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date: 13 May 2021

Professional Criminals and White-Collar Crime in Popular Culturefree

  • Timothy HolmesTimothy HolmesDepartment of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Bangor University


In 1940, Edwin Sutherland claimed that the discipline of criminology was operating with an inaccurate view of criminal behavior. He argued that criminology focused too much on the offending of working-class people via the causal mechanisms of poverty, psychopathy, and sociopathy. His theory on white-collar crime was an observation that people of high social class commit crimes and have their own forms of offending behavior. Of this behavior, Sutherland noted that it could be more far-reaching and damaging than offenses committed by the working class, while at the same time encountering less scrutiny and condemnation from society. By taking the first steps into the study of crimes of the powerful, Sutherland opened up discussion of a wide range of nonviolent, financially motivated offenses such as corruption of state officials, fraud, and embezzlement. He proposed the theory of differential association as an attempt to provide a more effective explanation of offending behavior inclusive of the offending of the rich and powerful.

During the 20th century, research into white-collar criminals and the professional con artist has revealed broad typologies of offending behavior and patterns of offending. Today, white-collar crime is a broad term that applies to a range of activities and has become shorthand for discussions of crimes that involve deception, abuse of trust, and intelligent criminals.

Media representations have emphasized these characteristics and portrayed white-collar criminals and con artists as offending elites, both in terms of social class and type of offending. Film and television depictions present an elaborate form of criminality based on guile and manipulation of victims. The image of the white-collar criminal, the professional con artist, and their victims in popular culture are equally nuanced and tap into ideas about the moral acceptability of this kind of offending. The influence of popular culture on attitudes toward white-collar crime is of great interest in the study of criminology.

Media Representations of White-Collar Crime and Professional Criminals

The emergence of theory and research on white-collar crime and professional thieves and their depiction in popular culture and media reporting is an area of growing interest in criminology. The concepts of white-collar crime and of professional thieves were initially developed by Edwin Sutherland in the 1930s and 1940s. Sutherland proposed that both areas of study could be examined in relation to the theory of differential association. Differential association theory establishes the idea that interaction with others and competing views on acceptable behavior can led to offending. Media representations of professional thieves and white-collar crime in the United States will be discussed. The academic debate of the phenomenon, which began in the United States during the 20th century, is noteworthy with regard to the development of criminology. Professional thieves, and con artists in particular, have been depicted in media reports as creative and intelligent individuals of high status among offenders. How representative these media representations are of real criminals will be discussed through an examination of two notable cases, of the con artists F. W. Demara and Frank Abagnale, who had their activities publicized and dramatized in film. It will be argued here that media representations of professional thieves highlight two key elements of this phenomenon:

Status of offenders

Methodology of professional thieves

It will also be argued that media representations of professional thieves neglect the experiences of victims and the harm that can be caused by their activity. To begin with, the theory of differential association will be explained. This will be followed by a discussion of white-collar crime and professional thieves, and conclude with an examination of media representations of the activity.

Differential Association

Differential association asserts that people can be trained to engage in any form of behavior and that people can be exposed to people who promote criminal behavior. The theory of differential association examines the causes of offending in relation to socialization and peer interaction. Sutherland’s (1940) assertion that criminal activity is a learned behavior was a bold development which remains an influential theoretical perspective on the cause of crime. Short (1957, p. 233) referred to differential association as the “most truly sociological of all theories” that seeks to explain criminal and deviant behavior.

Sutherland (1940) discussed crime in a cultural context and argues that individuals engaged in criminal behavior are those who have been isolated from noncriminal patterns of behavior. For these individuals, criminal behavior is learned through association with others during the processes of interaction and communication. During these interactions, individuals learn the values, motives, and attitudes that drive and encourage criminal behavior.

First, any person can be trained to adopt and follow any pattern of behaviour which he is able to execute. Second, failure to follow a prescribed pattern of behaviour is due to the inconsistencies and lack of harmony in the influences which direct the individual. Third, the conflict of cultures is therefore the fundamental principle in the explanation of crime.

(Sutherland, 1939, pp. 51–52)

Sutherland further argued that this perspective on crime allows for the study of crime committed by both blue-collar and white-collar individuals. Differential association theory argues that anyone who associates with people engaged in criminal behavior can be swayed into adopting criminal behavior themselves. This suggests no bias with regard to social class when it comes to offending.

