Before last week, most of us had not heard of Rachel Dolezal. Now, the former president of N.A.A.C.P.’s Spokane, Washington chapter has skyrocketed into infamy, known around the world as the woman who claimed to be biracial, but who is in fact white. Many have labeled Dolezal’s behaviour as deceitful and destructive. Speaking in her own defense, Dolezal said that she has long identified as a black woman, and described herself as “transracial.” She also likened her fluid concept of race to Caitlyn Jenner’s recent transition from male to female.
Questions of racial constructs and identity aside, Dolezal appears to have meticulously crafted a life steeped in falsehoods. She allegedly darkened her skin color, in what critics say is a performance of race that is akin to blackface. She claimed that a black man was her father, though her biological parents are both white. She has spoken publicly about being the target of multiple hate crimes, but her claims of victimization have been called into question.
Dolezal is not, of course, the first woman to construct an identity different from the one she was born with. Throughout history, a slew of notable women have taken on guises that range from exotic, to mundane, to truly bizarre. Sometimes, they acted in the interest of self-preservation; at other times, their intentions were more nefarious. So without further ado, here are some dramatic examples of famous female imposters.
In April of 1817, a young woman was found wandering through a sleepy English village north of Bristol. Dressed in a dark dress and a dark turban, she knocked on the door of a cottage and began speaking in a language that the villagers could not understand. The owner of the cottage took her in and tried unsuccessfully to determine her background. All he could glean was that the woman referred to herself as Caraboo.
Soon, a Portuguese sailor came forward and said that he spoke Caraboo’s language. He claimed that she was a princess from an island called Javasu, who had been kidnapped by pirates. She said she had escaped captivity by jumping into the Bristol Channel. The so-called Princess Caraboo became an instant celebrity. A ball was held in her honor, she became a favorite of the town magistrate, and news of her arrival was covered in local newspapers. Caraboo seemed to have a penchant for dancing exotically and, on occasion, swimming naked in a lake.
It probably will come as no surprise that the whole ordeal proved to be a hoax. After reading a newspaper story about Caraboo, a woman claiming to be the former landlady of the “princess” came forward and said that Caraboo was actually a woman named Mary Baker, the daughter of a cobbler from Devonshire, England. Once she was outed, Baker moved to America and lived out her life in relative obscurity—with the exception of one visit she made to a London Gallery, where she charged patrons a schilling to see her as Princess Caraboo.
Ellen Craft was born in 1826, in Clinton, Georgia. She was the daughter of a slave woman and a plantation owner named James Smith. Craft’s complexion was light, and she so resembled her father and her half-sisters that Smith’s wife had her removed from the family’s estate.
Craft was given as a wedding gift to Smith’s eldest daughter, and moved with her new owners to Macon, Georgia. It was there that she met and married William Craft, another slave. Together, they hatched an escape plan that was equal parts brilliant and perilous: Craft would disguise herself as a wealthy, white, and male plantation owner. William would pose as her slave.
William worked as a carpenter, and while most of the money he earned went to his master, he had been allowed to keep some of his wages. The Crafts planned to use that money to travel via steamboat and train to Philadelphia, where they could live freely. Because she could not read or write, Craft wrapped her arm in a sling so she could excuse herself from filling out paperwork. She traveled in first class and stayed in upscale hotels, rubbing elbows with slave-traders. The couple arrived safely in Philadelphia in December of 1848.
Two years later, the Crafts were forced to flee to England when two bounty hunters came north from Macon, looking to return the Crafts to slavery. After spending 19 years abroad, the couple returned to Georgia and established a school for freed slaves.
Cassie Chadwick, whose real name was Elizabeth Bigley, was first arrested in 1871, when she was 14 years old. Chadwick opened a bank account in her hometown of Eastwood, Ontario, using a forged letter of inheritance from an uncle in England. When merchants realized that this little girl was cutting them fake checks, she was apprehended on charges of forgery. It was the start to a life of deception, fraud, and crime.
