THE GREAT PRETENDERS; Starting Today, a Fascinating New Series That Opens Up the Bizarre World of Impostors and Reveals Just How Misleading Appearances Can Be
Byline: SARAH BURTON
Billy Tipton was a top jazzman, a Scoutmaster, husband to four wives and father to three sons * Harry Stokes was a pipe-smoking bricklayer who married one woman and lived with another * But all three men shared one astonishing secret ... they were really women living out a lie * Dr James Barry was an eminent physician who left female admirers swooning in his wake MOST of us have told a fib or two in our time - embroidered our CV to get a job, perhaps, or exaggerated our achievements to impress a lover. But what happens when the fibs spiral out of control? And how can we ever be sure that someone is what they seem to be? This is the fascinating world of impostors - exposed in a new book that reveals exactly how misleading appearances can be.
In an exclusive serialisation, continuing tomorrow, the Mail explores this murky world ... beginning with three people whose entire lives were built on the most fundamental deception of all.
EARLY one October morning in 1859, a Salford man was walking along the River Irwell on his way to work when he noticed a hat in the water. Closer inspection revealed that the hat was firmly lodged on the head of a dead body, standing upright in the water.
The body was conveyed to a nearby public house, where it was quickly identified as that of a well-known local character, Harry Stokes.
Stokes was a master bricklayer whose special skill was in constructing chimneys and fire-grates; some of the tallest chimneys in the Manchester and Salford area were his work.
He was respected locally, and had been sworn in as a special constable during the Chartist riots.
Although his brief marriage had ended in separation, he had been living for many years with a widow who kept a pub. There Harry was a familiar, congenial figure, smoking, drinking and bantering with his friends.
The coroner's inquest would have been a mere formality, and Harry Stokes's death have gone unremarked, had not one of the jurors recalled a scandal at the time of his marriage.
On their wedding night, Harry's wife had complained that her husband was 'not a man' and had immediately left him.
The coroner duly directed two women to examine the body. They returned, tittering, to say Harry Stokes had indeed been a woman.
How many Harry Stokeses are there, what motivates them, and how do they get away with it?
When we talk about impostors, we are necessarily talking about those who have ultimately failed as such, simply by virtue of the fact that we now know they were impostors.
Those who succeeded remain undetected.
And there must be many of them.
The most notorious are often motivated by fame and fortune, but these are not the only motives. If imposture often ends in failure, it is also born out of it. The real lives impostors leave behind are almost uniformly intolerable and oppressive. The impostor is an escapolo-gist as much as an adventurer.
CREATIVE and often highly intelligent, impostors recognise the limitations of the hand life has dealt them: they cannot change the world into which they were born, so they change themselves.
Harry Stokes was not unmasked as a woman in his lifetime, but, like so many other gender impostors, his death revealed his secret.
Here he was just unlucky. As a pauper, Stokes would have been buried in his clothes were it not for the keen memory of one juror.
History does not relate how it was that, after the failure of his marriage, Stokes was nevertheless able to live for many apparently harmonious years with another woman, Frances Collins. She later steadfastly insisted that she had never discovered his secret.
We do know a little more about Harry's motives for living a lie.
Early in the 19th century, an eight-year-old girl found herself tramping a dusty lane into the village of Whitby, near Doncaster. …