Burgess and Akers (1966) noted several challenges in testing and operationalizing differential association theory. Tittle, Burke, and Jackson (1986) sought to advance the discussion of differential association and clarify several aspects of it. They argued that anyone seeking to use or test the theory had to define several of the key terms that Sutherland used. For instance, what constitutes “association” and “definitions of criminal behavior” is open to interpretation. Prior research in the area of differential association has often been difficult to compare and contrast due to variations in how those testing the theory have defined these terms and others.

In an advancement within this field, Tittle, Burke, and Jackson (1986) developed causal models of behavior and differential association. These models seek to explain how exposure to criminals and isolation from noncriminals can lead to adoption of criminal behavior and the belief that it is normal or acceptable:

D = Definitions in the environment favorable to law violation

A = Individual association with definitions favorable to law violation

P = Criminal perspectives (attitudes and rationalizations)

C = Criminal behavior

Causal Model 1

Postulates a two-step process. The individual associates excessively with criminal definitions, and as a result develops a criminal perspective, which then causes criminal behavior.

Causal Model 2

Proposes that excess association directly causes criminal behavior without producing intervening constructs, such as attitudes or rationalizations.

Causal Model 3

Merges models 1 and 2, proposing that association affects criminal behavior, both directly and indirectly, through criminal perspectives.

Causal Model 4

Concludes that criminal perspectives lead to crime, with no attention to the sources of those perspectives.

Causal Model 5

Proposes that the existence of criminogenic definitions in the environment can lead to criminal behavior.

Studies have sought to apply differential association to several offending populations and forms of criminal behavior. In relation to white-collar crime, the theory provides an approach to explaining how individuals in legitimate professions can be involved in illegal activity.

White-Collar Crime

… more important crime news may be found on the financial pages of newspapers than on the front pages.

(Sutherland, 1940, p. 1)

White-collar crime as a concept in criminology was both groundbreaking in its observation on offending behavior and controversial in its view of society. Central to Sutherland’s (1940) paper is the idea that previously established theories on the causes of crime were inaccurate because of their failure to acknowledge the corrupt business practices of white-collar workers.

Prior to Sutherland’s work, the predominant view of crime was that it was a product of poverty, psychopathy and sociopathy. His 1940 paper introduced the beginning of a typology of white-collar criminality and a profile of offenders that sought to move criminology beyond preconceptions of criminal behavior.

Sutherland’s General Description of White-Collar Criminality

In his discussion of white-collar crime, Sutherland proposed an outline of white-collar criminality based on five points (Sutherland, 1940, pp. 11–12):


White-collar criminality is real criminality, being in all cases in violation of the criminal law.


White-collar criminality differs from lower-class criminality principally in an implementation of the criminal law, which segregates white-collar criminals administratively from other criminals.


The theories of criminologists that crime is due to poverty or to psychopathic and sociopathic conditions statistically associated with poverty are invalid because, first, they are derived from samples that are grossly biased with respect to socioeconomic status; second, they do not apply to white-collar criminals; and third, they do not even explain the criminality of the lower class since the factors are not related to a general process characteristic of all criminality.


A theory of criminal behavior that will explain both white-collar criminality and lower-class criminality is needed.


A hypothesis of this nature is suggested in terms of differential association and social disorganization.

According to Williams (2012), after Sutherland developed this outline of white-collar criminality, others working in this area added the issue of violation of trust to the outline.

Subsequent studies and commentaries on white-collar crime have also adapted and expanded on the original idea, proposing the inclusion of more offenses and offenders (Clinard & Quinney, 1973; Edelhertz, 1970; Geis, 1962; Schrager & Short, 1978). Equally, the idea of white-collar crime and the work done by Sutherland has been criticized for confusing a discussion of social class with a typology of offending (Edelhertz, 1970; Tappan, 1947). Efforts to differentiate between the offending of upper-class individuals and the establishment of a typology of offending have in part led to the development of the concept of the professional criminal and the professional thief.

Common to these developments are the observations that white-collar crime is often nonviolent, can be complex and based on guile and deception (Edelhertz, 1970). The images of the professional con man and the corporate criminal have emerged and developed as an acknowledgment that white-collar crime is a distinct and multifaceted area of criminal behavior.

Its depiction in the media to date only partially acknowledges the nature of white-collar crime, emphasizing only some characteristics of offenders. Despite this fact, the white-collar criminal, the professional thief, and the con artist are popular archetypes in fictional crime drama.

