Very few people are seen as indisputable legends, near-mythic heroes or heroines of their time. And for every transcendent figure our society does revere, there are countless others who never receive recognition for the change they’ve effected or other extraordinary accomplishments. We talk with author Paul Martin about the remarkable and colorful stories of untold heroes he has unearthed.


  • Paul Martin Author, "Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World" (Harper Collins, 2012)

Excerpt: “Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World”

By Paul Martin. Reprinted by arrangement with William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins. Copyright Paul Martin, 2012.


  • 13:06:37

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show, "connecting your neighborhood with the world. George Washington, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, a few figures we can probably agree are heroes. But for each person hailed as a hero, there are countless others who do remarkable, extraordinary and brave things who never get that kind of recognition.

  • 13:07:13

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAuthor Paul Martin has decided to bring a collection of them to our attention. So the likes of Solomon Louis, Mary Bowser and Joseph Dutton finally get their due. Paul Martin joins us in studio, he's a retired editor and journalist. His latest book is "Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World." Paul Martin, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:07:35

    MR. PAUL MARTINIt's great to be here, Kojo.

  • 13:07:36

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation, share your secret heroes with us at 800-433-8850 or email us at, send us a tweet @kojoshow or simply go to our website and tell us who your secret hero is at Paul Martin, a career in journalism took you from a small town in Missouri to Vietnam and eventually to National Geographic where you spent some three decades. After retiring, you set out to finish a project you'd been working on for years. It's my understanding that you started it on the very day you retired. What had you been doing?

  • 13:08:17

    MARTINWell, I've been a lifelong history buff and I had been collecting people, collecting little known Americans who'd done amazing things, unsung heroes, inventors, soldiers, spy's, all sorts of characters. And by the time I got ready to retire, I had enough for a book and so that's what I did. And the day I left National Geographic, I started writing me new...

  • 13:08:44

    NNAMDIWhat was the process by which you went about, during your career, collecting this information?

  • 13:08:49

    MARTINAs I say, I'm just a general history buff. In reading, watching TV, watching History Channels, Smithsonian, Discovery, National Geographic Channel, there are always these enticing, fleeting mentions of characters that did something wonderful. I once watched a History Channel program on technology developed during the Civil War. And I came away with two or three characters that were based on that program that I had to search to find anything out about them. But when you do, these wonderful stories open up and you find that it isn't always the generals and the Presidents who shape our country's history.

  • 13:09:32

    NNAMDIIf I asked three different people, how they define the word hero, I'd probably get three different answers. How do you define that word?

  • 13:09:42

    MARTINWell, I've really realized that there are a couple of different kinds of heroes. There's the one that immediately springs to mind is someone who does something almost impulsively, an instantaneous act of bravery that they put their life on the line for someone else without thinking. And usually it's, say, a soldier on a battlefield or a fireman rushing into a burning building to save someone. And those acts of courage are instantaneous, but the other type of hero is a hero who simply endures, somebody who can stand up against overwhelming obstacles, like poverty or prejudice or some physical or mental challenge. And their heroism might be played out over a lifetime.

  • 13:10:29

    NNAMDIYour heroes, the secret heroes in this book "Secret Heroes" are divided into three categories, voyagers, innovators and humanitarians.

  • 13:10:38


  • 13:10:39

    NNAMDIDid those groups emerge naturally as you compiled these stories?

  • 13:10:43

    MARTINThey did. I didn't set out with that organization. When I started writing the book, I was simply looking for interesting characters. They had to have done something amazing, but they also had to be appealing. One of the things that I -- my rule of thumb was, if I didn't want to spend time with them, I wasn't going to write about them. And when I found these characters, at one time I had 50 or 60 candidates for this particular book and 30 ended up being selected. They were a mishmash of all different kinds of backgrounds and time periods. And as I started writing and selecting, I realized I needed some organization. And they actually sorted themselves out.

  • 13:11:25

    MARTINVoyagers were people who took some sort of journey. It might've been a physical journey. It might've been an emotional journey. And innovators, of course, were inventers and trailblazers. And the humanitarians were people who tried to improve the lives of others. So it was easy to separate these into different categories and I think it helps you get a quicker understanding of what the nature of their heroism really is.

  • 13:11:52

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Paul Martin. He is a retired editor and journalist. His latest book is called "Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World." How do you define the word hero? You can call us at 800-433-8850. Paul Martin, in an age of 24/7 news cycles, reality TV, Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes seems to have come true. Do you think that means the age of the unsung hero is now over?

