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Americans have always been fascinated by criminals, immortalizing notorious bad guys on screen and on the page. But many of our most diabolical and misguided citizens have been overlooked by history books. Paul Martin highlights a colorful cast of ne’er-do-well’s, from the drunken cop who left his post guarding President Lincoln the night he was shot to the killer who inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho.” He joins us to share their stories.
- Paul Martin Author, "Villians, Scoundrels, and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Villains, Scoundrels, and Rogues: Incredible Tall Tales of Mischief and Mayhem” by Paul Martin. Prometheus Books, 2014. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to the "Kojo Nnamdi Show", connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, DC's Jazz history and the U-Street clubs that were the heart of black Washington for decades.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, Americans have always been fascinated by bad guys. We immortalize mobsters and murders on screen and true crime stories are staples on television and in paperbacks. But some fascinating and diabolical characters have been overlooked both by Hollywood and by history. One writer has unearthed the colorful cast of ne'er-do-wells whose names you've probably never heard, from the drunken cop who left his post guarding President Lincoln the night he was shot to the female serial nicknamed Hell's Belle.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIPaul Martin joins us to talk about them and many, many more. His new book is called, "Villains, Scoundrels and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem." Paul Martin, good to see you again.
MR. PAUL MARTINThank you, Kojo. Glad to be back.
NNAMDIYour previous book revealed ordinary Americans who'd done extraordinary things but who had not been recognized in history books. Now it seems you've done the same for the less savory characters in American history. Why did you decide to focus on these lesser known figures?
MARTINWell, I thought I'd give them their equal time. My first book really grew out of my lifelong interest in unsung Americans. And of course I focused on heroes at first -- the first time around. So this time I thought I'd look at the opposite end of the spectrum.
NNAMDIYour title refers to a hierarchy of bad guys. Can you explain how you differentiate between villains, scoundrels and rogues?
MARTINOf course. When I started looking into the subject of crime in America, it's very easy to get bogged down in the true crime end of the spectrum, which is serial killers and grisly murders. And I wanted to have a lot more variety. And so I sat down and started making a list of all the different kinds of ne'er-do-wells I could think of, gamblers, conmen, spiritual mediums, counterfeiters, etcetera. And I sort of quickly realized I needed some hierarchy because not all of these people are as bad as others.
MARTINSo I came up with villains, scoundrels and rogues, villains being the worst, they're the serial killers and the really heinous people. The scoundrels are a little bit less so. And the rogues are the mildest offenders of all, might have only had some episode where they went off the rails momentarily.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Who is your favorite historical villain, scoundrel or rogue? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Well, there've been a lot of villains in American history, Paul. How did you narrow it down who was going to make it into this book? What's the level of villainy one has to achieve?
MARTINWell, my real selection criteria boiled down to what interested me personally.
MARTINI was looking for the most colorful people in each category. And as I said, I made a list of all these different types of villains. And then I set about searching for the really most interesting, colorful example of that category.
NNAMDIMany of these stories read more like fiction, but these are real stories. So let's get to it. Lincoln's bodyguard is a great Washington story, yet John Parker is not very well known. I didn't know about him. Tell us about him.
MARTINWell, that is actually the very first character that I discovered that prompted my interest in these unsung -- I really started out with heroes, although Parker -- I had taken a tour of Lincoln's -- about Ford's Theatre and seen Lincoln's box there. And the National Parks Service guide mentioned that there was a guard behind the box that was supposed to be sitting there by the door and that he'd abandoned his post. And so I looked into that, and that's how I came up with John Parker. He was the most unlikely character to ever be appointed to guard a president. He was...
NNAMDIHe was not a part of any conspiracy.
MARTINHe was not. He was just a goof-off. He'd been appointed to the presidential duty, along with three other men from the Metropolitan Police Force. And why they chose him is hard to say. He was called before the police board a dozen times for sleeping on duty, being drunk on duty. It's just a mystery why they chose him.