Development of Theory into White-Collar Criminality

The study of white-collar crime gets under way with observations on the existence of business-oriented crimes committed by people from wealthy and respectable backgrounds. This work began with studies by Edwin Sutherland, who examined the phenomenon in his 1939 address to the American Sociological Society and the subsequent paper (Sutherland, 1940). After this, Sutherland returned to the subject in his 1944 paper “Is ‘White-Collar Crime’ Crime?” and then in White-Collar Crime (Sutherland, 1949). These papers sought not only to establish the study of business-related crime, but also to champion the view that crime is not dependent on social class. Due to these two aims being embedded in the literature, it has caused some confusion and criticism of Sutherland’s view of white-collar crime. Edelhertz (1970) argued that there needs to be more clarity in the discussion of white-collar crime. He noted three key issues that need to be resolved:

Should the term white-collar crime refer only to criminal activity, or should there also be a study of noncriminal deviant activity?

Is it beneficial to focus on offenders from high socioeconomic backgrounds or on particular acts defined as white-collar crimes?

What parameters should be used when determining what criminal acts can be categorized as white-collar crime?

Geis (1962) argued that there needed to be a split in the concept of white-collar crime into group activity and individual activity. This observation was also made by Clinard and Quinney (1973), who developed the study of white-collar crime by distinguishing between corporate crime and occupational crime. Corporate crimes were offenses when individuals’ offending behavior was done on behalf of an organization or corporation. Occupational crimes, on the other hand, were instances where individuals offended against the organization that employed them. These developments aided in creating a more nuanced and detailed forum for the discussion of offending that involved fraudulent activity and crimes based on corruption and deception. Sutherland’s work in this area is still pivotal and widely cited despite its limitations.

Professional Criminals

The concept of a professional criminal developed primarily in the United States during the latter half of the 20th century. It proposed the existence of a population of habitual offenders whose approach to offending included a degree of organization, repeated offending, and specialism into certain forms of offending. According to Inciardi (1974, p. 304), the concept of a professional criminal in the 20th century was inherited from earlier Elizabethan ideas of rogues and scoundrels. The discussion of professional criminality in Conwell and Sutherland (1956) focuses initially on the existence of professional thieves in American society. They proposed that just as in legally acceptable professions there are skill sets and unique abilities that are learned and passed on to future generations, the same is true for criminal professionals. The activities of professional thieves were defined broadly in the book The Professional Thief (Sutherland, 1937, p. 43):

The principal rackets of professional thieves are the cannon (picking pockets), the heel (sneak-thieving from stores, banks, and offices), the boost (shoplifting), pennyweighting (stealing from jewelry stores by substitution), hotel prowling (stealing from hotel rooms), the con (confidence game), some miscellaneous rackets relating in certain respects to the confidence games, laying paper (passing illegal checks, money orders, and other papers), and the shake (the shakedown of, or extortion from, persons engaged in or about to engage in illegal acts).

Being a professional thief engaged in these activities required intelligence, stealth, and a degree of specialist knowledge and training. Careful planning and a total commitment to criminal behavior as their profession were also significant characteristics. Staats (1977) postulated that the initial ideas about professional crime had developed into five broad categories of offending (Staats, 1977, p. 50):


Burglary (safe and house).


Sneak theft (bank, house, shoplifting, pennyweighting, pickpocketing, and lush-working).


Confidence swindling (short con, big con, circus grifting).


Forgery and counterfeiting.



The typology proposed by Staats highlights variations in the types of offending committed and a variety of associated skills and abilities, while the categories refer to forms of theft that are dependent on technical skills, quick reflexes, and social skills. The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (1967) conducted a survey of professional criminals and found that those who were committed to a life of crime were versatile in terms of the offending behavior they were engaged in. In a sense, they were generalists who sought any available opportunities for illegal gain. The commission proposed that the term grifter was a more appropriate term to use when examining professional thieves. Various definitions of a grifter have been developed. Sutherland (1944, 1949) uses the term grift interchangeably with theft. In 1962 the California Board of Corrections produced a more detailed description of the term grifter in their dictionary of criminal language:

[S]mall time gambler or con man: one who lives without working but does not commit crimes which usually result in arrest

Research into grifting and the activities of con artists by Maurer (1940), Schur (1957), and Gasser (1963) detail not only the crimes committed by offenders, but also the various strategies for avoiding detection or prosecution. In Maurer’s book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man (1940, p. 108), the activities of con artists are discussed as is their perceptions of victims.

Big time confidence games are in reality only carefully rehearsed plays in which every member of the cast except the mark knows his part perfectly

This observation is echoed by Gasser (1963, p. 47):

The controlling factor in all true confidence schemes is the way in which the victim is involved. True confidence games always make use of the avarice and dishonesty of the victim. Their common element is showing the victim how to make money, or gain some other advantage of his dishonesty. A true confidence game leaves no innocent victim.

