Pants on Fire: The 16 Most Outrageous Liars in History

THE SERPENT

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prehistory

Eve may have eaten the apple, but it was the serpent that led her to the tree. He was literally a snake in the grass.

SINON

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circa 1200 b.c.

You have to be a pretty great liar to convince your sworn enemies that you're surrendering out of the blue after 10 years of siege. But Sinon did just that when he tricked the Trojans into accepting a gift wooden horse (an idea from his pal Odysseus)—secretly filled with angry Greek soldiers.

BENEDICT ARNOLD

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1741-1801

After one too many perceived snubs by the Americans, Arnold defected to the British army, betraying his country and his longtime advocate, George Washington. His name now is synonymous with traitor in the United States.

GREGOR MACGREGOR

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1786-1845

Being a con man was so much easier before Google. Scotsman Gregor MacGregor told Europeans he was "the Cacique of Poyais," a small Latin American nation, and persuaded them to invest huge sums of money in fertile real estate. The only problem? Poyais didn't exist.

PINOCCHIO

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1881-present

Originally the subject of an Italian novel later popularized by Disney, Pinocchio may be the most obvious liar of the group—which makes him all the more audacious for trying.

CHARLES PONZI

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1882-1949

Ponzi raised millions from small-time investors in post-WWI Boston on the hopes of huge returns from a fishy international postage exchange, paving the way for predatory scammers for decades to come.

MICHAEL ROMANOFF

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circa 1890-1971

Romanoff (né Gerguson) hustled his way up from small-time con man to big-time Hollywood restaurateur with an eponymous eatery by claiming to be a descendent of the last tsar of Russia. Everyone knew he was lying, but he was so well-loved by Angelenos that most didn't even care.

ELMYR DE HORY

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1906-1976

One of the most successful art forgers of all time, de Hory aped the style (and signatures) of modernist masters from Modigliani to Picasso and persuaded collectors to pay huge sums for his work. Clifford Irving (who would later write a faux memoir "by" Howard Hughes) profiled him in his book Fake!, inspiring Orson Welles' famous pseudo-documentary F for Fake.

RICHARD NIXON

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1913-1994

"I am not a crook."

JOHN "JOHNNY LIAR" GRAHAM

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1937, or possibly 1938-present

Graham never conned anyone out of money or covered up any war crimes, but he probably could: He has won the World's Biggest Liar contest in Cumbria, England, seven times, making him the most successful contestant in the competition's 100-plus-years history.

KONRAD KUJAU

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1938-2000

After years of forging Nazi memorabilia for closet fascists, Kujau started producing handwritten books he claimed were Hitler's personal diaries. He sold 62 volumes to a German journalist for millions of deutsche marks before being caught and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

BERNIE MADOFF

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1938-present

Where to begin? Madoff masterminded the ur-Ponzi scheme, and America is still reeling.

ALDRICH AMES

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1941-present

Ames was a CIA agent for 32 years before he was arrested in 1994 for selling state secrets to the Soviet Union since 1985. He blamed his actions on financial troubles stemming from alimony payments to his ex-wife, who left him when she found out he wanted to marry his longtime mistress.

KENNETH LAY

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1942-2006

As the chairman of Enron, Lay refined the Ponzi scheme into corporate heist, convincing investors that his company made billions more a year than the company actually earned a year before it was revealed to be a scam in late 2001. He was convicted on 10 counts, including fraud, in 2006, but he died of a heart attack before serving any time behind bars.

FRANK ABAGNALE

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1948-present

The notorious check-forging teen con man's autobiography inspired Leo's character in 2002's Catch Me if You Can.

CHRISTOPHE ROCANCOURT

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1967-present

Rocancourt has assumed countless identities over the years, including, most infamously, that of a French heir to the Rockefeller fortune. He was friends with boldface names (Mickey Rourke, Naomi Campbell, Jean-Claude Van Damme) and claimed to have made $40 million during his life—but he was convicted of conning folks out of a paltry $1.5 million. Chump change!

Read More:

Liar for Hire: How to Embellish Your Résumé

Caught in the Act: Five Liars Who Took Resume Fraud Too Far.

Who's Spying on You at Work?

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