  • 13:12:26

    MARTINNo, no, not at all. Despite the popular fixation on celebrities, which seems to consume a lot of our television programming and news coverage today, there still are and always will be unsung heroes. And I would say that everybody who's listening has some hero from their hometown they can think of, the local hero. Now, sometimes those heroes don't have a lasting impact, maybe it's just the lives of the person, say, it was the fireman who saved somebody or someone who saved somebody from downing.

  • 13:13:03

    MARTINThat impact may be restricted just to the people involved. But the type of hero I tried to highlight and give some credit to are the people who did things that have lasting, enduring value and widespread significance. That was one of the subtitles: "Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World," and I was really looking to make sure that these people had done something that we can still see evidence of today.

  • 13:13:29

    NNAMDIYou collected these stories, even as you researched other topics and came across interesting people. Do you remember the first story you pulled?

  • 13:13:40

    MARTINI do and it's going to be in the next book I write. The first story I researched and actually wrote was, I was touring Ford's Theatre and I learned about a character that I'd never heard of. His name was John Parker and he was the Washington Policeman assigned to guard President Lincoln's theater box the night he was assassinated. And John Parker was quite a ne'er-do-well. He was a heavy drinker and he'd been called on the carpet many, many times. And he left his post. He couldn't see the stage from where he was sitting in the little hallway in back of President Lincoln's box.

  • 13:14:24

    MARTINAnd so he got up and walked out from his guard post, went down and sat and watched the play and at intermission, he left the theater and never came back. So when I heard about this character, someone I'd never experienced before, I looked into him and that was the first piece I wrote. But he didn't fit into this collection. He's certainly not a hero. He's antihero. So he's going to be later collection.

  • 13:14:47

    NNAMDINow, let's talk about some of the heroes that fit into this collection. Tell us the story about William Van Horne?

  • 13:14:55

    MARTINWilliam Van Horne was an American railroader. He grew up in a middle class family in Illinois and he'd dropped out of school because of a prank. He was a quick sketch artist. And when he was in school, he drew a picture of the principal and passed it around and everybody was laughing so hard that the teacher confiscated it and found out about it. And he got into so much trouble, he never went back to school.

  • 13:15:25

    MARTINAnd he decided to pursue a career in railroading. And the first thing he became was a telegraph operator and he became so proficient that he could literally just listen to the dots and dashes coming over the line without writing anything down and just translated it as a stream. Well, he went on for years, worked his way up through the ranks and eventually he became the president of several big Midwestern railroads.

  • 13:15:51

    NNAMDIWhich is strange for a man who said I eat all I can, I drink all I can, I smoke all I can and I don't care a -- well, think about hoot so to speak, for anything.

  • 13:16:04

    MARTINHe was what you would call, larger than life, and you would've thought he would've eaten and drunk himself to death, but he lived a long life. He became so famous as sort of this wild, take-any-challenge-on kind of a character that the Canadian Pacific Railway, when they were having problems, they'd already gone through a couple of engineers that were supposed to build the Transcontinental Railway for them. And this is the late 1800s. And they both failed and the Canadian railroading interests contacted Van Horne and told him, offered him the job and he took it on.

  • 13:16:46

    MARTINAmazingly, there was a 10 year -- they expected it to take to 10 years to finish the Transcontinental Railway. Van Horne finished it in four years. And he later became the president of the Canadian Pacific. He built the famous hotels, Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise. He really was instrumental in bringing the settlers to the prairie from Europe. He encouraged people to come there and grow wheat on the prairie and his railroad was the engine that drove the settlement and economic development of Canada.

  • 13:17:23

    NNAMDIBut even after the Eastern West Lines of that railroad were joined, apparently he had another challenge and that is finding customers.

  • 13:17:33

    MARTINWell, that was his biggest challenge. Here he had this brand new railroad, they had the...

  • 13:17:37

    NNAMDINobody to ride it.

  • 13:17:38

    MARTIN...and nobody to ride it. So he put together a steamship line in the Atlantic and a steamship line in the Pacific. He brought settlers from Europe to settle the prairies, farmers from Ukraine and Russian Germany and he brought trade goods from Asia to Vancouver, which by the way, he selected the location for Vancouver and gave it its name. He was a huge visionary. A person could literally ride from London to Hong Kong on Canadian Pacific ships and trains and he was the person responsible for this huge network that developed the interior of Canada.

  • 13:18:29

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Karen in Alexandria, Va. Karen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Oh, please put your headphones on, Paul Martin, so you'll be able to hear Karen. Karen, go ahead, please.

  • 13:18:42

    KARENHi there. I have a really nice story. My father came to this country in 1947. He was a survivor of five concentration camps and Bergen-Belsen was his last. And as you may know, the armed forces were segregated in World War II and the black troops were often given the less savory jobs. And one of those unsavory jobs was deliberation of concentration camps. So for a lot of Jewish people, the first time that they saw a black person was when they were liberated from a concentration camp in Europe at that time.

