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Paul V. Coates -- Confidential File, Aug. 24, 1959

August 24, 2009 |  2:00 pm


Great Impostor Fools Our City Too

Paul CoatesFerdinand Waldo Demara Jr., age 37, is, by profession, an impostor.

Without benefit of a high school diploma, he has masqueraded as a college dean of philosophy, a surgeon in the Royal Canadian Navy (where he performed major operations), a Trappist monk, a cancer researcher, assistant warden of a large Texas prison and half a dozen other professions of equal status.

With each new job he assumed a new identity and a new personality. And, from his superiors as well as subordinates, new respect.

With rare exceptions, he conned them all.

The varied roles which he lived with neurotic brilliance have now been reported in Life magazine and recorded in his biography, "The Great Impostor," by Robert Crichton.

But one that has never been printed is Demara's role as Jefferson B. Thorne, reformed alcoholic, which he performed with the skill of an Olivier for two and a half months on this town's skid row.

Only now, in fact, is the story being pieced together.

It begins on Nov. 2, 1958.

A tall, broad-framed man not too tidily dressed appeared at the Union Rescue Mission on Main Street. In [illegible] and accent he confessed the tragedy of his "life" to an evangelist there.

He said he was Jefferson B. Thorne, a Boston high school teacher for 15 years. But the bottle, he signed, had destroyed him. Now he wanted to fight his way back up. But he was afraid. He would need help.

This week I talked to the evangelist who first interviewed "Thorne."

Sincerity Was Impressive

"He seemed like a man in need, a man who sincerely wanted to find a way out of his difficulties," he told me. "In fact, the very day he came in I recommended that we find a place for him on the staff. Ordinarily, I wouldn't do that."

That night, Demara slept in the staff ward, Bed No. 1413. His job: Typist-clerk. His salary: A few dollars a week plus food and clothing.

June 9, 1982, Ferdinand Waldo Demara Dies

June 9, 1982: Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. Dies

His supervisor continues the strange story of his stay:

" 'Jeff," as we knew him, fit in perfectly. He was a very humble person. He seemed to enjoy his work. He was a very clean man -- in dress, in his conversation, in all his habits.

"I never saw a man so cooperative. When he'd finish his tasks he'd come into my office asking for more work. He'd pick up a broom if there was nothing else do do."

Right away, Jefferson Thorne accepted Christ. He gave a beautiful Christian testimony. He began going out with dedication groups from the mission.

On the mission's radio broadcast, he told how he found God.

"I know," another evangelist told me, "that he helped convert others."

In the February 1959 edition of the Union Rescue Mission News, Jefferson Thorne told the story of his decision:

"Less than two months ago," he wrote, "I came to the Union Rescue Mission on Main Street, penniless, friendless (I thought), in a state of near despair.

June 9, 1982: Demara Dies "I was loaded with self-pity and was harboring thoughts of self-destruction.

"I had recently been discharged from a position that I had held for 15 years, that of a public school teacher. The reason? My personal idol: the bottle.

"I sat in that old mission chapel and listened to the message. All I could feel was resentment toward the preacher. He was about my age but well dressed, healthy in mind and body. He was a living rebuke of me.

"When the invitation to come to the altar was given I felt that it was my last chance to 'get right' with Jesus Christ. To let him take the burden which I could no longer carry."

He Writes of a New Life

"I have for the last two months been helping out in the mission as a clerk-typist, I have never known such peace of mind and soul...

"I am still the penniless person that walked into the mission -- but despairing? No! Loaded with guilt? No! Self-pity? Of course not! Harboring thoughts of self-destruction? Certainly not.

"I want to live now for Christ and his work.

"Three of us here at the mission, all college people, are presently taking courses at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, by correspondence; a prelude, I hope, if it is his will, to a life in Christ and for Christ."

Demara willingly posed for a photograph to accompany his testimonial.

But on Feb. 7 this year he left the mission. Through his mission work he had met and favorably impressed the president of a private school here in Los Angeles.

The president approached Demara and asked him if he'd like to take over an eighth-grade class. Demara, alias Thorne, had all the necessary credentials in his suitcase and he took the job.

He was a popular man on the campus, both with students and faculty.

'Brilliant' Teacher Vanishes

"He was brilliant. He had a tremendous mind," the head of the school told me.

But after seven weeks, Demara suddenly disappeared from his job in Los Angeles.

Last week, he turned up again, this time teaching school in Cincinnati, O, using the alias James I. Lore.

He has drifted back into the crowd, following his pattern of life for the last 18 years. Where he'll end up next is anyone's guess. But in spite of his wide publicity the odds that he'll continue to succeed in conning a nation are in his favor.

As he explained his formula to author Crichton:

"If you act like you belong somewhere even people who know you don't belong are hesitant to call you on it. People are so insecure. Deep in their souls they feel that they don't belong, either."