Villains, Scoundrels, and Rogues, page 1
Published 2014 by Prometheus Books
Villains, Scoundrels, and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem. Copyright © 2014 by Paul Martin. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a website without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
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An abridged version of the chapter titled “Lincoln’s Missing Bodyguard”
was originally published by the Smithsonian Institution.
Cover image © 2014 Media Bakery
Cover design by Nicole Sommer-Lecht
Inquiries should be addressed to
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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Martin, Paul, 1946 June 6-
Villains, scoundrels, and rogues : incredible true tales of mischief and mayhem / by Paul Martin.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-61614-927-7 (paperback) — ISBN 978-1-61614-928-4 (ebook)
1. Criminals—United States—Case studies. 2. Rogues and vagabonds—United States—Case studies. 3. Outlaws—United States—Case studies. 4. Immorality—Case studies. 5. United States—Civilization. I. Title.
Printed in the United States of America
For Donald George Romero, mentor, friend,
and a colorful rogue in his own right
1. Merchant of Misery—James DeWolf
2. The Cutthroat Captain of Cave-In-Rock—Samuel Mason
3. Architect of a Tragedy—John Chivington
4. The Late, Unlamented Little Pete—Fong Ching
5. The Killer They Called Hell’s Belle—Belle Sorensen Gunness
6. Partners in Perfidy—Isaac Harris and Max Blanck
7. Chicago’s Florist-Mobster—Dean O’Banion
8. A Huckster’s Rise and Fall—John Brinkley
9. Hitchcock’s Hideous Inspiration—Ed Gein
10. Salem’s Rabid Witch-Hunter—William Stoughton
11. Uncle Daniel the “Speckerlator”—Daniel Drew
12. Unleashing the James-Younger Gang—James Lane
13. Lincoln’s Missing Bodyguard—John Parker
14. Squirrel Tooth Alice—Libby Thompson
15. The Lawman Who Went Bad—Burt Alvord
16. The Very Mellow Yellow Kid—Joseph Weil
17. You Bet Your Life—Alvin Thomas
18. Keeper of the Immaculate Sperm—Charles Davenport
19. The Silken Voice of Treachery—Mildred Gillars
20. Who’s That Rapping on My Floor?—Maggie and Kate Fox
21. The Witch of Wall Street—Hetty Green
22. King of the Cannibal Islands—David O’Keefe
23. Master Salesman of a Dubious Legend—Herbert Bridgman
24. The Consummate Gold Digger—Peggy Hopkins Joyce
25. The Mad, Sad Poet of Greenwich Village—Maxwell Bodenheim
26. The Bifurcated Congressman—Samuel Dickstein
27. The Frugal Counterfeiter—Emerich Juettner
28. Imperfect Pitch—Don Lapre
I would like to thank these individuals and organizations for helping me ferret out some of the characters included here: William Convery and Barbara Dey, History Colorado; Allison DePrey, Indiana Historical Society; Kate Reeve and Jim Turner, Arizona Historical Society; Marilyn Terrell, National Geographic Society.
Thanks to the following people for assisting me in my photo research: Jaime Bourassa, Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center; Heather Bourk, Art and Archives, US House of Representatives; Clare Clark, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives; Isabella Donadio, Harvard Art Museums; Coi E. Drummond-Gehrig, Denver Public Library; Don Evans, O’Keefe’s Waterfront Inn; Mary French, the Explorers Club; Jessica M. Herrick, California State Archives; Melissa Holland, Kheel Center, Cornell University; Mary K. Huelsbeck, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research; Debra Kaufman, California Historical Society; Lisa Keys, Kansas State Historical Society; Heather Moore, US Senate Historical Office; Angela Moore-Swafford, Southern Illinois University Press; Chris Reid, Pinal County Historical Society; Susie Richter, La Porte County Historical Society Museum; Angela Troisi, New York Daily News; and Erin Renee Wahl, Arizona Historical Society.
I’d also like to thank the always-helpful staff at the Library of Congress as well as the many friends who aided and encouraged me in this project. Many thanks to my wife, Janice, for her eagle-eyed proofing of the manuscript. And finally, thanks to the fine editors, designers, and other staff members at Prometheus Books who helped make this volume a reality.
We’re all fascinated by the lives and deeds of famous Americans, but minor historical figures can be even more intriguing. Like my previous collection of biographies—Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World—this book is about the lives and deeds of a remarkable group of lesser-known Americans, all of whom had a perceptible impact on their world. But while the subjects of Secret Heroes had a lasting positive influence on history, the characters in Villains, Scoundrels, and Rogues each left behind some indelible negative legacy. Several were lifelong hardened criminals, others perfectly normal men and women who simply jumped the rails at some point in their lives, if only momentarily.
