When Anna Delvey (née Sorokin) was arrested in 2017, the question many asked wasn’t why she was pretending to be a German socialite heiress, but how she got away with it. Delvey’s game came to a crashing halt, but for four years, her assumed identity had allowed her to scam American hotels, banks, and friends out of large sums of money. The motive seemed clear, but how was it so easy to trick people into believing she was someone she was not?
The same strategy worked for George Psalmanazar, a white man from France who claimed to be a Christian convert from Formosa, (now Taiwan) in the 1700s. Before this identity, he had attempted to gain fame as an Irish pilgrim in Rome, but failed, as people in Italy knew quite a bit about the Irish. Upon his arrival in London, the now-“Formosan” Psalmanazar was met with supporters who were willing to bankroll his lifestyle.
“[The] Bishop of London, took him up with enthusiasm, helped him financially, and encouraged him to gratify public curiosity by publishing his travels and autobiography,” Robert Bracey wrote in 1924.
Psalmanazar published his first book in 1704, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan. There were some skeptics of Psalmanazar’s story, but he had the benefit of the fact that many of his contemporaries knew next to nothing about Taiwan.
“Some held it in high suspicion, all saw something of mystery in it and its writer,” Bracey said. “True it was that Psalmanazar was a white man, with all the characteristics of a European, yet he certainly lived on raw flesh, and could speak and write a language (declared to be Formosan) that no one else could understand or even read.”
In the following years, after more English people traveled to what is now Taiwan, Psalmanazar’s descriptions of bloodthirsty laws seemed to be less credible, including the claim that men could eat their wives if they were unfaithful.
In the end, Psalmanazar appeared to have some regret for being an imposter. “He put aside prospects that might have been brilliant and led to substantial worldly advantages, and by a life of hard work, close study, literary drudgery, and much real poverty, strove to atone for the years of imposture,” Bracey explained.
Up until his death in 1764, Psalmanazar refused to disclose his real name, instead wishing to be known for his fakery.
“When asked for his real name, he would never give it,” Bracey wrote. “Henceforth, he said in a spirit of penance, he would be known by no other title than that of ‘ The Impostor.’’
Anna Delvey, who infamously said she was not sorry for her crimes, doesn’t appear to be ready to atone anytime soon. After her release from prison (during which she made restitution to her victims) she was arrested by ICE for overstaying her visa, and recently wrote about her plight in a New Jersey jail. The Netflix series about her crimes premieres on February 11.
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