The practice of swindling and forgery and the perpetration of various fraudulent schemes which prey upon the victim’s innocence, ignorance, or gullibility are not classified as confidence.

The Emerging Research on Professional Criminals

Subsequent studies of professional criminals (Staats, 1977) have debated the accuracy of Sutherland’s initial work in this area and depictions of professional thieves. Some have questioned the level to which offenders specialize in specific offending behaviors (Vasoli & Terzola, 1974, Staats, 1977) and critically discussed the idea that these offenders are professional criminals (Mack, 1972, Klein, 1974).

Turk (1969) asserted that the idea of a professional thief or professional criminal is a romanticized view of offenders and types of criminal behavior, rather than an empirically demonstrable social group. Chambliss (1972) argued that while the numbers of professional thieves in society may be low, they are still present as a population of offenders. Mack (1972, pp. 50–51) proposed the use of the term “able criminal” and highlighted different activities of full-time criminals. Conducting a study of an anonymized location that he referred to as “Worktown,” Mack sought to establish how significant people who make a profession of criminal behavior are and what offenses they commit. Professional criminals in this study were individuals who engaged in criminal behavior on a full-time basis, and offending was part of their lifestyle. In his study, Mack (1972) asserted that full-time criminals are not a statistically significant population. He also argued that the majority of this population of persistent offenders (four-fifths) avoid criminal records as both juveniles and adults. When examining the activities of professional criminals, this study produced a typology of offending (Mack, 1972, p. 47):


Organisers (O) or background types, who also tend to enjoy especially high status.


Resetters (I); this, like the others, is a versatile group, and includes a number who combine resetting and other activities, specially fraud, sometimes of the “long-firm” variety.


Thieves (T); including sneak-in merchants, shoplifters, and a number of thief fraudsters who sell commodities like non-existent advertising space and invisible whisky.


“Heavies” (H); i.e. housebreakers, safebreakers, bank robbers, wage-snatch operators, explosives experts, tie-up merchants, and so on.


Violents (V); the few in this category, while showing some degree of pathology, are included because their violence is employed for acquisitive purposes.


Providers (P); providers of services of different kinds.

Of these different professions, Mack argued that being a Heavy is the most dangerous profession in terms of detection and prosecution, while being a Resetter is the safest. The study asserted that in order to understand professional criminals, it is essential to look beyond conviction rates. Cressey and Sutherland (1960) also presented a view of professional criminality as an elusive and secretive population. Shover (1972) argued that professional thieves enjoy high status among other criminals and those who are knowledgeable about their offending. Consequently, they are understandably viewed as semimythical due to the lack of criminal conviction by law enforcement agencies and their portrayal in media representations.

Media Depictions of Professional Thieves and White-Collar Crime

Media reporting of the activities of professional thieves and white-collar crime is limited, in part due to the secretive nature of professional thieves and the complexity of white-collar crime. Levi (2008) argued that the media neglect white-collar crime due to the power of elites in society to suppress coverage as a means of protecting economic interests and maintaining ideological harmony. The cases that are reported are often ones that involve large losses, such as the Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff (Yang, 2014), or elaborate trickery by individuals, such as the exploits of F. W. Demara, discussed later in this article.

Portrayed as intelligent, and at times attractive, professional thieves in many instances are often the hero/antihero of fictional accounts, often with white-collar criminals or those engaged in corporate crime viewed as the villains or deserving victims. Schur (1957) noted that a fundamental element of any con game is a victim who will willingly engage in criminal activity for profit. Consequently, victims in con games can appear corrupt or deserving of their victimization for their involvement in a scam. The contrasting views of professional thieves and white-collar criminals in popular culture are an interesting phenomenon to examine. Echoing some of the observations made by academics in the study of professional thieves, their depiction on film and in popular culture has often elevated them to high-status offenders.

According to Moohr (2015), fictional and nonfictional accounts of white-collar criminals and professional thieves are almost universally based on real-world examples. Maurer’s book The Big Con (1940) was the inspiration for the film The Sting, which in part helped create some of the expected character traits of the professional thief or con man.

It can be argued that these media representations can at times be pivotal in raising awareness of those offenders’ existence within society. For example, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), inspired by the real-life Ivan Boesky/Michael Milken scandal, raised awareness of the corrupt business practices present on Wall Street in the 1980s (Moohr, 2015). Similarly, Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street (2013) explored similar issues in its depiction of Jordan Belfort and his activities as a corrupt stockbroker. A by-product of this trend has been the development of archetypal con artists and corrupt businesswomen and businessmen in film and television who exhibit traits not always found as acutely in their real-world counterparts.

