In 1951, Dr. Joseph Cyr, a lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Navy, performed life-saving surgeries on Korean combat soldiers discovered drifting in a boat off the shore of North Korea. He was hailed back home as a hero, but his moment in the spotlight was also his undoing. Dr. Cyr, it turned out, wasn’t Dr. Cyr. He wasn’t even a doctor. Fred Demara, a serial con artist, pulled off the surgeries by following a medical textbook. Embarrassed to have been so thoroughly duped, the Navy quietly dismissed him without pressing charges.
Demara wasn’t fazed. He had already impersonated a psychologist, a teacher, the founder of a religious order, and more than one monk. After his stint as a surgeon, he went on to be a Texas prison warden, a chaplain, and even his own biographer. In one incarnation as a civil engineer, Demara was nearly awarded a contract to build a bridge in Mexico. Most of his victims were happy to let him disappear (which only facilitated his whack-a-mole-like reappearance somewhere else). Others were moved by his professed desire for redemption and continued to fall for the act even after his cons had come to light. How did he pull it off? And why did people from all walks of life, the naïve and the highly educated, all fall so easily?