March 2014 - Issue 67

Crime (and Misbehavior) through Time

Meet Some of History's Most Reprehensible Characters

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introEven if you're a history buff, you've probably never heard of this disreputable cast of characters: A drunken, ne'er-do-well cop who abandoned his post at Ford's Theatre, giving assassin John Wilkes Booth unchallenged access to President Lincoln; a notorious Kansas quack who made millions by implanting billy goat testicles in gullible male patients; and America's worst female serial killer ever. These are just three of the memorable but little-known rogues profiled in Paul Martin's Villains, Scoundrels, and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem.


We sat down with author and former National Geographic editor Paul Martin to talk about his new book and the many varieties of human misbehavior.



Your book profiles some of the most deplorable figures in American history, some of whom are infamous, while others are mostly unknown. How did you unearth some of the stories that were almost forgotten by history?


I began by making a list of every sort of offense I could think of. Then I searched for the most colorful character in each category. One of my most valuable tools was American National Biography Online, which consists of around 20,000 profiles of noteworthy Americans. It's searchable by topic, and if you search on crime, you can find fascinating stories about all sorts of people you've never heard of. The FBI's website was also helpful. It has dozens of stories about memorable wrongdoers. And there are several encyclopedias of crime that I consulted.



Why do you think we are so compelled to want to hear stories about terrible people?


Probably for the same reason that we love ghost stories and tales about monsters when we're children. Scary characters tend to remind of us of how lucky we are to be safe and secure. They make us appreciate our home and loved ones even more.



In compiling these profiles, have you unearthed any common threads about why some people make unethical decisions, again and again?


Obviously, some of these people were completely insane, but of the ones who weren't psychotic, I'd say that many of them lacked a fundamental bond with humanity. It's not that they couldn't tell right from wrong. Rather, they seemed unconcerned with how their actions affected others. An alienation from society is typically the first step toward the dark side.



The book shows a range of misbehavior, from sociopaths to shysters. How did you decide to classify individuals into villains, scoundrels, or rogues? 


I wanted to distinguish between real monsters and people who committed lesser offenses, and a hierarchy of three made sense. Most books on this subject seem to focus on the goriest fare. To be honest, though, reading about brutal crimes quickly grows old. That's why I broadened my inquiries to include a greater range of ne'er-do-wells.



Do you now find yourself making the same kind of classifications when you're reading the newspaper?


I probably do that subconsciously. I tend to skip over gruesome stories. What catches my eye are accounts of really unusual offenders, the ones who think they can outsmart the system.



Some of the less dangerous characters had quite unique personalities. Were there any characters who you wouldn't mind having a cup of coffee with, or would you avoid them all like the plague?


I wouldn't mind having a cup of coffee with Maggie and Kate Fox, the phony mediums who ignited the Spiritualism movement by playing a joke on their unsuspecting mother. Maggie and Kate were sympathetic characters, since they became trapped in personas shaped by other people after they pretended to communicate with the spirit of a dead peddler in 1848.



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About the Authorauthor
Paul Martin
Paul Martin
Photo by NGS


Paul Martin (Washington, DC), who spent more than thirty years with the National Geographic Society as an editor and writer, is the author of Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World (William Morrow, 2012); Land of the Ascending Dragon: Rediscovering Vietnam (Gates & Bridges, 1997); two other nonfiction books and more than a hundred articles.

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Thank you for joining us as we took this trip into the darkest and sneakiest recesses of the human psyche.


Remember, our current nonfiction catalog and other
catalogs are always available online for you to browse.



Lisa Michalski

Prometheus Books