Professional Thieves and Con Artists in the Media and Popular Culture

The activities of professional thieves and con artists in particular have often received positive media attention and more lenient treatment in popular culture. In several instances, con artists are presented in the press and fiction as charlatans, rogues, and tricksters rather than dangerous offenders. The term con man is derived from a report in the New York Herald (1849) on the activities of a 19th-century thief named William Thompson. Thompson was known as “the Confidence Man” because of the approach he took to stealing people’s property (New York Herald, 1849, p. 1):

[H]e would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow”; the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at the moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of a stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do.

The actions of Thompson as a criminal were presented in the press and popular culture as a commentary on manners and customs. A similar case was the exploits of Wilhelm Voigt, who in 1906 used a secondhand soldier’s uniform to convince a troop of real soldiers to help him arrest the mayor of Kopenick in Germany and defrauded the town of 4,000 marks. After his arrest and imprisonment, the reporting of his exploits sparked controversy and humor, with even the Kaiser seeing Voigt’s deception as amusing. Voigt was sentenced to four years in prison; however, in 1908, the Kaiser decided to pardon him. According to Burton (2000, p. 35), the Kaiser viewed Voigt as a “loveable scoundrel.” The case of the “captain of Kopenick” was later turned into a play by Carl Zuckmayer that became very popular in Germany during the early 1930s as a story of bureaucracy, resistance, humor, and wit in the time of Kaiser Wilhelm (Hett, 2003). Voigt’s exploits were presented in the play as a commentary on the trust that people were willing to put in authority without question (Berlin newspaper in 1906, cited in Burton, 2000, p. 33):

The uniform—our fetish! It is disgraceful comment on all those high-sounding words like public spirit, civil courage before the mighty, rule of the law and so on; the fact is that the uniform is the supreme power in Prussia. They all lie on their bellies before a uniform.

Two notable examples from the United States to consider are the exploits of F. W. Demara and Frank Abignale Jr. Both individuals have had biographies and films made of their lives. As noted by Cressey and Sutherland (1960) and Mack (1972), the elusive nature of professional thieves increases their notoriety and status. In the exploits of both of these men, we see individuals whose exceptional success brought them significant media attention. In these examples, discussed next, we also see minimal acknowledgment of victims or any stigma associated with the criminals’ behavior.

F. W. Demara—The Great Impostor

What is interesting about the case of F. W. Demara is that his impersonations were intended to enable access to professions rather than just being a means of defrauding organizations (i.e., Demara’s employers). Ironically, he was a great success in the numerous professions that he took on, despite gaining access to them through deception and fraud. Demara engaged in offending throughout his adult life. His ultimate goal was the attaining of prestige and status rather than financial security.

The documenting of his exploits in several news reports in Canada and Texas (discussed next) resulted in Demara finding himself on several occasions receiving significant media attention and eventually the moniker of “The Great Impostor.” His exploits were made into a film, The Great Impostor (Mulligan, 1960). Taking a slightly comical view on his exploits and downplaying the harm that he caused, the film presents a positive view of Demara. It also highlighted the strategies used to deceive authorities (Weiler, 1961, p. 1):

LEANING on the oldest saw of them all—the one having to do with truth being stranger than fiction—a dedicated team working for Universal-International has turned out an amusing, and occasionally fascinating, comedy-drama about the career of one of the most amazing—and likable—contemporary charlatans, Ferdinand W. Demara Jr.

In 1959, Robert Crichton wrote a biography of Demara and his criminal behavior, which documented his views on how to steal identities and the different identities he adopted. In a career that spanned three decades, Demara impersonated several people, including a doctor in the Canadian navy, an academic, prison warden, and a monk. According to Burton (2000), Demara had several aliases—Dr. Robert Linton French, Dr. Cecil Boyce Hamann, Dr. Joseph Cyr, Jefferson Baird Thorne, Martin Godgart, Ben W. Jones, and Anthony Ingolia. Demara utilized both the theft of actual individuals’ identities and the creation of fictitious identities. His life provided a colorful and elaborate story, but his exploits also presented a one-sided discussion of the effects of his deceptions.

Demara spent most of his life using false identities and lying about who he was. He was born in 1921 in Lawrence, Massachusetts; he had at an early age an interest in joining the Catholic Church. At 14, he ran away from home and tried to join a Trappist order in Rhode Island; his parents reluctantly allowed him to stay there, believing that the strict life of a monk would soon prove too difficult for their son. He stayed at the monastery for two years and earned the right to wear the high hood and habit of a monk, and he was given the title Frater Mary Jerome. However, the monks at the monastery believed that Demara lacked the right temperament to be a monk. Forced to leave the monastery, he then attempted to join two other monastic orders, but without success. His efforts to become a priest ended when he stole a car from the Brothers of Charity children’s home in West Newbury.