  • 13:19:21

    KARENSo my father was liberated by a black troop and he always held black people in some kind of reverence, you know, for the rest of his life. He became a grocer is this country and had several stores and would never say no to anyone of color who would come to him for a work. Even if he didn't have a job available, he would make some kind of place for them to give them a chance in life.

  • 13:19:48


  • 13:19:48

    KARENLike he had been given a chance. But what he was shocked by, when he came to this country, so he was liberated by troops of black people and though, of course, that these peoples were gods. They were certainly larger than life. And he was shocked when he came to this country and he immigrated to Jim Crow, Va. and he saw that they were very far away from being gods. But, yeah...

  • 13:20:15

    NNAMDIWell, Karen, I'm glad you brought that up because that was in World War II and so I'm going to have you listen while you hear another story about African-Americans in war. But this one is from World War I. We tend to think -- you mentioned larger than life -- of the Tuskegee Airmen as larger than life, the first African American fighter pilots. But someone else, believe it or not, actually beat them to that distinction during World War I. Here now have Paul Martin tell you the story of Eugene Bullard.

  • 13:20:48

    MARTINEugene Bullard was a fascinating character. He was born in Columbus, Ga. in 1895. And his mother actually -- he was an African-American -- his mother sheltered him. She wouldn't let him play with any white kids and he had never experienced prejudice until his mother died. And she died when he was 11. And suddenly, he was launched into this world that he'd never experienced. And his father had told him stories about Europe and about places where prejudice was far less than in the south at that time and he decided to go find a place where he could live without prejudice.

  • 13:21:28

    MARTINHe left home at the age of 11, had a dollar in his pocket. He took up with a band of English gypsies who were in this country and he stayed with them for a few years. And they told him stories about, you know, Europe. He would probably be happier. And so when he was 16, he stowed away on a ship and ended up in Scotland and loved Europe. He became a boxer and then he joined a minstrel troop that traveled all over Europe. And when he traveled through France and got to Paris, he absolutely fell in love with the city and he stayed in Paris.

  • 13:22:05

    MARTINAnd he ended up becoming quite a fixture in Paris. He owned a boxing gym and later he owned a famous café. But when World War I came along, he volunteered to fight for France. Course, America wasn't involved at first in World War I so he was fighting for the French. And he was on the western front in the trenches and experienced some really horrible fighting. And he was wounded and couldn't go back as an infantryman, so he volunteered to become a pilot. And up to that time, there had never been a black pilot anywhere.

  • 13:22:43

    MARTINAnd he trained and got his wings and he flew 20 missions with the Lafayette Flying Corp and had a couple of kills, which means he shot down a couple of German planes. But in 1917, America joined the war. And when they got there, they transferred all the pilots who'd been flying for the French to American units, all of them except one person, Eugene Bullard. And, as I say in my book, he had left America to escape prejudice, but it found him in Europe.

  • 13:23:15

    NNAMDICaught up with him. It caught up with him.

  • 13:23:17

    MARTINThey sent him back to an infantry unit and he stayed there until the war was over. And after the war, he became famous in Paris during the jazz age. Ernest Hemingway actually included a character based on him in "The Sun Also Rises." Bullard married a French woman and they had children. And when Hitler began threatening Europe in the '30s...

  • 13:23:43

    NNAMDIHere he goes again.

  • 13:23:44 he goes again. Because he had a lot of international customers in his café and in his gym, he became a spy and he was listening to German sympathizers and collecting intelligence. But then when Germany invaded France, he once again became a fighter and he fought as part of the underground and he was wounded another time. He couldn't continue and he made his way back down to Spain and back to the United States. And so his life sort of came full circle.

  • 13:24:20

    NNAMDIUltimately, in Harlem.

  • 13:24:21

    MARTINUltimately, he was in Harlem. He...

  • 13:24:24

    NNAMDI...went back to France to translate for, who was it, Louis Armstrong?

  • 13:24:27

    MARTINLouis Armstrong. And he was called back to France in 1954. The French had already given him several...

  • 13:24:32

    NNAMDIThe man's life never ends.

  • 13:24:34

    MARTIN...he received several awards for combat for heroism and in 1954, France actually brought him back to help rekindle the flame at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And five years later, they gave him the Legion of Honor, one of their highest awards. All this time, he was trying to scrape by in the United States. He ended up working as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center and that was his last job and he died in obscurity. And it was only in 1989 that he was sort of discovered and inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. And in '94, the Air and Space Museum here in Washington put a bust of him in their museum.