MARTINAnd the night that he was assigned to guard the president, when he was there to see "Our American Cousin" the play, he couldn't see the stage from his seat there behind the box. So he got up after the play started, left his post, went down and sat in the balcony and watched the play. And if that wasn't bad enough, come intermission, he went downstairs and went out to the saloon next door. And he never came back.
MARTINSo after the first act, John Wilkes Booth crept up that stairway, and there was no...
NNAMDIJohn Wilkes Booth said, Oh, Parker's on duty tonight.
MARTINThere was no guard on duty and he just opened the door. And that's what happened. He shot the president.
NNAMDIThere was no guard on duty because John Parker was in the saloon next door?
MARTINHe had never come back from the saloon. Whether he remained there...
NNAMDIYeah, or not.
MARTIN...or wandered off into the night, who knows what happened to him.
NNAMDIHow was it possible for us that this guy could have been on guard duty, guarding the president? And second, how come he didn't get fired?
MARTINThat is the big question. How he got appointed to that position, there is -- no one can say. It just baffles -- boggles the mind. He did remain on duty after the assassination. In fact, he was on the police force for another three years. And he finally was fired for sleeping on duty yet again. But he even was assigned to the White House after the assassination. And Mrs. Lincoln chewed him out and said, you're responsible for my husband's death. And he claimed his innocence and didn't realize that, you know, something like this could have happened. But he was just totally unreliable.
NNAMDIAnd never got fired. I'm not going to say that they were playing from the playbook of the Fire EMS Department in D.C. I'm not going to say that...
NNAMDI...that people don't get fired there. One of the most shocking for me is the woman known as Hell's Belle. What is she believed to have done? And, again, how'd she get away with it for so long?
MARTINHer name was Belle Gunness and from the 1890s until 1908, when she disappeared, she is reputed to have killed over 40 people. She was an immigrant from Norway. And she came to Chicago, settled in that part of the city that was populated by a lot of Scandinavians. She opened a candy shop. And the candy shop was not doing well, it was failing. So she came up with a way of making ends meet. She burned the candy shop -- first of all, she took out a big insurance policy, then...
MARTIN...burned the candy shop down. That worked so well that she took out an insurance policy on her own home and burned it down. Then, she started taking out insurance policies on her own family members. And she killed her husband and eventually, over the years, seven children -- her own children.
NNAMDIJust to collect insurance on all of them.
MARTINTo collect insurance.
NNAMDIHow'd she get away with it for so long?
MARTINWell, she was -- after she collected all this insurance in Chicago, she had accumulated the equivalent of about $350,000 in today's money, she went to La Porte, Ind. and bought a farm. And she still had three children living at that time. And she started advertising in Scandinavian papers for a husband. She said wealthy widow with a nice farm in Indiana looking for a husband.
MARTINPlease bring cash. And all of these people, lonely widowers and bachelors, I suppose, came knocking on her door. She served them a nice, big meal, which -- she drugged them. And then she bashed them in the head and took their money and buried them in her farmyard.
NNAMDIOkay. I asked this question before. How'd she get away with it for so long?
MARTINHow did she get away with it? That's hard to answer. I think people thought, at the time, a widow, living on her own with children -- they naturally had some sympathy for her. Oddly, at one point, one of her daughters told a playmate that, my mommy killed my daddy. She hit him on the head with a cleaver. And the police looked into that. But at the time, Belle Gunness actually was pregnant, and they, again, they took sympathy on her and called off the investigation.
NNAMDIShe operated for a long time. If you want to find out how they eventually caught up to her, I guess you'll have to pick up a copy of "Villains, Scoundrels, and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem," by Paul Martin. You can read excerpts of it on our website at kojoshow.org. You tell the story of Maggie and Kate Fox and a prank that goes out of control.