Demara moved on and joined the U.S. army, a decision that he soon regretted (Crichton, 1959). He sought a way out of the army and found it in the identity of his friend, Anthony Ingolia. The two were stationed at Kessler Field Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi. One weekend, Ingolia decided to take his friend home with him; when they arrived, Ingolia’s mother spent some time telling Demara details of her son’s life. While these details seemed harmless to Ingolia and his mother, they would prove invaluable to Demara—he used the information to steal Ingolia’s identity. According to Robert Crichton, Demara’s biographer (Crichton, 1959, cited in Burton, 2000, p. 75):

Since his aim was to do good, anything he did to do it was justified. With Demara the end always justifies the means. Stealing Ingolia’s papers was not in itself a bad act if he didn’t do bad things with them. It was, in fact, a good act.

After stealing Ingolia’s identity, Demara left the army, and after a couple of years, he joined the U.S. navy under his own name. There, he sought to be accepted to medical training, and while he proved adept at the basic courses, he was denied access to advanced training because he lacked the correct educational requirements.

In order to get around this, he began forging documentation to gain access to the medical school. He was so impressed with his initial success in the medical school application process that he decided to bypass going medical school and went on to try and gain a commission as an officer without the qualification. His hubris cost him, however, as his efforts were detected. Demara was aware that eventually he would be arrested for his actions, so he faked his death by putting his naval uniform and a suicide note on a quayside.

After faking his death, Demara created a new identity; he became Dr. Robert Linton French, a former naval officer and a psychologist. Demara worked at several churches around the United States as Dr. Linton. This culminated in his establishing a school of philosophy and teaching on the subject of psychology at Gannon College in Erie, Pennsylvania. While Demara proved to be a highly competent teacher, suspicions began to arise among staff at the university. His career at Gannon came to an end when the navy found him out and arrested him for desertion. Demara was charged and sentenced to six years in prison. He served 18 months of his sentence and was released because of good behavior. According to Burton (2000, p. 82), Demara disliked the status of being an ex-con:

As Dr French, those cops wouldn’t have treated me that way. I really hated not being French. No. What I hated most was being Demara again. Who was Demara? Any way you looked at it, French was somebody, good or bad. Good or bad, Demara – that guy was a bum.

In response to his dissatisfaction with his status in society, Demara began impersonating people and inventing identities again. He enrolled in Northerneastern University as Cecil Boyce Hamann and attempted to complete a degree in law. Demara soon lost interest, and instead of gaining a qualification, instead simply claimed to have a PhD. Dr. Hamann, as Demara, would refer to himself as a zoologist. He went to another Christian institution in Maine called the Brothers of Instruction and took up a teaching post; it was here that he met Dr. Joseph Cyr.

Cyr’s identity would prove to be one of the most noteworthy of Demara’s impersonations. Cyr had moved to the United States from Canada and was a doctor seeking a license to practice medicine there. Demara became friends with Cyr and offered to help him in his efforts to gain accreditation. Demara took all of Cyr’s documents (although he claims that they were freely given) under the pretense of helping Cyr. Eventually, Demara quit his job at the Brothers of Instruction and moved north to Canada.

At this time, the Korean War was causing a distinct shortage in the number of doctors available to the Canadian military, among other issues. Presenting Cyr’s credentials to the Canadian navy in 1951, Demara demanded a post as an officer, or else he would go and join the Canadian army. In response to this ultimatum, the Canadian navy rushed the acceptance process for Demara, and within days, he had become a surgeon lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy.

Demara was posted to RCN Stadacona Hospital in Halifax, and then to the HMCS Cayuga, a ship sent to patrol the waters off the east coast of Korea. This meant that Demara was now responsible for the well-being of a crew of 292.

While aboard the Cayuga, Demara’s impersonation was put to the test when the ship picked up three injured South Koreans who had been involved in guerrilla fighting. He had to operate on these men and successfully removed a bullet from the chest of one man and amputated the foot of another. All his patients survived, and his work earned him the respect of the crew and a great deal of attention. Many officers of the Cayuga wanted to put Demara forward for a medal. Ironically, this attention brought about an end to Demara’s impersonation.