After Chadwick was released, she moved to Cleveland, Ohio. She went on to pose as a series of different fortune-tellers, sustaining charges of forgery along the way. By 1887, she was married to a doctor named Leroy Chadwick. Some years later, Chadwick took a train from Cleveland to New York City, and went to the four-story mansion of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. When she emerged from the house, she had promissory notes for a total of $750,000, and securities totaling $5 million.
Chadwick told a friend that Carnegie had promised to give her this massive sum because she was his illegitimate daughter and he felt a sense of responsibility to her. She began borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars from both banks and wealthy acquaintances, on the basis of the claim that she stood to inherit a fortune from her “father.” She used the money to buy clothes, jewels, and lavish furniture—an extravagance that earned her the nickname “Queen of Ohio.”
When Herbert Newton, an investment banker from Boston, realized that Chadwick had no intention of paying back the money she owed him, he filed a lawsuit at a federal court in Cleveland. In 1905, Chadwick was found guilty of conspiracy to defraud a national bank. She died in jail on her 50th birthday.
In February of 1920, a woman tried to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge in Berlin. She survived the fall, but refused to tell rescuers her name. So the woman was taken to a mental asylum, where she claimed to be Anastasia Romanov, princess of the Russian royal family. The Romanovs had been shot by the Bolsheviks in 1918, but rumors swirled that at least one of the five royal children had survived.
There was no shortage of women who claimed to be the lost princess Anastasia in the wake of the Romanovs’ execution. But the woman known as Anna Anderson—a name she used to register for a hotel in New York—was by far the most well known. Anderson claimed that she had survived the attack that killed the rest of her family because the Bolsheviks’ bullets could not pierce the gems she had hidden in her corset. A soldier then helped her escape to Berlin, she said, where she hoped to reunite with surviving members of her extended family.
While Anderson seemed familiar with the small details of Romanov family life, she was unable to recall major facts about Anastasia. Romanov relatives denounced Anderson as an impostor, and hired an investigator to probe into her background. The investigator claimed that Anna Anderson was actually Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish-German factory worker with a history of mental illness. Anderson nevertheless managed to accrue a devoted group of supporters, mostly consisting of sympathetic czarists. These followers helped Anderson wage an ultimately unsuccessful battle for legal recognition of her royal status.
In 1968, Anderson married an American professor named J.E. Manahan. He referred to his wife as Anastasia. In 1994, however, DNA evidence conclusively proved that Anna Anderson bore no relation to the Romanov family.
Edith Hahn-Beer was a Jewish woman who lived in Vienna on the cusp of WWII, and she survived the war in an extraordinary way. Hahn-Beer was sent to work as a slave-laborer in Germany in 1941, and was soon sent back to Vienna for deportation to a Nazi concentration camp. During the journey, she slipped off the train, removed the yellow star that designated her as a Jew, and went into hiding.
To help her evade Nazi brutality, Hahn-Beer turned to a gentile school friend named Christine Denner. Denner went to the authorities and claimed that her identification papers had fallen into the Danube during a boating trip; she received new papers and gave the originals to Hahn-Beer. Using Denner’s second name, Grete, Hahn-Beer traveled to Germany and began volunteering for the Red Cross. It was in Munich that she met the Nazi officer Werner Vetter, who fell deeply in love with her.
When Hahn-Beer’s efforts to rebuff her new admirer proved futile, she told him the truth about her identity. Vetter replied that he too had a secret: he was married to another woman, and planned on getting a divorce. The couple wed in 1943 and did not speak of Hahn-Beer’s Jewishness again. Hahn-Beer lived out the war as Grete Vetter, wife of a Nazi officer. She gave birth to a daughter named Angela in 1944, and refused pain medication during labor because she was afraid she would give herself away while under the drug’s influence.
After the fall of the Nazi regime, Hahn-Beer became a judge in Brandenburg, Germany. She and Vetter divorced in 1947. Her remarkable story was only uncovered 50 years later, after she sold her papers to an auction house in order to pay for eye surgery. In 1999, she published an autobiography titled The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust.
Hahn-Beer died in 2009, at the age of 95.