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by Pauli Poisuo
Secret identities are a well-known staple of pop culture. And because real life is always stranger than fiction, it only makes sense that real life would also feature at least a few people who are hiding their secret, true selves under the guise of a Clark Kent-type identity. We’re not talking about healthy yoga instructors who mysteriously turn into Captain Sneaks-Out-To-Get-Churros every Thursday, but rather, people whose alter-egos can easily go toe-to-toe with anything comic books have to offer.
A Mild-Mannered Physicist Was Secretly A Legendary Crime-Fighting Scientist
Some scientists work in amazing, dangerous environments inventing cool, rocket-powered apparatuses that explode things. Wilmer Souder was definitely not one of those.
He was, however, an esteemed physicist and scientist who worked for the National Bureau of Standards -- the predecessor of NIST, a.k.a. those people who look after the cylinder that embodies a kilogram of weight and other super boring stuff. This is where Souder made his career, at least during the day. But when the good people of the world went to sleep (possibly after watching Souder work for any period of time), he started chasing the bad people under his secret identity:
We swear, we’re not making that name up. Look, it was probably a pretty snazzy alias before the X-Men came along and appropriated the letter for mopey folks with regrettable fashion sense and claws coming out from places that don’t traditionally feature claws. Wilmer “Detective X” Souder was no less of a superhero, though. His pseudonym was crafted to protect his civilian identity from evildoers, and he battled criminals with powers no one else had: modern forensics. As in, he invented the damn thing.
“Are you taking notes? Lovely. We call this a ‘footprint.’”
In 1916, the Bureau of Standards received a peculiar query from another agency that wanted to know if there was a systematic way to analyze handwriting and typewriters. At that point, Souder was mostly known for two things: his groundbreaking work in dental fillings, and his ability to measure things very, very accurately. So the task fell to him, and he must have done it pretty well, because after that, the requests just never stopped coming. He was bombarded with “Help us out, dude” messages from the Post Office, the Department of Treasury and various other agencies, up to and very much including the FBI.
Whatever they wanted, Detective X delivered. He pioneered ballistics and calculated the money laundering schemes of various gangsters, possibly including Al Capone. Souder may have even been involved in the Manhattan Project. He was definitely involved in the hunt for the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, and in fact was the man who managed to connect the ransom notes to the handwriting of Bruno Hauptmann, who was later convicted. The head of the NYPD called him the “most outstanding expert on the continent in the last 100 years.” He appeared in high-profile cases as an expert witness, spoke at Secret Service conferences, and whispered in the ear of the founder of the FBI’s forensic lab.
And there’s nothing anyone can say that’ll stop us from believing in our heart of hearts that he did all that while making everyone call him Detective Freaking X.
A Badass War Hero Was Secretly An Even More Badass Heroine
Alexandr Sokolov was pretty hardcore. He was an esteemed Russian soldier during the Napoleonic wars, revered for his bravery and his penchant for surviving situations that would turn lesser men into soup. For instance, in his very first battle in 1807, the Russian squadrons attacked the enemy by taking turns, giving every unit a chance to go in fresh and then take their time gathering their ranks. Sokolov attacked with every single squadron, charging at the enemy over and over until a Russian officer had to physically chase him away from the front lines. He would happily rescue wounded soldiers and lend them his horse, even if it left him without provisions on an active battlefield full of enemies (which it did). Once, both he and his horse survived a nearly direct hit from an artillery shell without so much as a scratch.
His commanding officers praised him. His reputation grew. And one day, the Tsar himself wanted to meet him, in the way that rulers occasionally like to catch up with war heroes that are brave and presentable enough. Only, this was not a normal audience. Instead of the usual “Well done, soldier guy” routine, the Tsar (also called Alexandr) was all, “Look, I know who you really are, so let’s cut the crap.”
Because Trooper Alexandr Sokolov was not Alexandr Sokolov at all. The Tsar had learned something that even “Sokolov’s” immediate commanding officers had not figured out: that he was actually a woman named Nadezhda Durova. Durova had escaped her less-than-ideal life (her mother once threw her out of a moving wagon when she was a baby) to the relative comfort of the battlefield, where she became really, really good at things like bravery and survival.
“What, am I not supposed to be showing everyone up?”
But instead of getting all macho about things and banishing her from the battlefield forever, he had summoned Durova because he was a big fan of hers. He showered her with military-themed gifts, gave her a choice of which regiment she wanted to serve in, and even provided her with a handy new alias since her old one had been compromised: Alexandrov, after the Tsar himself.
Durova went on to serve for a full decade in various regiments, and retired as a much-decorated captain -- the first female officer in Russian military history, even if she had chosen to keep her identity secret throughout her service. However, her retirement to her small provincial hometown only served to start yet another chapter in her long list of awesome deeds. Bored with the quiet life, she took up writing, and in the span of a few short years, she wrote a well-regarded memoir of her military days, four novels, and tons of short stories. Her writing attracted the attention of an influential admirer who fawned over her literary work, helped her get published, and gave her the moniker “Cavalry Maiden.” No, it wasn’t the Tsar this time, but it was yet another Alexander: namely, Alexander Pushkin, the greatest Russian poet of all time and founder of the country’s contemporary literature.