Demara’s activities had been reported in the newspapers, and one of the people who read of his exploits was the real Dr. Cyr’s mother. While Demara was posing as Cyr on the Cayuga, the real Dr. Cyr was practicing medicine in Grand Falls, New Brunswick. After being informed by his mother of the news report Cyr found that while it was his name in the paper, the accompanying picture was of his friend Dr. Hamann from Maine. Upon discovering that Demara was an impostor, a message was sent to Captain James Plomer of the Cayuga in October 1951 instructing him that (Crichton, 1959, p. 166),

the medical officer be suspended from duty immediately, that he be taxed with imposture, and a report be forwarded to Naval Headquarters forthwith.

Further investigation and a search of Demara’s room revealed letters and documents proving that he was not Dr. Cyr. Demara was transferred to a British ship and sent back to Canada.

How Demara was able to pass himself off as Cyr for so long is due in part to the character of the man. Demara, while critical of those who sought education, had a good memory for facts and was able to pick things up very quickly. He also manipulated others into aiding him in his deceptions. While at Stadacona Naval Hospital, he had approached one of his superiors asking for help in putting together a booklet that would act as a rule-of-thumb guide on medical matters. He claimed that the guide was meant as help for lumberjacks who were often very far from immediate medical assistance. Demara would use this quick guide as well, as lessons that he had learned from previous work he had conducted in a hospital in Los Angeles. Onboard the Cayuga, Demara also had the help of a competent sick berth attendant Petty Officer Bob Horchin, who handled most of the minor cases. In fact, Petty OfficerHorchin was pleased to have a superior who did not interfere in his work.

After returning to the United States, Demara moved on with his career as an impostor. In his autobiography (Crichton, 1959, p. 184) Demara disclosed the origins of several of the identities he used, but refused to explain where he obtained the credentials of Ben W. Jones. This is noteworthy identity as Demara used to begin work at Huntsville Prison in Texas as a prison guard and later warden of a high security wing of the prison. As with many of the professions that Demara attempted, he was a success, gaining the admiration and respect of the governor and prisoners. Demara was eventually put in charge of the maximum-security wing, which housed the most dangerous prisoners. For a while, he was content and appreciated; however, once again the attention that his activities received from the media proved the downfall of his efforts to be Ben W. Jones. A report by Joe McCarthy for Life magazine in 1951 on Demara’s exploits resulted in his detection (Burton, 2000). As with the incident in Canada, Demara was detained, but yet again, the state of Texas did not prosecute him for his deception. Demara eventually became a clergyman under his own name and died in 1981.

It can be argued that despite employing fraudulent means to access professions, Demara rarely intended to do harm to others. His focus was more on the prestige and social status that impersonation could provide him. As a consequence of this, his depiction in the media was more lighthearted and arguably had the effect of downplaying his criminality and the harm caused by white-collar crime. The romantic subplots in The Great Impostor and the casting of the younger and more attractive Tony Curtis to play Demara also contributed to this.

This image of con artists has been influential in subsequent media representations of the phenomenon, with some films and television shows building on this model of behavior. The TV show The Pretender (Mitchell & van Sickle, 1996) models its main character’s behavior after Demara, presenting the main protagonist as a social chameleon able to adopt any profession or identity. In the series, the main character’s ability to adopt various professions and deceive people as to his real identity is used for good by exposing the criminality of others and solving mysteries.

Frank Abagnale Jr.—Airline Pilot, Doctor, Lawyer

Similar to Demara, the exploits of Frank Abagnale Jr. were also publicized as an example of a successful impersonator and professional thief. Abagnale performed a number of check frauds and falsified IDs in order to pretend to be a pilot for Pan Am, a doctor, a lawyer, and a sociology professor in the United States in the 1960s. His life story was dramatized in the film Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg, 2002) and he appeared several times on the game show “To Tell the Truth” (Stewart, 1977) to discuss his deceptions. Abagnale was able to cash over $2.5 million in forged checks and was wanted in the United States and 26 other countries before he reached the age of 21.

Rather than stealing the identities of others, Abagnale impersonated members of professions. He used various methods to convince people of the legitimacy of his false identities, often using official-looking documents, which was enough to convince people that he was who he said he was. In the case of Abagnale’s impersonation of a pilot, he was able to obtain an official Pan Am uniform simply by asking Pan Am where he could obtain a uniform.