  • 13:25:19

    NNAMDICall that before the Tuskegee Airmen. Karen, how'd you like that story?

  • 13:25:23

    KARENThat's a great story.

  • 13:25:24

    NNAMDIIt's a fascinating story. Thank you very much for calling. Thank you for listening. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Paul Martin on secret heroes. Are there any historical figures, well known or not, that you consider heroes? If you have a friend, a family member who's overcome the odds, done something brave that you consider a personal hero, we'd love to hear that story. 800-433-8850. Send email to or simply go to our website and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:27:47

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Paul Martin. He is a retired editor and journalist. His latest book is called "Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Who do you consider a hero? You can also send email to When we went to that break, we were just telling you about the story of Eugene Bullard. We got an email from Mike in Baltimore who says, "That Bullard story needs to be a movie."

  • 13:28:18

    NNAMDIWe got another email from someone else called Mike who says, "I maintain a collection of stories about the history of the D.C. Militia and National Guard. My favorite is about Francis Scott Key. When he went to Baltimore during the War of 1812 as a lawyer to try to secure the release of a captured American, he was a member of the Georgetown Artillery of the D.C. Militia. He traveled on military orders to ensure his safe passage. While on a British ship, he wrote the poem that became our National Anthem. So the National Anthem was written by a member of the D.C. Militia National Guard while on active duty."

  • 13:28:54

    NNAMDIPaul Martin, being lost to history is one thing, but someone else getting the glory is quite another. You say, however, that that's what happened to a trio of people that you profiled. How did they end up being overshadowed?

  • 13:29:10

    MARTINWell, one of the characters is particularly interesting this time of year. It's Eliza Scidmore and she was the woman who really is responsible for the flowering cherry trees in Washington, D.C. And I'm sure a lot of people, like me, were taught in school that Helen Taft -- First Lady Helen Taft was the person who brought the trees to this country. But what really happened was Eliza Scidmore was a travel writer and her brother was in the Diplomatic Corp and he was in Japan. And in 1884, she went to Japan to visit and she fell in love with the flowering cherry trees, the whole spectacle in Japan.

  • 13:29:49

    MARTINWhen she came home, at about that same time the Army Engineers had been dredging the Potomac River to fill in marshes along the riverbank that people thought were causing malaria and yellow fever. And the Army built up the land that ended up being Potomac Park and the Tidal Basin, but it was just raw reclaimed land. And Eliza Scidmore went to the Army to the engineer in charge of keeping the grounds of Washington and public buildings and she made a plea to plant cherry trees there to beautify the Capitol. That was in 1885.

  • 13:30:31

    MARTINAnd every year she went back, she made another plea and every change of administration, she kept up her lobbying efforts to get cherry trees planted in the Capitol. She never had any sympathy. One army man told her that if they planted them that little kids would get in there to get the fruit and break all the limbs. And she told him that these were flowering cherry trees, they didn't have fruit. He said, well, what kind of cherry tree is that? What good is that? So...

  • 13:30:58

    NNAMDINow we know.

  • 13:30:59

    MARTIN...she kept up the campaign until 1909 when William Howard Taft was elected president. And Eliza Scidmore knew that William Howard Taft and his wife Helen had traveled in Japan so she thought she might have a sympathetic ear. She wrote a letter to Helen Taft telling her about her plan to beautify the Capitol and Helen Taft loved the idea, got behind it. But Helen Taft said, I'm buying the trees and Eliza Scidmore was thrilled. It turns out she only bought 90 trees and Eliza Scidmore envisioned thousands.

  • 13:31:37

    MARTINWell, a coincidence, at that time, a very wealthy Japanese scientist was in Washington D.C., a fellow named Jokichi Takamine. And he heard the First Lady Helen Taft was interested in cherry trees and he volunteered to give her -- to give Washington a gift of 2,000 trees. The trees arrived, but they were diseased and had to be destroyed. And so he said, well, I'll get some more. He brought 3,000 trees the next time and those arrived in 1912. They were healthy and they were planted, which this year, we're celebrating the centennial of that event. And...

  • 13:32:17

    NNAMDIAnd the name Eliza Scidmore should be mentioned prominently.

  • 13:32:20

    MARTINIt should and I recall I read an article in USA Today that mentions Helen Taft and another one in Washington Post magazine that mentions Helen Taft. No mention in either case of Eliza Scidmore and she certainly deserves the credit.

  • 13:32:33

    NNAMDIDidn't get the credit for it. How about Joseph Dutton? Who was Joseph Dutton?

