Rogues Galleries

Jonah Miller

Histories of roguery tend to the tricolon (alliteration optional). Last summer’s Criminal Investigators, Villains and Tricksters followed Of Tricksters, Tyrants and Turncoats, and Rogues, Rascals and Other Villainous Mainers will be published in October. Paul Martin’s Villains, Scoundrels and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem, out this week, showcases a group of ‘lesser-known Americans’ who are ‘undeniably memorable’. It's a follow-up to Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World, which gets several mentions in the introduction of his new book, alongside ‘English poet John Milton’ who knew, like Martin, that ‘it’s easier to recognise good by knowing evil.’

The tone is an predictable mix of sensationalism and moralising. The miserly millionaire financier Hetty Green, a.k.a. the 'Witch of Wall Street', ‘was the quintessential example of the remarkably stunted life that human beings can lead when their only joys are making and hoarding money’. Emerich Juettner, who made counterfeit money one dollar at a time, ‘was a strange character all right – a crook with scruples’. Daniel Drew, the 19th-century insider trader – or ‘ambitious, semiliterate backwoods entrepreneur’ – is ‘Uriah Heep-like’, his bankruptcy and fall gleefully described: ‘he had to rely on his son for support for the last three years of his life. He died in 1879, right back where he’d started out, as poor as a teenage cattle drover.’

Brewer’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics, compiled by William Donaldson in 2002, is more prepared to let the facts speak for themselves. Entries run from ‘alive, taking one’s own pulse to see if one is still. See Spencer, Herbert’ to ‘zebras bagged in Piccadilly, a brace of. See Dunsany, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron’. Information is prioritised:

Howard, Lady Frances (1593-1632), adulteress and murderer. With the help of Anne Turner, a brothel-keeper, and the notorious quack Simon Forman, Lady Frances rendered her husband impotent by means of hocus-pocus, and, with the sole assistance of Mrs Turner, killed Sir Thomas Overbury, her lover’s closest friend.

The golden age of rogueology was the late 16th century. Robert Greene's Notable Discovery of Coosnage appeared in 1591; he pressed on through four more highly profitable pamphlets. The last, The Blacke Bookes Messenger, was to precede a 'Blacke Booke' including the names and addresses of ‘Foystes, Nips, Lifts and Priggars in and about London’, but Greene died from ‘a surfeit of pickle herring and Rhenish wine’ before he could compile it. The Messenger includes the ‘pleasant’ scaffold confessions of Ned Browne, ‘one of the most notable Cutpurses... that ever lived in England’. ‘If you hear without laughing,' Browne said, 'then after my death call me a base knave.’ Greene concludes: ‘Thus this Ned Browne died miserably, that all his life time had beene full of mischiefe & villany... by whose example if any be profited, I have the desired ende of my labour.’ He almost sounds like Paul Martin. The rogues may have changed, but the rogueologists haven’t.