Anyone who says they’ve always told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is, frankly, a liar.Belinda Todd | Monday, October 21 2002
Anyone who says they’ve always told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is, frankly, a liar. We’ve all fibbed before and we’ll all fabricate again, yet there are some lines most of us stop short of crossing; killing our spouse and children in a plane crash for example, turning our mother into a schizophrenic, our father into an abusive alcoholic, and growing a brain tumour — all to elicit sympathy from people we’ve never even met.
Dr Marc Feldman specialises in fictitious disorders and several years ago he identified a new one. Munchausen by Internet Syndrome, or cybermunch, is the web’s very own malingering malady. Sufferers of cybermunch reinvent themselves online as victims of tragedy, disease and trauma, deliberately soliciting sympathy from other surfers. On the good doctor’s site, you can bone up on the seven signs of the syndrome and even join a support group for those who’ve been “emotionally raped” by cybermunchers in the past.
The anonymity of the net makes it the perfect vehicle for lies and fabrication, yet fraudsters have been pulling the wool over our eyes long before such convenient means of mass deception were invented. At www.sniggle.net you’ll learn all you could ever wish to know about the world’s great con men, forgers, scam artists and impostors. Ferdinand Waldo Demara posed as several doctors, the assistant warden of a prison, a surgeon in the Royal Canadian Navy, a schoolteacher, a college dean and who knows what else? The work of fiction that was his life eventually became its own work of fiction as the 1960 movie The Great Impostor.
While the cliché insists that crime doesn’t pay, Frank Abagnale might beg to disagree. He cashed $US2.5 million in fraudulent cheques across 27 countries and masqueraded as a pilot, an assistant attorney general, a college professor and a paediatrician — and all before he was 22 years old! Finally apprehended, he served five years in prison before the government cut him a deal to work for it, theorising, it takes a crook to catch a crook.
Today, Frank is a highly sought-after international speaker on the subjects of forgery, embezzlement and secure documents. You too can hire him for your next conference on www.canspeak.com.
It’s interesting that many of the world’s most impressive fakes posed as doctors at one time or another in their brilliant careers. For surgical absurdity, look no further than Dr John Romulus Brinkley. In the 1920s Brinkley promised men the promiscuous predilections of the goat by surgically inserting goat glands into the scrota.
As P T Barnum is oft quoted as saying — even though it was actually a man he conned who said it — “there’s a sucker born every minute”. But regardless of what did or didn’t come out of Barnum’s mouth, the thought was definitely in his mind when he created Ringling Brothers, the self-proclaimed “Greatest Show on Earth”. He gave the giants platform heels to make them appear taller and mismeasured the midgets to make them shorter. When someone wouldn’t sell him a desired artefact, he simply made his own copy of it and denounced the original as a fake.
Not that Barnum was alone in dabbling in archaeological forgeries. We’ve all heard of the Piltdown Man (the fossil skull that, for 40 years, was hailed as the “missing link” but was actually just a chimp’s jaw attached to a human brain case), but what about the Piltdown Chicken? Or maybe Piltdown’s cuzzie?
In 1999, a fossil dinosaur with bird-like plumage was smuggled out of China, proudly displayed by the National Geographic Society and awarded cover chicken status in their magazine. Palaeontologists saw it as tangible evidence that birds did indeed evolve from dinosaurs. Unfortunately it turned out to be tangible evidence that a Chinese farmer had a sense of humour and enough stray animal parts to create his own extinct species.
From Konrad Kujau — the con man who faked “Hitler’s Diaries” — to James Reavis who, in the 19th century, forged enough documents to give him legal claim to the entire state of Arizona, flimflammers are more prevalent and wholly more ambitious than I ever imagined. All I can say is ex-Maori TV boss John Davy has got his work cut out for him if he expects to make it in the major league.
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