  • 13:32:37

    MARTINJoseph Dutton, he was a tragic character in the first half of his life. He was known for the Civil War -- he fought in the Civil War. Afterwards, he got a gruesome job. He was involved for two years digging up fallen soldiers on battlefields and reinterring them in federal military cemeteries. And he became depressed and he had a bad marriage and he began drinking and he became a raging alcoholic for ten years.

  • 13:33:04

    MARTINWell, when he turned 40 he had sobered up and he decided he was going to make amends for the first half of his life. And he learned about the leper colony on the Island of Malachi in Hawaii and about Father Damien who had been running the leper colony for some time. Damien (sic) got on a ship in San Francisco, sailed to Hawaii and just showed up at the leper colony and volunteered.

  • 13:33:32

    MARTINAnd Father Damien, who was woefully understaffed, welcomed him and Dutton became Father Damien's right-hand man. Unfortunately, Damien didn't live much longer. He had contracted leprosy and he died three years after Dutton got there. Father Damien's tenure at the leper colony was 16 years in all. Joseph Dutton stayed on, ran the leper colony for another 41 years. He was there...

  • 13:34:02

    NNAMDIThat's about half his life.

  • 13:34:03

    MARTIN...half his life, 44 years altogether. And Father Damien, in 2009, was canonized. He's now a saint and he certainly deserves it. I mean, he was the first person that went in among the lepers and helped them survive really. But the irony of Dutton being there for three times as long and he's basically forgotten.

  • 13:34:25

    NNAMDIThere's a third story I'd like you to tell of Solomon Lewis. But before you go there, allow me to go to Melissa in Riverdale Park, Md. Melissa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:34:37

    MELISSAHi. I wanted to tell about a hero from Riverdale Park. His name is Henry Lewis Holbert (sp?) . He was born in England and he was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner for his actions in the Simone Civil War. He died in World War I. He was the (unintelligible) the bombardier insignia. And posthumously he was -- he started out an enlisted man. He was 52 year-- and he was given the promotion to Captain by General Jack Persian (sp?) posthumously.

  • 13:35:17

    MELISSAAfter -- the navy (unintelligible) the U.S.S. Henry Lewis Holbert after him and that was commissioned in 1919 by his wife. And it went out of commission and went back in in 1942. And it was the first ship to fire at Pearl Harbor. And we have a gun from that ship in our town in our DuPont Circle.

  • 13:35:42

    NNAMDIOh, great, but the story of Henry Lewis Holbert...

  • 13:35:46


  • 13:35:47 not widely known?

  • 13:35:49

    MELISSANo, it's not widely known. No, actually the Marine Corp now has created an award for him for marines that are in training. The highest ranking gunner in training gets the Henry Lewis Holbert award.

  • 13:36:06

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. I notice Paul Martin making a note while you were speaking about that. Apparently that's what he's been doing for much of his life. But I brought you in because your story is about the military. And we have heard a great deal about the Navajo Code Talkers in World War II. So Paul Martin, who was Solomon Lewis?

  • 13:36:28

    MARTINSolomon Lewis was a Choctaw Indian and he was born before World War I. And when America joined the war, he was actually too young to fight, but he lied about his age because all of his friends were going off to fight. And he ended up in France fighting in the trenches.

  • 13:36:44

    MARTINHe was chatting one day with one of his friends, a Choctaw fellow tribesman and an officer happened to overhear him and his friend. And he realized the Americans had been having, up to that point, a terrible time with their communications. The Germans -- any code they came up with, the Germans were able to crack. And the Germans always sort of knew what they were going to do ahead of time, knew where their supply depots were and would shell them. It was just really a bad situation.

  • 13:37:19

    MARTINAnd this officer thought, ah-ha, if these two Choctaws conveyed information over the radio, the Germans would have no idea what they were saying because there are 26 dialects of Choctaw and only two or three of them had been written down to that point. So there was no way there would be any documentation on what they were saying. And it turns out that there were actually 18 Choctaws in the regiment that Lewis was in. Lewis was made the head of a detail of Code Talkers. And for the rest of World War I, they performed the same role the Navajo did in the Pacific during World War II.

  • 13:37:55

    MARTINBut after World War I was over, the Choctaws were told to not tell anyone what they had done because the government thought maybe, you know, if we ever get involved in another war, we might want to use these people again. And so they didn't even tell their families and hardly, you know, virtually no one knew this contribution, what they had done. But then along comes World War II and the Navajo do the same thing in the Pacific and they become famous.

  • 13:38:24

    MARTINAfter the war. they get Congressional Medal of -- they get Congressional Gold Medals. There was even, you know, the famous depiction of them "Wind Talkers, the Movie." So virtually anybody -- if you ask anybody who the Code Talkers were, they would say the Navajo. But it was actually the first ones were the Choctaw in World War I.

