- Virginia Johnson
A Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten Americans, by Michael Farquhar, is a fascinating series of cleverly-penned essays on true-life characters whom you’ve probably never heard of but definitely are a part of American history. Meet Jack Billington, the Mayflower Murderer. