Even more fascinating than the con artists who assume others’ identities are the people who are desperate to believe them, suggests Rohan McWilliam
Directed by Bart Layton
Selected London cinemas, from 24 August
In 1994, a 13-year-old named Nicholas Barclay disappears near his home in San Antonio, Texas. Three years later, a young man is discovered on a Spanish street, scared and disorientated. He informs the authorities that he is Nicholas Barclay and has escaped from the abductors who kidnapped him. There follows a heartfelt reunion with his family when he returns to the US.
However, the FBI, which has been investigating Barclay’s abduction, smells a rat. Why does the new arrival speak with a French accent? Why are his features so different? The truth soon becomes clear. The young man is not Barclay at all, but a serial impostor called Frederic Bourdin, who is 23. This is one of almost 40 occasions when Bourdin will claim to be someone else, often a missing teenager. The fate of the real Nicholas Barclay remains unknown.
Such is the subject of British director Bart Layton’s gripping new feature-length documentary, The Imposter.
Although the film presents Bourdin as a bizarre and unusual case, in fact he fits in with a long line of frauds that includes Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne during the reign of Henry VII, and “Anastasia”, who claimed to be the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. While we may still be some way from universities offering courses in fakery studies, historians of deception believe that fakes, frauds, counterfeits and pretenders offer more than just striking truth-is-stranger-than-fiction narratives - they tell us something about the way we live. When Natalie Zemon Davis wrote The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) about a celebrated case of the 1560s that was also the subject of Daniel Vigne’s 1982 film starring Gerard Depardieu, she used it as a way of exploring the mentalite of French rural society in the 16th century.
Impostors offer us the uneasy reminder that many social interactions are based on performance. Perhaps we are all impostors at times.
There are several different kinds of impostor. Some adopt a different identity in order to pursue wealth. Others seek solace in just being someone else. Cross-dressers find liberation through becoming a member of the opposite sex.
The way of the impostor is an artistic pursuit rather like that of the method actor, creating a character with a fully realised background, although it also requires improvisation and living by one’s wits. This partly explains why figures such as Bourdin are drawn back to imposture. As he says in Layton’s film (where he is one of the commentators), “I wanted to be someone else.”
By definition, the impostors we know about are unsuccessful, their true identities eventually discovered. Successful impostors take their secrets with them.
At historical moments when the trappings of freedom are associated mainly with the monarchy or a hereditary elite, it is not unusual to find people claiming to be long-lost aristocrats. This has not entirely gone away. In 2008, a man said he was the love child of Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend. More common in our meritocratic age are the remarkable number of people passing themselves off as lawyers or doctors (sometimes even undertaking complex surgery) despite possessing no professional qualifications whatsoever. This is the consequence of the rise of a professional society, in which status is associated with the possession of qualifications.
On the other hand, there are adults (like Bourdin) who pretend to be high school students, reflecting an era when the fantasy of remaining a teenager for ever remains potent, when we want to relive our adolescence and maybe get it right this time. And then there is the case of the Portuguese general Tito Anibal da Paixao Gomes, who cut a manly dash in Lisbon. In 1992, it emerged that he was actually a woman, Maria Teresinha Gomes, who had fooled even the nurse who had lived with him/her for 15 years. On trial for shady business deals, Gomes explained that her disguise was a reaction to a society where women were second-class citizens without any freedom. Feminists have long seen cross-dressing as a protest against patriarchal values.
Impostors transgress by breaking the most basic social rule: namely, that we hold on to our own identities. However, as fascinating as impostors are, it is the people who become their dupes who are at least as significant. Counterfeit people successfully speak to their aspirations or play on their fears. In The Imposter, the real interest is not Bourdin but Barclay’s family, who accepted him. Bourdin offered a blank canvas, which persuaded Barclay’s mother that he was her lost son. The film leaves us angry that she should have been his victim.
Dupes assisted the most famous Victorian impostor, the Tichborne Claimant (the subject of an exhibition of cartoons and photographs at London’s National Portrait Gallery until 21 October). In 1865, reports surfaced that a butcher in Wagga Wagga, Australia, claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, who was presumed to have drowned at sea more than 10 years before. The Claimant travelled to Paris, where Sir Roger’s mother (prefiguring the Bourdin case) recognised him as her son. The rest of the Tichborne family were not convinced and, on the mother’s death, succeeded in having him put on trial as an impostor. Many people were duped into taking up his cause on the grounds that a mother must know her own son.
There followed two of the longest trials in English legal history (1871-72 and 1873-74), in which the evidence was exhaustively scrutinised. Most agreed that the Claimant looked nothing like Sir Roger. For one thing, the latter was extremely thin, whereas the Claimant weighed 26 stone. He also knew very little about Sir Roger’s history. For his supporters, this proved that he must be genuine, since an impostor would have made the effort to make himself look right and would have mugged up on the biography.
In 1874, the Court of Queen’s Bench decided that the Claimant was actually a man named Arthur Orton, who was born in Wapping. Although dispatched to prison, he remained a popular hero and the unlikely subject of political agitation. An MP was even elected to Parliament in 1875 on the strength of the Tichborne cause. John Ruskin complained about the flood of “human idiotism” that the trials generated, but many working-class supporters believed the Claimant was genuine and embodied the sufferings of the common people. Taking on a new identity offers a kind of wish-fulfilment, not only for the pretender but also for others.
Impostors make us aware of the competing forms of identification available at any moment. Pamphlets and medical literature compared the Claimant and Sir Roger. Why did the Claimant have earlobes when the latter did not? The pretender had a retractable penis (yes, you read that correctly), but did Sir Roger? The Claimant’s downfall in the courtroom came when it was revealed that he was lacking a vital tattoo. Similarly, although Bourdin made sure that he had the tattoos that Nicholas Barclay possessed, he was brought down when an FBI investigator realised that the two had very different ears.
One suspects that DNA testing will put some impostors out of business. In 2005, a balding 31-year-old man was found passing himself off in a French children’s home as a 15-year-old schoolboy. DNA tests revealed that it was Bourdin.
Impostors possess a strange form of romance but also the ambiguous allure of the scam artist (how will they get away with it?). At the same time, people are usually stunned by their audacity and their lack of shame. We respond to a film like The Imposter by saying “You couldn’t make it up”. But making it up is precisely what impostors do best.
Rohan McWilliam is senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University and author of The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation (2007).