His ability to do this in part was a product of the times. In the 1960s, the use of computer databases to make a note of “who’s who” did not exist. If someone said that he belonged to a particular organization (especially larger organizations such as Pan Am), the process of confirming this would be long and drawn out. According to Abagnale’s own accounts, it would appear that as a result, people were taken on their word, the quality and apparent authenticity of their documentation, and their ability to adhere to archetypes. At the height of his career as a conman Abagnale was wanted in 12 countries around the world. His eventual capture took place in France, Abagnale was spotted by an Air France flight attendant he had known who informed the police. After spending time in a French prison he was extradited to Sweden on charges of forgery, Abagnale was eventually sent back to the United States to face prosecution. While Abagnale was imprisoned for a time there, he was eventually given an opportunity to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as an expert in forged documents and the activities of fraudsters. Abagnale went on to start his own company in 1976, specializing in providing security for the banking industry, and he now writes and lectures on the subjects of forgery, embezzlement, and secure documents to the FBI academy, government agencies, and corporations.

As with Demara, the film of Abagnale’s exploits as a professional thief presented him as the hero of the story, focusing on the skill that he employed in his deceptions. In the film, as well as in Abagnale’s biography (Abagnale & Redding, 2003), there was limited discussion of any victims or harm caused by his deceptions. Another similarity to The Great Impostor is the conflict between the success that Abagnale experiences through deception and the loneliness and despair that accompany the discovery of his crime. Both films have romantic subplots that are derailed by the revelations of deception and fraud. The representation of both Demara and Abagnale in the movies about their lives are also noteworthy for romanticizing the image of the professional conman. In both films the main characters are played by handsome movie stars who project an air of poise, self-assurance and control while deceiving others. This is a trait that appears frequently in subsequent fictional accounts of professional con artists.

Construction of the White-Collar Criminal in the 20th Century

The academic discourse on white-collar crime and professional criminals during the 20th century has presented a view of these offenders as complex and intelligent. According to Braithwaite (1985), research into white-collar crime was limited but had a significant impact on policy and public opinion. In relation to the media and pop culture, the depiction of professional thieves has been influenced by the limited knowledge of offenders gained from key texts such as Maurer (1940) and the information gained from the policing and prosecution of professional thieves. The influence of people like Demara and Abagnale in constructing the image of the professional con man is significant. Both demonstrated a high level of skill in deception and manipulation of the general public, businesses, and government institutions. This, coupled with the exploits being reported in the press and then shown in movies, helped create the image of the professional con man who is capable of elaborate and extreme deceptions. Films such as Ocean’s Eleven (Milestone, 1960) and the 2001 remake (Soderbergh, 2001), Confidence (Foley, 2003), and Matchstick Men (Scott, 2003) and the TV shows White Collar (Eastin, 2009), Hustle (Jordan, 2004), and Leverage (Rogers & Downey, 2009) play on the image of the professional con man that Demara and Abagnale represented.

While this view of the professional thief has become popular in fictional accounts, we also see within these stories a common representation of white-collar criminals and corporations. In stories about professional thieves, they are sometimes themselves painted as victims or those who deserve to succeed in their cons. Further, the status of the professional thieves own victims is often undermined or neutralized by the inference that they deserved to be targeted or they precipitated their own victimization by agreeing to participate in the schemes. Shows such as White Collar (Eastin, 2009) and Leverage (Rogers & Downey, 2009) play on this idea throughout, specifically targeting organizations and individuals seen to be corrupt or worse criminals than the con-artist heroes.

This is a theme that is not mentioned by Demara and Abagnale when discussing their exploits. For both, there was little consideration of the companies and organizations that they defraud, and they showed little animosity to the individuals that they victimized. In the case of Demara, he avoided prosecution on a couple of occasions by universities and organizations that he deceived. It can further be argued that a character trait that he exhibited at times was a disregard for any potential ill effect that his actions might have. While working as a University Professor and a Doctor in the Canadian Navy he often only exerted the minimum amount of effort to establish his expertise and fulfill the required role. He would trick others into doing work for him and avoided situations which would test his knowledge of the specialisms he falsely claimed to have. The exception to this was his work as a prison warden where his knowledge of criminal behavior aided his efforts to manage the inmates at Huntsville. Abagnale did face prosecution and imprisonment for his offenses, but again he showed little animosity toward the organizations that he defrauded—so much so that after being employed by the FBI as an expert in forgery, he started a security firm to cater to the kinds of businesses that he had previously victimized.

Historically, there are numerous examples of professional thieves who employ deception and fraud to commit crime. While some academics have argued that the age of the professional thief discussed by Sutherland came to an end in the 20th century (Klein, 1974), others have argued that this population of offenders still remains, but only in small numbers (Mack, 1972). As a consequence, they remain a significant archetype in popular culture—an uncommon criminal elite capable of extraordinary forms of criminal activity.

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Further Reading

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