  • 13:38:45

    NNAMDIAnd didn't get a great deal of credit for it. Wasn't even allowed to talk about it. We move on now to Ian in Washington, D.C. Ian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:38:56

    IANHey, Kojo. Yeah, I was just going on the personal hero note and I just want to mention my father. He is a product of a military family, two generations deep, fought for the British Crown for Australia in the Pacific theater in both World War I and World War II. Both terrific, but both my great grandfather and grandfather came out from the trench warfare for better or for worse, had my father. After World War II was stationed in England, received his boarding school education in England, but he was the eldest of five.

  • 13:39:31

    IANAnd to pay for his other siblings, he worked in an iron ore mine in North Africa. And then after working there for a few years, he heard about the student loan program in the United States, came over here, got his degree from George Washington University, worked at the government printing office nights fulltime to pay for that. And went to work and then ended up getting his PhD without dissertation and constructed a life exactly as he designed it.

  • 13:40:00

    NNAMDIIan, calling to tell us about his own secret hero, now not so secret, his father. Ian, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:40:07

    IANYeah, thanks, Kojo.

  • 13:40:08

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking with Paul Martin. His book is called "Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World." Here now is Fred in Alexandria, Va. Fred, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:40:25

    FREDHi. I wanted to tell you about my mother who passed away a couple of years ago. When she was a teenager living on the family farm in Gracemont, Ok., back in 1933 there was as prison break in Kansas, and one of the escaped convicts came by the family farm and kidnapped my mother and her brother, my uncle, and forced them to drive him somewhere else, and my mom was driving the car and a police car passed going the other direction, and she pulled the car off into a ditch and got it stuck and the police around and came back and there was a shootout with the convict using my uncle as a shield and he got shot in the leg and my mom went berserk and jumped on him and started pulling his hair and scratching and sort of subdued until the police could tie him up.

  • 13:41:36

    FREDBut she was known for a short period of time as the Oklahoma Wild Cat (laugh) made the front page of Oklahoman, and even got -- she even got a proposal of marriage from some man in India. So it was...

  • 13:41:52

    NNAMDII guess you were not a very rebellious kid, were you, Fred? (laugh) Knowing what your mom was capable of. But thank you very much for sharing that with us. Your mom does indeed sound like a hero. She is no longer your secret hero because our entire audience now knows about that.

  • 13:42:09

    FREDWell, she's always been a hero to me.

  • 13:42:11

    NNAMDIAnd thank you very much, and so she should be. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back we will continue our conversation with Paul Martin. If you've called, stay on the line, we hope to get to your calls as soon as possible. You can call us at 800-433-8850. When we come back, the story of Hercules Mulligan. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:44:18

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Paul Martin. He's a retired editor and journalist. His latest book is called "Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World." And Paul, sometimes when you're doing research, an unusual name is enough to pique your interest and stop you in your tracks. Tell us about Hercules Mulligan. Tell us about how you found the story of Hercules Mulligan.

  • 13:44:42

    MARTINI was actually researching to find out who had been the first American -- the first enlisted man to receive a medal -- a military man. And I found out who is was, a character named Daniel (word?) , but there was absolutely no further information about him. He disappeared from history, and so I had no leads on him, but he was a spy in New York City, and there was another brief mention in the material I was reading about another spy in New York City named Hercules Mulligan, and I latched onto that name. That's such a wonderful name, I had to find out more about him.

  • 13:45:16

    MARTINFortunately, I could. There was enough material that I was able to flesh him out. He immigrated from Ireland with his parents in the 1700s and they settled in New York City, and he became a tailor, and a very successful one. And at the time, most of his clients were British officers and they would come to him to have their uniforms made and have, you know, stylish clothes. And he was a very garrulous fellow and he chatted them up. And when the Revolutionary War started, General Washington's staff recruited Mulligan to become a spy since he had these contacts with the British. And he agreed, and he was able to pump them for information.

  • 13:46:05

    MARTINOn two occasions he found about plots to ambush General Washington, and was able to warn him, and, you know, very easily could have saved his life, and after the war, one of the first things that Washington did when they retook New York City and came back into the city was he had lunch with Mulligan to thank him, and afterwards Mulligan hung out a sign, Washington also ordered a complete wardrobe of civilian clothes, and Mulligan hung out a sign in front of his shop, clothier to General Washington.

  • 13:46:42

    NNAMDITell us about his relationship with Alexander Hamilton.

  • 13:46:45

    MARTINThat's another fascinating thing. Not only did Mulligan save the life of the father of our country on two occasions, he also converted another founding father, and that was Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was born in the Caribbean, grew up there.

  • 13:46:59

    NNAMDISt. Croix.

