Like Paul’s previous collection of biographies, Villains, Scoundrels, and Rogues 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 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 with Secret Heroes, the subjects of Villains, Scoundrels, and Rogues come from all periods in our nation’s history and represent a wide variety of occupations. There’s 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. There’s bloodthirsty river pirate Samuel Mason, who inspired a scene in How the West Was Won, and the dapper Yellow Kid, the con artist who originated the phony bookie operation portrayed in The Sting. Whether brazen serial killer, frontier floozy, or quirky counterfeiter, these over-the-top figures are all undeniably memorable.
Many of these antiheroes provide cautionary tales that enlighten and instruct. However, the urge to assemble a catalog of morality lessons wasn’t Paul’s motivation for writing about these thirty individuals. He found 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.