MARTINThey're two of my favorite characters, because they're very sympathetic. They -- when they were young, they were living in Hydesville, N.Y., a farming community in New York in 1848. And they were -- they had several brothers and sisters who were older and had all moved away. So they were the last children at home. And in the middle of a long, harsh winter, they got bored, I think, and they began playing this prank on their parents of making these tapping noises. They're actually cracking their knuckles and their toe joints.
MARTINAnd their mother thought they were communicating with the spirit of a dead peddler, a traveling salesman, who reputedly had been killed in their home. And the girls said, yeah, that's what we're doing. And so the mother called in the neighbors and they did this little act for them and impressed them. And the next night, over 100 people from the area crammed into their house to see this phenomenon of these two sisters who could communicate with the dead.
MARTINAnd that prank ended up being the starting point for the Spiritualism Movement, which became a huge movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Primarily, it was prompted by two wars, the Civil War and World War I, when huge numbers of soldiers were killed and their families grasped at this idea that they could communicate with their dead loved ones. And that was the genesis of the Spiritualism Movement.
NNAMDII learned to crack my knuckles at a very early age. If only I knew that this prank involving the crackling of the knuckles could help spark a whole movement that's still alive today.
NNAMDII would say that mediums who claim they can communicate with the dead and frauds are still around, aren't they?
MARTINOh, of course. And the sad part is that their stock-in-trade is to prey, if you will, on people who have lost loved ones and to say that they can communicate with them. Many people believe in this. And some people treat it as a form of religion. Others look at it as a form of theater. And in the 1800s, when Maggie and Kate Fox were around, there were these huge movements, these shows that would travel around to different cities and attract large audiences. And they'd put on the demonstration as of communicating with the dead.
MARTINAnd of course as soon as Maggie and Kate Fox became famous and started making money, lo and behold many other people discovered they had these same abilities.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Who's your favorite historical villain, scoundrel or rogue? What do you think -- why do you think we like bad guys so much? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Another one of your favorites, Paul, is Titanic Thompson.
MARTINYeah, I love him. He's a character. He was a gambler, famous in his day as the -- one of the top gamblers. And he was also reputedly the best golfer in the 1920s and '30s. He grew up in Arkansas and learned all sorts of gambling, cards and dice and so forth. But his strong suit was what they call proposition bets. He would come up with these crazy things, saying, I can do this. And I'll bet you so much that I -- against the, that I can do it. One of the bets he made that I thought was fascinating was he bet someone he could hit a golf ball 500 yards.
MARTINAnd so they went out to the golf course and he teed up his ball. And instead of hitting the ball down the fairway, he turned to the side and hit it onto a frozen lake. And the ball went forever. Another great stunt he pulled was he challenged the world-champion horseshoe tosser. But he first -- a regulation horseshoe pit is 40 feet from stake to stake. He built one that was 41 feet. And he, himself, practiced on it till he got good. Then he challenged the world champion. And the world champion was mystified why all of his tosses kept coming up short.
NNAMDIOkay. He was a hustler, the antecedent for the late Bobby Riggs.
NNAMDIYou also tell the story of a counterfeiter with a conscience. Can you talk about him?
MARTINEmerige Juttner (sp?) He was an immigrant from Austria, and he came to New York, and he became a handyman. And he was the superintendant of an apartment building in New York. And then when he got old -- too old to keep up his job, he became a junk man. He would go around and collect odds and ends. But he just couldn't make a living doing that. And he was about to starve to death and get kicked out of his apartment. So at the age of 63, he called on some training he'd had back in Austria of photoengraving. He sat down at his kitchen table and counterfeited a $1 bill.
MARTINAnd he would -- he would print these awful one-dollar bills on typing paper. He misspelled George Washington's name. The portrait of George Washington didn't look much like George Washington. And -- but I called him a counterfeiter with a conscience. He would go around the city and buy something small and hand them the fake one-dollar bill and get back real change. And that was his score. He would like pocket the difference between a five-cent subway fare and his fake dollar bill. But he never went to the same store or business twice, because he didn't want to make someone lose too much money on his account.