  • 13:47:00


  • 13:47:01

    NNAMDIVirgin Islands.

  • 13:47:02

    MARTINAnd he came to further his education, he came to New York city and enrolled in Kings College, which is today's Columbia University. And he needed a place to stay, and he had a letter of introduction to Hercules Mulligan's older brother who ran an import/export firm and did a lot of business in the Caribbean. And Mulligan's brother introduced him to Hercules. The two hit it off and Mulligan actually offered to give Alexander Hamilton a place to stay.

  • 13:47:34

    MARTINSo he ended up living with the Mulligans, and Mulligan was a patriot and had a lot of friends who would come in and they would talk about the revolution. And the fact was, at that time, Hamilton was pro-British, but as he listened to Mulligan and his friends, he was converted and he became, you know, of course, one of our founding fathers and a strong supporter of independence.

  • 13:48:00

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones now. Here is John in Ellicott City, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:48:08

    JOHNHi, Kojo. Fascinating show. I'm definitely gonna pick up this book when I get to the bookstore next. But I just wanted to give you a story about my personal hero. He is my little league coach from when I used to play AAA baseball. And he was legally blind, and so Coach (word?) by himself would coach the team and he basically just helped, you know, shape -- sort of just gave me an example that no matter what life throws at you, no matter how hard it is that, you know, you can overcome it, and he's just a fascinating man. He's still very active in the blind community in my hometown.

  • 13:48:47

    NNAMDIIs he still coaching?

  • 13:48:49

    JOHNI don't think he's still coaching anymore, but I think he's 75 now, but he's still very active with the Perkins School for the Blind and fundraising for that, and he's just a great guy.

  • 13:49:00

    NNAMDIOne can imagine all the kids who passed through his hands felt that they could accomplish anything they wanted to accomplish, didn't they?

  • 13:49:07

    JOHNOh, absolutely.

  • 13:49:08

    NNAMDIGiven working with somebody like that. Thank you very much for sharing that story with us. We move on to Georgeanne (sp?) in Alexandria, Va. Georgeanne, your turn.

  • 13:49:16

    GEORGEANNEHi there, thank you so much for taking my call. I'm a big fan of your show. I'm calling you about my shero, and her name is Gwendolyn Ruth Orsinger Anderson.

  • 13:49:29

    NNAMDITell us about her.

  • 13:49:31

    GEORGEANNEShe's going to celebrate her 100th birthday on May 31, and one of the things that she gave to actually our country is the artist guild. She started one of the first watercolor artist guilds in Washington D.C. I'm not sure what year, but it was about 50 years ago, and then she came to Alexandria, and she realized that they were going to tear down the torpedo factory, and she and a number of other women friends, all artists, got the mayor of Alexandria to give the torpedo factory to them to turn it into what's now, you know, people come from all over the world to see the art in the torpedo factory, and in fact her --Gwen started the enamellist guild, and her shop is the very first one when you walk in the door on the left-hand side.

  • 13:50:32

    GEORGEANNEIt's the Enamellist Guild of Virginia, and she just brought art and culture to -- she taught art to children, she taught art to adults all over the world. She was invited by China to teach them her special enameling technique which is kind of amazing since they've been doing enameling for thousands of years. So she's my shero, and I thank you for letting me tell you.

  • 13:50:59

    NNAMDIAnd I thank you for telling us about your hero. I want to go to the telephones and talk to Renato in Rockville, Md., who is suggesting that Eliza Scidmore may have had more publicity than we thought. Renato, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:51:14

    RENATOYeah, hi, Kojo. Great show by the way.

  • 13:51:17

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:51:19

    RENATOYeah. I believe you might want to reconsider Eliza Scidmore.

  • 13:51:24


  • 13:51:25

    RENATOShe's actually featured in The Washington Post special section on the hundred anniversary of the Cherry Blossoms.

  • 13:51:33

    NNAMDIIn what -- in the special section, what did they say about her?

  • 13:51:37

    RENATOPrinted it on March 14.

  • 13:51:39

    NNAMDIOf this year, and there was -- how long was the -- was there a specific article about Eliza Scidmore?

  • 13:51:45

    RENATOTwo full-page spread, including pictures that were published by Eliza Scidmore. She was a photographer, so they included some pictures of Japan that she took when she went there.

  • 13:51:58

    NNAMDIAnd she also worked the same place that Paul Martin did at some point at National Geographic, is that correct?

  • 13:52:02


  • 13:52:03

    NNAMDIYeah. And was a photographer. Well, thank you very much for sharing that with us. Because of the very nature of their work, spies tend to make invaluable contributions that are seldom acknowledged, Paul Martin. What made a woman named Mary Bowser an ideal spy during the Civil War?

