Your debts are piling up; the job's getting on your nerves, and maybe your partner doesn't look as hot as he or she once did. It's that John Darwin canoe moment – when you think the unthinkable and wonder if life would be better if you ended it all for the old you and started over with a shiny new one. Not a real death, of course. But a phoney – staging, perhaps, your own personal Mary Celeste, with canoe or dinghy abandoned on the briny, or, like ex-minister John Stonehouse and television's immortal Reggie Perrin, a neat little pile of clothes left on the beach with their owner nowhere to be seen. Many are tempted, and a good few, like Mr Darwin of Seaton Carew and Panama fame, succumb. Faking death and having a second bite at life's cherry is a difficult area in which to give guidance, since we never, by definition, get to hear of the successful, only the failures. But their errors and weaknesses can be our instruction manual. And so, as a reader service, we've combed the record for dos and don'ts so we can present Disappearing for Dummies, or How to Do a Reggie Perrin – the 1970s sitcom character who staged a suicide in order to build a new life.
It can be done. An uplifting tale of success to buoy you all up at the outset. In 1975, New Zealander Ivan Manson, aged 44, with a wife and four children, never returned from a fishing trip. His boat was found, but he wasn't. Police were sceptical. No inquest was held. We might never have been any the wiser had not two cars collided in Queensland, Australia, 20 years later. One of the bodies was identified from fingerprints as Ivan Manson. He had lived as a pillar of the local bowls club in the town of Caboolture ever since his fishing trip. Let his example be your lodestar.
Think twice about using another body: The days when you could stick a corpse of the right gender and approximate height in a car, crash it, soak it with fuel, set it alight, and trust the charred remains will be mistaken for you are – for better or worse – gone. Dental records, DNA and the high price of petrol have put paid to that. No longer is anyone likely to imitate Captain Henry Cecil Dudgeon D'Arcy of the Frontier Light Horse, who, having been awarded the VC in the Zulu wars, turned to drink. Later, a body wearing his clothes was found in a cave and, this being the pathology of a century ago, presumed to be his. Only many decades later was it learnt that D'Arcy had found a dead man lying in the snow, changed clothes with him, and gone to Natal, and lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name. He was once recognised in 1925, but swore his discoverer to the secret, which the man kept until D'Arcy died.
Don't hang around the neighbourhood
In the early 1990s, a dinghy was found washed up on a Suffolk beach. It belonged to Peter Cusworth, a retired hotelier and stress-management counsellor, who, it turned out, was mired in nearly £350,000-worth of debts. His "widow" Valerie then claimed on life insurance policies worth £200,000, but sceptical firms did not pay out. They were wise. Cusworth had not died, but had started a new life as a writer called Jonathan Miles Paget Goodwin. What was surprising was that, having gone to all that trouble, he moved away no further than Norfolk. Sure enough, when he had a rendezvous with Mrs Cusworth at Bury St Edmunds, a policeman recognised him and the game was up.
Minimise the number of people that will go looking for you
The last thing you want when on the run under a new and unfamiliar identity is to have police, insurance assessors, creditors, or all three, on your tail. Two examples will suffice. In 1995, the day before he was to go on trial for sex offences, civil servant Thomas Osmond left a note saying that he had thrown himself off the Severn Bridge. A detective was sceptical, and, three years later, found Osmond in Bristol, living as "Stephen Williams" and working in telesales. He got seven years.
Creditors can be equally assiduous. In 1999, Owen Bruce Taylor disappeared off the face of Auckland, New Zealand, leaving a wife, children, suicide note, and NZ$3m in debts. Unbeknown to them all, he went to Queenstown, 950 miles away, called himself John Bowland, got a job at a timber yard, dated the boss's niece, and, in time, became a director of the firm. But four years later, an employee of the detective agency hired by Taylor's old creditors saw him in a store, and police pulled him in.
A phone call saying you're dead is unlikely to be enough
It is remarkable how many people in trouble think that merely phoning, faxing or emailing the authorities and reporting their own death will be enough to call off the wolves. Newcastle solicitor's secretary Julie Thompson, for instance, faced a fraud compensation claim, and other debts. So she posed as her sister and faxed the court to say that Julie had "regrettably passed away", and her bereaved relatives would be distressed if any arrest warrant was issued. The court demanded a death certificate, and that she couldn't fax.
