”

Over the years, Demara tried a couple more disguises as a teacher, and later wound up living in a monastery in northern Minnesota. While running a ranch for wayward boys in California, he was tried on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of minors and found not guilty. In 1970, he became the Rev. Fred Demara, minister of a tiny church in Washington.

His personal physician, upon learning of Demara’s death in California in 1982, told the Bangor Daily News that “he was the most miserable, unhappy man I have known.”

Over the years, psychiatrists and crime scholars have tried to guess at what drove Demara, who remains the classic case of the compulsive fraud. In a recent bulletin of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Demara saga is used to illustrate a cautionary law-enforcement article about crooks who are not who they say they are.

Hopkins long ago shed his childhood fear of the strange, nameless man who left this island as mysteriously as he arrived. When he recalls Demara these days, Hopkins is reminded of a poem he wrote as a confused child looking for answers, a poem that his mother jotted into the family scrapbook. The Great Impostor could not have hoped for a better epitaph:

He said he had a monkey

But he didn’t

He said he had a lion

But he didn’t

He said he had a lot of things

But he didn’t.

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