Although many of these people were famous in their own time, they’ve largely slipped into the shadows for most modern readers. In a few cases—such as World War II propagandist “Axis Sally,” the Psycho-inspiring ghoul Ed Gein, and shrieking pitchman Don Lapre—their names may still be familiar but the general public knows little about who they really were. What makes these figures worthy of note is that their life stories all read like fiction. These were no run-of-the-mill miscreants. They’re some of the most incredible ne’er-do-wells in American history.
As the three components of my title suggest, I’ve organized my subjects according to their relative “badness.” The villains are the worst of the lot—habitual or heinous wrongdoers. The scoundrels are a shade less onerous, although they’re still people guilty of a serious crime or significant misconduct. The members of my third category—the rogues—are wayward souls who committed lesser offenses, made personal mistakes of consequence, or possessed some destructive character flaw. To turn an old Clint Eastwood movie title on its head, you might think of these folks as The Ugly, The Bad, and The Not Always Good.
One trait all these varied individuals share is thei
As with Secret Heroes, the people profiled here come from all periods in our nation’s history and represent a wide variety of occupations. The characters include Washington cop John Parker, a drunken wastrel who abandoned his post at Ford’s Theatre, allowing assassin John Wilkes Booth unchallenged access to President Lincoln’s box. Other subjects range from the rabid, homicidal judge who presided over the Salem witch trials to one of America’s most audacious medical charlatans, from a Civil War guerrilla leader whose murderous deeds influenced events for decades to a US congressman who doubled as a Russian spy.
There’s a pair of early-day financial virtuosos who lived up to the worst images of Wall Street greed, along with a respected journalist whose infatuation with polar explorer Robert Peary led him to perpetrate one of the most effective cases of media manipulation ever—in effect dictating history. Whether con man, killer, or quirky counterfeiter, these over-the-top figures are all undeniably memorable.
Many of these antiheroes provide cautionary tales that enlighten and instruct (as English poet John Milton pointed out, it’s easier to recognize good by knowing evil). However, the urge to assemble a catalog of morality lessons wasn’t the reason I chose to write about these thirty individuals. The truth is that learning about this extraordinary group was just plain fun. As more than one armchair philosopher has argued, evil can sometimes be more interesting than good—which explains why most actors love to play the bad guy.
There’s one final similarity between this book and Secret Heroes. In the introduction to Secret Heroes I noted that as I went about investigating the lives of the Americans included in that work, I felt as if I’d dropped in on a lively celebration, one at which every guest had a riveting tale to tell, with each of their stories offering a fresh perspective on America’s past. The same was true with the characters featured here. So allow me to welcome you to their party—a fascinating get-together, even if it does take place on the shady side of the street.
On a soft, greening afternoon in late April 1807, forty-three-year-old merchant James DeWolf stood at the window of his brick and clapboard counting house on the busy waterfront of Bristol, Rhode Island. In his elegant colonial-era garb—stockings and breeches, long dress coat, silk vest and high-collared white shirt—the tall, gray-haired businessman presented an imperious figure. DeWolf gazed contentedly at the harbor below, where many of the ships loading or unloading their cargos were his own. This was a favorite time of year for DeWolf. For the first time in weeks there had been no need to light a fire in his office fireplace. On his morning carriage ride from home, he’d noticed some daffodils poking into the sunshine. After a long, dreary winter, the sight had cheered the normally taciturn New Englander.
DeWolf turned from the window, thinking of his beloved wife, Nancy, who, at this moment, was probably hovering over their servants as they prepared for this evening’s guests. There would be a light supper—a chowder of local seafood no doubt, perhaps a warm apple crumble. Some of Bristol’s best musicians were scheduled to provide the entertainment. The sounds of violin, flute, and harpsichord would fill the house, with candles and whale oil lamps providing a warm glow as family and friends relaxed with a glass of fine port in hand. DeWolf was just sorry that his grand new three-story mansion hadn’t been finished by now. He’d already selected a name for the estate: The Mount. It had a solid, prosperous ring—entirely fitting for the home of Bristol’s wealthiest and most influential citizen.1
DeWolf returned to his desk and resumed the examination of his ledgers. He had so much to keep track of—ship manifests, the records of his Caribbean plantations, the family distilleries. Fortunately, he had an eye for detail. It was that attention to the smallest matter—along with his willingness to take chances and a streak of ruthlessness—that had carried DeWolf to success. He’d certainly come a long way since acquiring his first merchant ship less than twenty years earlier. The people hereabouts had even elected him to the state legislature. Yes, life was undeniably good for the Honorable James DeWolf. He seemed to be one of those rare individuals that fortune smiles on at every turn.
