During Demara's 'careers', his impersonations included a ship's doctor, a civil engineer, a sheriff's deputy, an assistant prison warden, a doctor of applied psychology, a hospital orderly, a lawyer, a child-care expert, a Benedictine monk, a Trappist monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, and a teacher. One teaching job led to six months in prison. He never seemed to get (or seek) much monetary gain in what he was doing – just temporary respectability.
Many of Demara's unsuspecting employers, under other circumstances, would have been satisfied with Demara as an employee. Demara was said to possess a true photographic memory and was widely reputed to have an extraordinary IQ. He was apparently able to memorize necessary techniques from textbooks and worked on two cardinal rules: The burden of proof is on the accuser and When in danger, attack. He described his own motivation as "Rascality, pure rascality".
Demara, known locally as 'Fred', was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1921, at 40 Texas Avenue in the lower southwest Tower Hill Neighborhood. His father, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Sr. was born in Rhode Island and worked in Lawrence's old Theatre District as a motion picture operator. Demara, Sr. was financially well-off, and the family lived on Jackson St. in Lawrence, an upper-class neighborhood. Demara Sr.'s brother, Napoleon Louis Demara, Sr. owned many of the theatres in Lawrence, in which Demara, Sr. was an active union member. Early on in the Great Depression, Fred's father became financially insolvent, forcing the family to move from the Tower Hill neighborhood to the poorer section in the city.
It was during these financial troubles, when Demara Jr. ran away from home at the age of sixteen to join the Cistercian monks in Rhode Island, and stayed for several years. He joined the United States Army in 1941.
The following year, Demara began his new lives by borrowing the name of Anthony Ignolia, an army buddy, and going AWOL. After two more attempts in monasteries, he joined the Navy where he trained as a hospital corpsman. He did not reach the position he wanted, faked his suicide and borrowed another name, Robert Linton French, and became a religion-oriented psychologist, who taught psychology at Gannon College (now a university) in Erie, Pennsylvania. Afterwards, Demara served as an orderly in a Los Angeles sanitarium, and served as an instructor in St. Martin's College (now a university) in the state of Washington. The FBI soon caught up with him, and he served 18 months at the Naval Disciplinary Barracks, San Pedro, California for desertion.
After his release he assumed a fake identity and studied law at night at Northeastern University, then joined the Brothers of Christian Instruction in Maine, a Roman Catholic order.
While at the Brothers of Christian Instruction, he became acquainted with a young doctor named Joseph C. Cyr. That led to his most famous exploit, in which he masqueraded as Cyr, working as a trauma surgeon aboard HMCS Cayuga, a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer, during the Korean War. He managed to improvise successful major surgeries and fend off infection with generous amounts of penicillin. His most notable surgical practices were performed on some sixteen Korean combat casualties who were loaded onto the Cayuga. All eyes turned to Demara, the only "surgeon" on board, as it became obvious that several of the casualties would require major surgery or certainly die. After ordering personnel to transport these variously injured patients into the ship's operating room and prep them for surgery, Demara disappeared to his room with a textbook on general surgery and proceeded to speed-read the various surgeries he was now forced to perform, including major chest surgery. None of the casualties died as a result of Demara's surgeries. Apparently, the removal of a bullet from a wounded man ended up in Canadian newspapers. One person reading the reports was the mother of the real Joseph Cyr; her son at the time of "his" service in Korea was actually practicing medicine in Grand Falls, New Brunswick. When news of the impostor reached the Cayuga, still on duty off Korea, Captain James Plomer at first refused to believe Demara was not a doctor (and not Joseph Cyr). The Canadian Navy chose not to press charges, and Demara returned to the United States.
Demara told his biographer he was successful in his roles because he was able to fit into positions which no one else had previously occupied. Demara explained it in the following excerpt from his biography:
(Demara)'... had come to two beliefs. One was that in any organization there is always a lot of loose, unused power lying about which can be picked up without alienating anyone. The second rule is, if you want power and want to expand, never encroach on anyone else's domain; open up new ones...'
Demara referred to it as 'expanding into the power vacuum,' and described as such; 'if you come into a new situation (there's a nice word for it) don't join some other professor's committee and try to make your mark by moving up in that committee. You'll, one, have a long haul and two, make an enemy.' Demara's technique was to find his own committee. 'That way there's no competition, no past standards to measure you by. How can anyone tell you aren't running a top outfit? And then there's no past laws or rules or precedents to hold you down or limit you. Make your own rules and interpretations. Nothing like it. Remember it, expand into the power vacuum!'