Do it with conviction
Faking your own death is not an enterprise to be lightly undertaken – nor done just to see the extent of the ensuing bereavement. In 1998, Mike Cilgram, described as a poultry processor, wanted to see how much he meant to his estranged wife, Julie. So he left his clothes on the beach at Gorleston, Norfolk, placed an anonymous call to police to say he'd just seen a naked man walk into the sea. Not surprisingly, he was soon rumbled, and his "widow" was none too impressed. She greeted the resurrected poultry man with a request for divorce. "There's no guarantee he won't do something like this again," she said.
In 2007, Bosnian Amir Vehabovic went further. He staged his death, bribed a firm of undertakers to bury an empty coffin, and hid in the cemetery's bushes to count how many of the 45 invitees showed up. Sadly, only his old mum came, leaving Amir to give the other 44 a piece of his mind. "It just goes to show," said his letter to them, "who you can really count on." The moral: when it comes to your "death", have a long-term motive.
The new you
Let preparation be your watchword
Steve O'Keefe, co-author of How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, showed how easy it is to build a new identity. He started making mail-order purchases in his dog's name, and always paid cash, so the hound built up a debt-free history. Mr O'Keefe said: "The records now indicate he has one of the best personal credit ratings in all of Washington state, and that at least once a month he gets a pre-approved application for a Visa or MasterCard."
Create a new you, not the old one with a new name
Many death-fakers are caught because their old character can't help bubbling to the surface. Take the case of the ever-thrusting David Friedland. He was a New Jersey state senator given a jail sentence in 1980 for his part in a $20m fraud, but kept out of prison in exchange for co-operating with investigators. Five years later, and freshly indicted for graft, he staged his death in a scuba diving "accident" in the Bahamas. He went to the Maldives, where he became a prominent businessman, running a chain of scuba-diving shops. But he ruffled local feathers; officials looked into his background, alerted US police, and he was duly arrested. As one of those who tracked him down said: "If he were capable of becoming a low-profile kind of guy, we'd still be looking for him."
Be smart in choosing your new identity
Do not, for instance, try to pass your new self off as your own long-lost relative. Remember the audacious Audrey Hilley. In 1979, this apparently blameless Alabama widow was charged with poisoning her daughter, then 18. The girl survived, arsenic was found, and investigators decided to exhume the body of the late Mr Hilley, who had died suddenly, in the prime of life, four years before. Sure enough, arsenic was found in his body. Mrs Hilley (who had claimed his $30,000 life insurance payout) was charged, and, mysteriously, allowed out on bail. She absconded, married a Texan, and moved with him to New Hampshire. One day she said she was off to visit her sister in Texas. Once there, she faked her own death, even placing an obituary in the local newspaper. Then she went to Florida, where – 20lb lighter, with a new set of teeth, and blond hair – she met her abandoned husband, told him she was his wife's hitherto unmentioned twin sister Terri, and moved into his home. Astonishingly, he was completely fooled – but one old acquaintance wasn't. She went to police, and the long life on the run of Audrey Hilley ended.
Getting away with it
Resist the temptation to have a Facebook page
The internet is a dangerous place when forging a new identity, especially if your appearance hasn't changed. Facing fraud charges, Australian company director Robert Martin faked his death in 1996 and fled to Melbourne. He managed to live there undetected for seven years, until he was unable to resist putting his photo on a personals site. He was recognised and arrested.
Be lucky: Even if you have a flawless plan and carry it out to perfection, you still need luck. Colin Whelan, a Dublin computer analyst who strangled his wife, and then, while out on bail, staged his death by the familiar ruse of a car abandoned by the sea, was spotted four years later by an Irish tourist in a Mallorca bar. And Harry Gordon, another death-faker, had the misfortune while leading what he thought was a new life, to run into his brother in New Zealand.
Do not pose for publicity pictures with Panamanian estate agents
Self-evident, but this has been ignored.
Audrey Hilley poisoned her husband, tried to do the same to her daughter, faked her death, remarried, left her husband, then turned up again as her own twin sister.
Australian Harry Gordon faked his death in 2000 and moved to Spain, England, South Africa and then New Zealand – where he had the misfortune to run into his brother.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies