The last performance of ‘The Great Impostor’

A Texas prison inmate thumbing through a dog-eared copy of the Jan. 13, 1952 issue of Life let out a whoop when he suddenly spotted a familiar face.

A guard appeared and asked, “What’s all the ruckus?”  The smiling convict proudly presented his prize, an article entitled “The Master Impostor.”  Beneath the bold headline was a photograph of a heavy-set man in his thirties.

The guard squinted through the bars at the picture and exclaimed in astonishment, “Why that’s Captain Jones!  What’s he doing in that magazine?”

Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. made front-page news throughout the U.S. and Canada in the early 1950s as “The Great Impostor.”  The high school drop-out masqueraded as everything from a Trappist monk and parochial schoolteacher to a college professor and doctor.

While posing as surgeon in the Royal Canadian Navy, Demara operated on a South Korean soldier and successfully removed a bullet lodged a fraction of an inch from his heart.  The medical miracle, performed under primitive conditions, saved the patient’s life and gave the phony sawbones the last thing he wanted – publicity.

Demara hid out at his parents’ place in Massachusetts until the media mania finally subsided.  Turning down their offer to pay his way through college, he went back to living other people’s lives.

But the stress of nonstop deceit took its toll on the impersonator.  Depending on alcohol for comfort and escape, he ended up in Houston a destitute drunk in 1956.

With the help of the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, Demara stopped drinking.  He could not, however, keep from lying, which was why his benefactors knew him as Ben W. Jones, an accountant from Mississippi.

Through AA Demara met the Episcopal bishop of Texas, who introduced him to the manager of a downtown hotel.  Hearing Jones was good with numbers, he put him to work in the accounting department.

But Demara soon found he was in over his head.  “You can fake being a priest or a general or anyone else,” he explained to his biographer a few years later. “But those books.  There is nothing to fool, nothing to fake.  You simply have to do it right.”

Realizing he needed to change jobs and fast, Demara searched the help-wanted ads in the Houston Chronicle.  Seeing that the state prison system, which would not be renamed the Texas Department of Corrections until the next year, was hiring guards, he wrote directly to Oscar Byron Ellis, the general manager.        

Ellis required letters from three previous employers and eight character references, a piece of cake for an accomplished forger like Demara.  As soon as he received the bogus documents, the prison boss invited Ben Jones to Huntsville and hired him on the spot.

Demara began his penal career as a guard at the Wynn Farm.  Noticing the inmates had far too much time on their hands, he recommended a recreational program and Ellis put him in charge of the novel experiment.

Demara broke the ice with the suspicious convicts by helping the many illiterates write letters home.  Next he organized checker and domino tournaments with a half day off from work in the fields for the winner and followed that with table tennis and movies.

Demara was in the mess hall one day, when a wild-eyed inmate attacked a fellow con with a metal tray.  Pushing his way through the crowd of spectators, the soft-spoken “captain” addressed the agitated assailant.

“I don’t want you to put that tray down, son, if you don’t want to put it down.  I just want to know one thing.  What’s troubling you?  You can come and tell me.”

To the amazement of guards and inmates alike, the prisoner dropped his weapon.  Jones put his arm around the man’s shoulder and led him away.

When Ellis heard how Demara had defused this dangerous situation, he rewarded him with a transfer to the maximum security unit.  By Christmas he was rumored to be in line for a promotion to warden, a position that usually took 20 or 30 years to earn.

The back issue of Life changed all that.  Demara was summoned to a late-night conference in Ellis’ living room and confronted with the damning photograph.

Ben Jones flatly denied he was Ferdinand Demara.  He bluffed his way to the front door and left the prison officials with these parting words:  “I am going back to my house now and pray for the strength to endure this insult and see if I can find it in myself to try and forget and start again.”

Demara quickly packed his car, jumped behind the wheel and drove north out of Huntsville.  But this time the jig was up for good for “The Great Impostor.”  When the newspapers were finished with his latest escapade, Demara was left with no choice but to finally be himself.

Ferdinand Demara did get the satisfaction of seeing his incredible story on the big screen.  Tony Curtis played the title role in the 1961 movie “The Great Impostor.”

Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at barteehaile@gmail.com or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77389.

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