• (Latin: imponere, to place or put upon; impose)


In the religious significance, various charlatans and false prophets. The Bible foretells them and warns against them in numerous instances, as in Matthew 7; Mark 13; 1 John 4; the fulfilment of such prophecies being attested to in the “Didache” (the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) and by Justin Martyr c.150. Apart from such pseudo-Messiases as John of Gischala and Simon Bar-Giora, the first notorious impostor of Christian church history was Simon Magus, the sorcerer, of whom we read in Acts 8. Although there is much legend associated with him, such as the story that in attempting to fly by demoniac power he was confounded and brought to earth by Saint Peter, there appears to be some foundation in fact for statements that he received Divine honors for his sorcery in Samaria and at Rome.

Of the great number of impostors of the 2nd and 3rd centuries and onward, may be mentioned

  • Alexander of Abonoteichos, called the oracle-monger, the most notorious impostor of the 2nd century
  • the Greek mountebank, Marcus
  • possibly the women, Priscilla and Maximilla
  • a fanatic of the 6th century mentioned by Saint Gregory of Tours
  • Adelbert and Clement, who opposed Saint Boniface in Germany c.744
  • Benedict Levita (Benedict the Deacon), author of a forged collection of documents (848-850)
  • Leotardus and Wilgardus, in the 11th century
  • the Anabaptist John of Leyden (John Bokelzoon), who flourished in 1533 and who was possibly insane
  • the Pseudo-Isidore (Isidore Mercator), author of a whole series of apocrypha, including the False Decretals
  • Paulua Tigrinus, pretended Patriarch of Constantinople, who deceived Pope Clement VII
  • the Franciscan friar, James of Jülich, who performed all the functions of a bishop without having received consecration
  • several individuals contemporary with and imitative of Saint Joan of Arc
  • Sir John Oldcastle, the Wycliffite, possibly deluded
  • those connected with the veneration of the ashes of Richard Wyche (burned 1440)
  • Johann Bohm, the Hussite, possibly a mere tool
  • Jack Cade, whose rebellion, however, was of no religious significance any more than that of Wat Tyler
  • Lambert Simnel (1487)
  • Perkin Warbeck (1497)

Numerous other secular pretenders to royal thrones include

  • Alexis Comnenus
  • the false Baldwin
  • the impersonator of Frederick II
  • after the death of Sebastian of Portugal, a whole series of pretenders to the throne

The “false Demetrius,” however, was never proved to be an impostor; the six impersonators of Louis XVII were unquestionably such. The fantastic Paracelsus, who illustrates the case of a charlatan who had no need to be one, was followed by Nostradamus and the famous or infamous Cagliostro. Among the most famous of later charlatans was Magdalena de la Cruz (1487-1560), a Franciscan nun of Cordoba, for many years honored as a saint. Others include: Joseph Francis Borro or Borri (1627-1695); and Matthew Hopkins (active 1645-1646), the “witch-finder”; the cases of the priest Louis Gauffridi, Madeleine Bavent, and Urbain Grandier are doubtful.

The discovery of the supposed Popish Plot toward the end of the 17th century resulted in an epidemic of religious impostures which included the activities of James Wadsworth and of James La Cloche, a supposed natural son of Charles II, who was for a time a Jesuit scholastic. Israel Tonge and Titus Oates are infamous for the concoction of a mythical plot between the pope and the Jesuits; they were emulated by Thomas Dangerfield, an impersonator of the Duke of Monmouth; to these must be added William Fuller. Robert Young (executed 1700) fabricated pretended Jacobite plots, as did Robert Ware, the forger, who remained undetected almost up to modern times; he is characterized by Father Bridgett as “this literary skunk.” Other impostures, chiefly of a literary turn, number among them that of the expelled Jesuit, the Abbe Zahorowski, author of the notorious “Monita Secreta,” a pretended “exposure” of “Jesuitical” tricks; the fictitious “Hungarian Confession” or “Fluchformular,” a profession of faith supposed to have been exacted of Hungarian Catholic converts, probably the work of one George Lani, although possibly it was a satirical composition taken by him in good faith; the misuse of what was obviously intended as a skit, “The Letter of the Three Bishops.” Of the same character are an indulgence supposed to have been granted by Tetzel, and the fabrication of the ex-Capuchin, Norbert Parisot, libeling the Jesuit missions. Of the crowd of impostors flourishing at the beginning of the 18th century the most conspicuous were the ex-Jesuit, Archibald Bower, author of a scurrilous “History of the Popes“; the fantastic Psalmanazar (1679-1763), who, among other activities, calumniated the Jesuits; Joanna, Southcott (died 1814); Richard Brothers (c.1792); Anna Lee (died 1784), foundress of the American Shakers; and Joseph Smith (1805-1844), the first apostle of Mormonism, who created an entire sect by fraud. A similar movement was that of the English Agapemonists, founded by H. S. Prince in 1848. The celebrated Tichborne case, involving a suit by an impostor and pretended heir, failed probably by reason of the impostor’s ignorance of Jesuit college life and practise.

Returning to religious impostures, there is the case of the pseudo-nun, Marilll Monk, whose anti-Catholic accusations were refuted by Protestant testimony; and that of Dr. Achilli. Various “ex-monks” and “escaped nuns,” such as Edith O’Gorman, may be referred to, as well as the case of the infamous Pastor Chiniquy (1809-1899), among whose fraudulent publications may be particularly mentioned “The Priest, the Woman, and the Confessional,” illustrating alleged abuses. In modern times perhaps the most cynically unscrupulous impostor was “Léo Taxil” (G. Jogand-Pagès), long known as one of the most blasphemous and obscene of the anti-clerical writers in France. Lastly, in our own day, we have Rasputin, “the mad monk”; Dowie, of “Elijah” fame; Mary Baker G. Eddy, Christian Scientist; Madame Blavatsky and A. P. Sinnett, prophets of Esoteric Buddhism; and Mrs. Annie Besant; beside the host of mahatmas, yogis, and charlatans of every sort. The bogus Knights of Columbus oath has been circulated freely in spite of much counter-publicity, and, in several cases, court sentences for Protestant ministers who circulated it among their flocks.

MLA Citation

  • “impostors”. New Catholic Dictionary. CatholicSaints.Info. 24 November 2012. Web. 18 June 2021. <>