Several hundred miles to the south, the Bristol-based merchantman Seminarius leaned heavily on a port tack as it pounded through the Atlantic chop on its way to Charleston, South Carolina. Above the usual noises of a large sailing ship—the ceaseless rumble of breaking waves, the creak of planking, the rattle of wind-whipped lines, and the snap of taut canvas—a medley of unearthly sounds could be heard, a low moaning pierced now and then by wailing and shouts in strange foreign tongues. They were the sounds of human misery, a chorus of anguish raised by some of the unluckiest souls ever to walk the earth.
In a fetid, four-foot-high crawl space between the ship’s main deck and cargo hold, 162 African slaves were chained fast to the wooden planking.2 Each slave was allotted a space roughly twenty inches wide. Unable to stand, the slaves could only sit or recline with their heads shoved between the legs of the next person in the tightly packed line of sweating bodies, forcing them at times to lie in each other’s waste. No prison dreamed up by the Devil himself could have been worse than this dark, jostling hellhole, with its overpowering stench, oppressive heat, and claustrophobic crowding. Some of the captives went mad—or jumped into the ocean if given the chance, death being preferable to the conditions they were subjected to.
Up on the main deck of the Seminarius, Captain Charles Slocum sniffed the bracing salt air as he scanned the horizon. After months at sea, he could finally smell land once more. It had been a challenging voyage. Nineteen of the 181 Negroes he’d purchased from a slave trader’s dungeon on the west coast of Africa had perished during the rough Atlantic crossing.3 And Slocum had been obliged to discipline a few of the more unruly males. As usual, iron muzzles and the lash had tamed them well enough. Fortunately, there had been no epidemics of smallpox, typhoid, or yellow fever, which might have necessitated tossing the sick over the side to prevent other valuable slaves from becoming infected.
The long, arduous voyage of the Seminarius was typical of vessels involved in New England’s Triangle Trade—the slave-based commerce between North America and western Africa that flourished from the early 1700s to the early 1800s. During that period, Rhode Island merchants, who dominated the New England slave trade, underwrote nearly a thousand trips to Africa and transported more than one hundred thousand slaves to North America, chiefly to the Caribbean islands and America’s southeastern ports.4 Although that number was tiny compared to the millions of Africans brought to the New World by European slave traders, dealing in human chattel earned immense fortunes for many prominent Northern families, a heritage that’s unfamiliar to most Americans, who generally associate slavery solely with the South and equate New England with the noble cause of abolitionism.
The truth, however, is that it was New Englanders who owned America’s largest slave-trading fleet at this time.5 Nearly every major New England port engaged in slave trafficking to some degree, although two towns—Newport and Bristol, Rhode Island—accounted for most of the voyages. Newport led the trade for much of the 1700s, with Bristol becoming the main port after 1790. For close to a century, tiny Rhode Island controlled 60 to 90 percent of America’s slave-trading activities and may have been responsible for up to half of all slaving voyages originating in North America.6 (Between the 1820s and 1860, merchants outside New England led the final surge of American slave trafficking.)
The highly profitable Triangle Trade was woven into just about every part of the New England economy. It helped finance colonial governments and employed thousands of seamen, shipbuilders, merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. Local townspeople even bought shares in slaving voyages. Part of
For the Seminarius, the first leg of the Triangle had begun in Bristol, where the ship’s hold was filled with the hogsheads of extra potent rum that were traded for slaves in Africa. The return transatlantic crossing—the infamous Middle Passage—constituted the second leg of the Triangle. When the Seminarius reached Charleston, Captain Slocum would sell the ship’s cargo of slaves and use the proceeds to buy commodities such as cotton, indigo, or rice. Such staples would be transported back to New England on the Triangle’s final leg.
The majority of the slaving fleet, however, delivered cargos not to American ports but to the West Indies, the main source of the North’s most vital import—molasses. Northern distilleries turned that molasses into rum, and the ugly cycle began once more, each time fattening the purses of the Yankee merchants who financed the slave-trading voyages. In the case of the Seminarius, the beneficiary of this commerce in human degradation was none other than respected businessman and civic leader James DeWolf. DeWolf bears the inglorious distinction of being the leading figure in the most active slave-importing family in American history, an elite Rhode Island clan whose members enjoyed lives of extreme luxury paid for by the suffering of others. As one historian unequivocally states, the DeWolf family fortune “was built on the backs of slaves.”7
The DeWolfs’ slave-trading activities lasted half a century, from 1769 to 1820. The family owned four dozen other slave ships besides the Seminarius. The DeWolfs took part in some 60 percent of the Bristol Triangle Trade, either by themselves or with partners. During the busy years from 1784 to 1807, the family underwrote eighty-eight slave-trading voyages. The next two major Bristol competitors launched nineteen voyages combined during that period.8 James DeWolf became one of the wealthiest men in the country, so rich that he could afford to loan money to the United States government.