During Demara's impersonation as Brother John Payne of the Christian Brothers of Instruction (also known as Brothers of Christian Instruction), Demara came up with the idea of making the religious teaching order more prominent by founding a college in Alfred, Maine. Demara proceeded on his own, and actually got the college chartered by the state. He then promptly left the religious order in 1951, when the Christian Brothers of Instruction offended him by not naming him as rector or chancellor of the new college and chose what Demara considered to be a terrible name for the college. The college Demara founded, LaMennais College in Alfred, Maine, began in 1951 (when Demara left); in 1959 it moved to Canton, Ohio, and in 1960, became Walsh College (now Walsh University).
After this episode, he sold his tale to Life and worked in short-term jobs, since he was now widely known. He resorted to drinking. Only after he returned to his old tricks and got fake credentials could he get another job at a prison in Huntsville, Texas. According to his biographer, Demara's past became known and his position untenable when an inmate found a copy of Life with an article about the impostor.
Demara appeared on the November 12, 1959, episode of the TV quiz show You Bet Your Life, with Groucho Marx. Demara recounted his exploits, and said the $1,000 he earned on the program was going to be donated to the 'Feed and Clothe Fred Demara Fund'.
Demara continued to use new aliases but, as a result of his self-generated publicity, it became much harder to accomplish impersonations than before. In 1960, as a publicity stunt, Demara was given a small acting role in the horror film The Hypnotic Eye. He appears briefly in the film as a (genuine) hospital surgeon. By this point, Demara's girth was so notable that he could not avoid attracting attention. Demara had already been considerably overweight during his impersonation of Joseph C. Cyr.
In the early 1960s Demara worked as a counselor at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles. In 1967 Demara received a graduate certificate from Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, Oregon. His first ministerial assignment was a pastor of the Cherry Grove Baptist Church in Gaston, Oregon. He was very well liked but soon plagued with rumors about his old life, causing him to resign the position. Many parishioners felt this was yet another con, though many others felt he was taking the position seriously and had legitimate credentials.
Demara had various friendships with a wide variety of notable people during his life, including a close relationship with actor Steve McQueen, to whom Demara delivered last rites in November 1980.
When Demara's past exploits and infamy were discovered in the late 1970s, he was almost dismissed from the Good Samaritan Hospital of Orange County in Anaheim, California, where he worked as a visiting chaplain. Chief of Staff Philip S. Cifarelli, who had developed a close personal friendship with Demara, personally vouched for him and Demara was allowed to remain as chaplain. Demara was a very active and appreciated minister, serving a variety of patients in the hospital. Few of those with whom he interacted at the hospital knew of his colorful past. Due to limited financial resources and his friendships with Cifarelli and Jerry Nilsson, one of the major owners of the hospital, Demara was allowed to live in the hospital until his death, even after illness forced him to stop working for them in 1980.
Demara died on June 7, 1982, at the age of 60 due to heart failure and complications from his diabetic condition, which had required both of his legs to be amputated. According to his obituary in The New York Times, he had been living in Orange County, California, for eight years. He died at Nilsson's home in Anaheim, California.
Demara's story was recounted in the 1960 book, The Great Impostor, written by Robert Crichton and published by Random House; the book was a New York Times bestseller and adapted into a 1961 film by the same name starring Tony Curtis as Demara. A second book by Crichton, The Rascal and the Road, recounted Demara and Crichton's experiences together as Crichton conducted research for The Great Impostor.
Other direct or indirect references to Demara include:The Band recorded a song called "Ferdinand the Imposter", released on a 2005 reissue of The Basement Tapes.
The Fleetwoods recorded a song called (He's) The Great Imposter, which was inspired by Demara's story.
Robert Crichton, The Great Impostor (Random House 1959), ISBN 0-394-42714-9.
Robert Crichton, The Rascal and the Road (Simon & Schuster 1961), ISBN 1-199-39990-6 OCLC 1372850
The Great Impostor (1960), a fictionalised version of his life starring Tony Curtis as Demara.
The 1973 episode of M*A*S*H "Dear Dad Again", in which Hawkeye exposes a fraudulent surgeon, was inspired by Demara.
Jarod, the protagonist in the TV series The Pretender is inspired by (but not based on) Demara.