Former National Geographic editor Martin’s Villains, Scoundrels and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem profiles some of the most abominable and inventive criminals in American history.
Your last book, Secret Heroes, focused on good guys. Was this a natural follow-up?
I’ve always been a history buff, and over the years I’ve built a file on unusual characters I’ve come across. I had a few no-goods, but most were people who did something admirable; forgotten heroes like Hercules Mulligan, a Revolutionary War spy who saved George Washington’s life—twice—or the iconic Hollywood beauty Hedy Lamarr, who was secretly a brainy inventor. After I finished writing Secret Heroes, I decided it would be fun to profile some characters from the shady side of history.
What were your criteria?
I wanted to find the most colorful miscreants in American history. Besides killers and thieves, I included pirates, traitors, slavers, bootleggers, con men, gamblers, gold diggers, and many other types of ne’er-do-wells. Then I searched for the most intriguing example I could find. Most important, a character’s background had to be interesting. The majority of history’s malefactors are mundane individuals. I wanted personal stories that were engrossing, since my goal was to make these profiles about the people and their essential natures, not just the offenses they committed.
Which characters stand out in your mind?
Kansas quack John Brinkley was an extraordinary villain. He earned a fortune throughout the 1920s and the Great Depression by implanting goat testicles in male patients to restore their virility, which resulted in dozens of deaths. Then there’s Washington, D.C., cop John Parker, a drunken scoundrel who abandoned his post at Ford’s Theatre, allowing John Wilkes Booth access to President Lincoln. And Emerich Juettner, the doddering New York City junkman who printed his own $1 bills to keep himself and his little dog from starving. He eluded federal agents for over nine years in the 1930s and ’40s, longer than any other counterfeiter in U.S. history.
Why did you avoid Bernie Madoff, the Boston Strangler, or 19th-century serial killer H.H. Holmes?
Holmes would have been a good fit, although Erik Larson covered him extensively in The Devil in the White City. As for Wall Street crooks, I think my Daniel Drew is more interesting than Madoff because of the wild contradictions in his personality. And the lonely hearts killer Belle Gunness [she murdered husband and suitors] offers a more fascinating character study than the Boston Strangler. I usually ended up choosing subjects that appealed to me personally.
Which of your subjects would you most like to have been able to interview?
Two would be William Stoughton, the rabid, homicidal judge who presided over the Salem witch trials, and Don Lapre, the most outrageous television and Internet huckster ever. Three hundred years separate those men, but they were both grasping self-promoters. It would be amazing to sit down with them and watch the sparks fly.