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Genealogists keep constant watch for misrepresented ancestries spreading over the internet. But history holds many tales of family history fakery perpetrated without help from the world wide web:
• George Psalmanazar, born probably in France in 1679, traveled through Europe claiming Jesuits had abducted him from the island of Formosa (now Taiwan). In a successful book, Psalmanazar described the island as a prosperous place where upper classes lived in underground houses (thus accounting for his pale visage). He confessed his lies in a posthumously published memoir.
• In 1817, an exotically dressed Mary Baker convinced a British town she was Princess Caraboo from the Indian Ocean island of Javasu. A Portuguese sailor “translated” her tale of being kidnapped by pirates and jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel. Baker was later recognized from a newspaper illustration as the daughter of a cobbler who lived in Witheridge, Devon.
• In 1959, Texas author John Howard Griffin disguised himself as an African-American with help from pigment-boosting medication and ultraviolet treatments. His book Black Like Me compares his journeys through the Deep South undercover and as himself.
• Griffin inspired journalist Grace Halsell’s social experiment masquerading as a black woman in Harlem and Mississippi in 1968 (detailed in Soul Sister), and as a Navajo maid a few years later (Bessie Yellowhair).
• Iron Eyes Cody, the actor known as the crying Indian in the 1971 anti-pollution commercial, claimed for most of adulthood to be Cherokee and Cree. He was actually the son of Sicilian immigrants.
• German immigrant Christian Gerhartsreiter, born in 1960, crafted several false identities, the final one being Clark Rockefeller of the Rockefellers. He affected an uppercrust accent based on Thurston Howell III from “Gilligan’s Island” and liked to jingle the supposed keys to Rockefeller Center. He’s now in prison for attempting to kidnap his daughter from his estranged wife.
After November 2009 promos for MTV’s reality series “Jersey Shore” used the controversial term “guido” to describe the show’s cast, Italian-American organizations including UNICO National criticized the channel for exploiting negative ethnic stereotypes.
The show’s first season followed eight badly behaving 20-somethings summering in a Seaside Heights, NJ, beach house. MTV told critics “the Italian-American cast takes pride in their ethnicity.” Indeed, the stars proudly and frequently used the offending g-word in reference to themselves.
But it turns out at least two of them aren’t even Italian: In February, Jenni “J-Woww” Farley admitted on Fox’s “The Strategy Room” that her roots are actually Spanish and Irish, and said Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi is mostly Chilean.
From the July 2010 Family Tree Magazine