A Powerful Politician Was Secretly A Columnist Bashing Powerful Politicians (Including Himself)
Alfred Deakin was a high-powered Australian politician who served as prime minister for three terms during the country’s early days. We promise that’s the only boring sentence of this entry, because as it turns out, Deakin had a side hustle: From 1904 to 1914, he was an anonymous columnist for the London National Review. An anonymous political columnist.
And on a side, but very important, note: Deakin’s prime minister terms fell between 1903 and 1910. He was already leading the country when he decided to take up his column.
If you’re even passingly familiar with the concept of politics, you know that country leaders have been known to rain fairly public hell on their various underlings and enemies. So maybe this was one of those cases? Maybe Deakin was just using the column as a clever plot to demolish his opponents while making himself look good?
On the contrary, Deakin was ruthlessly impartial in his delivery, and he was all about informing the British of exciting Australian political events (OK, so there were two boring sentences). This means that if there was something that he, a journalist, should criticize, he damn well criticized it. This included readily informing the public of the occasional uninformed decisions of that stupid, stupid prime minister, Alfred Deakin.
“Haha! This guy will rue the day that he … oh.”
Yes, the man happily talked smack about the prime minister while being the prime minister. Look, we know that the guy died in 1919, and we’re sure he had his bad points, but is there a way to clone one of these dudes for, like, every government? Maybe create a special position for them and call it Secretary of Smack Talk? Because, anonymous reporting or not, there’s far too little rampant, determined self-owning in the political field today.
A Seattle Special Educator Was Secretly An Actual Superhero
Ben Fodor was as close to a superhero as you can be. In his job as a teacher for disabled and autistic children, he was accustomed to performing miracles few of us could ever hope to match, and on a daily basis.
Phoenix Jones was also a superhero, although he came in a far more traditional flavor. A prominent figure in the Real-life superhero movement, this Seattle-based character patrolled the streets in a pretty impressive, black and gold superhero costume, and fought local crime under a secret identity. He also dabbled in MMA, because that’s just par for the course when you roam the night in a latex outfit, stopping crime and leading a whole Avengers-style team of self-styled superheroes called Rain City Superhero Movement.
“We have a permit.”
A special educator was probably the least likely person you’d expect to start a neighborhood watch/vigilante career like that, so of course it turned out that Phoenix Jones was actually Ben Fodor. Unfortunately for the man himself, the direction his superheroing took turned out to be a very unfortunate one. In 2011, the his antics got a little too vigilante-ish for the police when he pepper sprayed a bunch of people on the street. Fodor insisted they were fighting, but the victims say they were merely dancing.
He was eventually unmasked as part of the court proceedings, and when Fodor’s impressive flattop haircut emerged underneath the cowl, things started to go downhill pretty quickly. He lost his job and was forbidden from working with children, and though he continues his Phoenix Jones persona to this day, his reputation as a masked crime-fighter also took a hit. So, though his intentions were good, in a sense he ended up losing both of the things that made him super.
A Humble Worker Was Secretly Japan’s Version Of Robin Hood
The hero of this particular entry was known as “Jiroichi the Rat,” and ‘Nezumi-Kozo’, which stands for, uh, “The Kid Rat.” It’s unlikely that either of them was his real name, unless his parents really hated him and he was very bad at maintaining secret identities.
By day, Nezumi-Kozo was a humble, early 19th century manual labor type of guy in Japan’s Edo, which you might now know as Tokyo. By all accounts, he was a pretty stand-up dude of the “volunteers in the local fire brigade” variety. However, when night fell, he became a Robin Hood-type character: A super-thief who performed daring robberies from the estates of feudal lords and their samurai warriors. Then, he gave a whole bunch of his loot to the poor.
Or possibly wasted it on women and gambling, as some of the less romantically-minded historians theorize. The working classes certainly worshipped Nezumi-Kozo’s antics, and he remains a symbol of the common man’s victory over his oppressors in the country, so we’re going to give the guy the benefit of doubt, here.
And seriously, it’s not because he threatened us.
As is often the case with this particular character archetype, there’s a whole lot of legend and hearsay surrounding Nezumi-Kozo’s career. Most people can’t even agree how he got his ratty name. Some say that he was merely a man with rat-like features. Others maintain that it was a nod at the way he crept through the buildings he robbed undetected. Our firm favorite, however, is the story where Nezumi-Kozo just straight up carried a sack of actual rats with him: Whenever he entered a wealthy mansion and needed a distraction, he’d just release them and go to town. If the residents heard noises and woke up, they’d just see a bunch of rats scurrying around, and drowsily attribute it to them. Also, if they actually woke all the way up, they’d presumably be too busy freaking the hell out over the dozens of rodents that had suddenly manifested in their crib to pay attention to a dude climbing out of the window with all of their jewelry in tow.
Some of the rich Samurai houses he robbed saw his capers as a mark of shame that pointed out their inadequate defenses, so it’s hard to estimate precisely how many rich houses Nezumi-Kozo robbed before his capture and untimely, government-aided demise in 1832, at the tender age of 36. All we have to go on is his own confession, which stated he committed almost 100 burglaries, and stole over 30,000 ryo in total. For reference, a single ryo at the time could support a working class family for a year, and the theft of just 10 ryo was more than enough for a death sentence.
Which, now that we think about it, means that Nezumi-Kozo stole so much from the rich he could technically have been sentenced for 3,000 deaths. That’s dedication.