NNAMDIWho were these some ones who looked at this fake dollar bill that was badly printed that had a misspelling of the name...
MARTINWell, that's the -- that's the whole point.
NNAMDI...and accept it.
MARTINThey didn't look at it. That's the point. Nobody expects a one-dollar bill to be counterfeit so they just didn't look at it.
NNAMDIAnd why did he only make ones as opposed to 10s or 20s? Is that because he had a conscience. He didn't want to rip people...
NNAMDI...off for too much money?
MARTINExactly. He was just trying to get enough to feed himself and his little dog and keep a roof over his head.
NNAMDIFascinating guy. You spent most of your career as a book and magazine editor, the last decade as executive editor of National Geographic Traveler. So where did your interest in historical figures come from?
MARTINWell, I've really been a history buff all my life. And I think, as I told you, when I was doing the "Secret Heroes" book, I had a long list of people who I'd come across in reading and watching television, various people that stood out as being unsung and really interesting. And when I retired from National Geographic, I just dove right into this project, mainly to have fun. And that's what I've tried to do in these stories is to tell a story that's a kind of a good -- ripping good yarn and that people will enjoy.
NNAMDIOkay. Back to the stories. Charles Davenport was one of the originators of the pseudo-science of eugenics. Remind us, what is eugenics?
MARTINEugenics is really racially -- racial and class prejudice. And in the early 1900s, it became a huge movement. It was essentially selective breeding. There are two sides of eugenics. There's positive eugenics which says that people of accomplishment and people with talents, if they marry, they'll have offspring that will inherit some of those traits. And we -- everybody believes in that. Everybody talks about a good match, a good marriage. But unfortunately there was also negative eugenics.
MARTINAnd that's where Charles Davenport chose to put his emphasis. That is looking at other people and deciding who among them should not be having children and who should not be immigrating into our country. The eugenicists basically wanted to create, in America, a nation of white Protestant Yankees. And they were discriminating against Eastern European immigrants, minorities, the poorly educated. It was really a shameful...
NNAMDIIt included things like forced sterilization, including right next door in Virginia. Most American associate eugenics with Nazi Germany -- don't realize that the movement originated here.
MARTINExactly. And the scariest thing is, Davenport, in 1910, established the eugenics record office in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. And that became the hub of the eugenics movement in this country. His preaching, his writings were actually followed and adopted by the Nazis. They modeled -- the Nazis modeled some of their laws on model laws that the eugenics record office had proposed for American -- for adoption by American legislatures.
NNAMDIOne pretty sick character in this book -- someone who is pretty familiar to most of us through the very famous film based on this man, Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." Tell us about Ed Gein, or is it Ed Geen?
MARTINI pronounce it Geen. I think that's the right way. Ed Gein was a psycho as the movie was aptly named. But he was a classical momma's boy. He had hung on everything his mother did or said. And when she died in 1945, he was 39 years old, he was devastated. And he was off his rocker by that time. He went downhill. He was a loner. He wanted to be -- he developed this fantasy of becoming a woman himself. And that led to a string of crimes in the 1940s and '50s that really inspired "Psycho" and other horror movies. Gein murdered two women.
MARTINAnd he dug up at least eight recently-buried bodies and took parts from them. And he ended up making this, what he called a woman suit, that he wore around, supposedly to see what it felt like to be a woman. And he was finally caught and spent the rest of his life in an institution for the criminally insane. But his story did inspire the movie "Psycho." It also inspired a character in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," Leatherface, the "The Silence of the Lambs'," Buffalo Bill. So a lot of these horror films...
NNAMDIAre based on the story of Ed Gein.
MARTIN...are based on reality. Yeah.
NNAMDIYou'll see a lot more of this if you read the book, "Villains, Scoundrels, and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem." Paul Martin is the author. Thank you so much for joining us.
MARTINThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break, when we come back, DC's Jazz history and why U-Street was the heart of black Washington for decades.
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