  • 13:52:23

    MARTINMary Bowser was born as a slave in Richmond, Va., and her master was John Van Lew. He was a rich hardware merchant. After John Van Lew passed away, his daughter, Elizabeth, who happened to be an abolitionist, freed the family slaves including Mary. And not only that, she sent Mary to Philadelphia to be educated, which was very rare at the time for blacks to be educated. And Mary came back from Philadelphia just about the time the Civil War began in 1861, and Elizabeth Van Lew started a spy ring in Richmond, spying for the Union.

  • 13:53:05

    MARTINAnd she recruited Mary because it was very rare to have a black person at that time who could read and write, and Van Lew was able to install her in the White House of the confederacy where President Jefferson Davis and his wife lived, and Mary Bowser took care of the kids and cleaned and served meals. And everybody there, the staff, President Davis, the generals who came through, they all assumed she was an illiterate slave and they would talk openly in front of her.

  • 13:53:38

    MARTINShe picked up all kinds of information. She also happened to have a photographic memory, and Davis would leave his papers on his desk, and she could walk by when she was cleaning and pick up other bits of information.

  • 13:53:49

    NNAMDIThe assumption being that she couldn't read?

  • 13:53:52

    MARTINYes. And in 1995, she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame and cited as one of the highest placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War. The interesting thing was, the south began to suspect they had a spy in their midst, and she fled Richmond in 1865 and disappeared entirely from history, and years later in 1952, one of her distant cousins found her diary, didn't know what is was, and threw it away.

  • 13:54:26

    NNAMDIWow. And that's why she's been hidden from history for...

  • 13:54:30

    MARTINYeah. She's been hidden from history.

  • 13:54:31

    NNAMDI...a long time. Here now is Nancy in Arlington, Va. Nancy, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:54:38

    NANCYHi. I just want to congratulate you for giving recognition to all of these unsung heroes.

  • 13:54:46

    MARTINThank you.

  • 13:54:46

    NANCYAnd I'm wondering if you know about Samuel Wilbert Tucker who organized the first sit-in at the Alexandria Public Library, the first sit-in to protest racial segregation.

  • 13:55:00

    NNAMDIWhat year was that?

  • 13:55:01


  • 13:55:02

    NNAMDI1939, the sit-ins that we know of that have become a part of the popular lore of the civil rights movement began in 1960 and 1961.

  • 13:55:13

    NANCY1960, yes. Mm-hmm. And he organized some of his younger brother's friends, 11 of them, but only six of them showed up the morning of the sit-in. Some of the parents didn't want their sons to participate, but the young fellows were between 18 and 22, and they went into the Alexandria Public Library one at a time, about five minutes apart and asked for a library card and they were refused because the library was for whites only. And they took a book from the shelf and sat down at separate tables so nobody could accuse them of disorderly conduct, and they read.

  • 13:55:55

    NANCYAnd the white patrons and the librarian really didn't quite know what to do about this, but the police were called and they finally arrested them and charged them with disorderly conduct. And Samuel Wilbert Tucker defended them, and in his cross-examination, the librarian and the arresting officer both admitted that the young men were not disorderly. They were appropriately dressed, they were polite, and the only reason that they were refused a library card was that they were black.

  • 13:56:31

    NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that story with us, Nancy. We're running out of time, but I was a little surprised, Paul Martin, to page through your book and come across the name of someone that's been interviewed on this broadcast before. What made Kirk Bloodsworth's story stand out for you.

  • 13:56:46

    MARTINWell, he's the only living character in my book. There are 30 profiles. Kirk Bloodsworth was the first death row inmate to be freed through DNA testing, and his story is so remarkable. He was wrongly convicted of a rape and murder is Essex, Md., near Baltimore in 1985. He was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison, and after eight years in prison, he happened to be reading in the prison library, and came across a book about a murder case in England that had been solved with DNA profiling, which the person who developed that technique, Alec Jeffreys, was at the University of Leicester.

  • 13:57:32

    MARTINHe called it DNA fingerprinting. And suddenly Bloodsworth thought, well, if they can convict somebody on this, they certainly could exonerate me. Well, it turned out that his attorney has asked to have all of the evidence saved from his murder trial.

  • 13:57:47

    NNAMDIAnd that was lucky for him because that was how they were able to access the DNA and Kirk Bloodsworth was eventually freed. As I mentioned, he was a guest on this broadcast at one time, December 12, 2000. If you want to go into our archives, you can find that interview. Paul Martin, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:07

    MARTINThank you for having me.

  • 13:58:08

    NNAMDIPaul Martin is a retired editor and journalist. His latest book is called "Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World." Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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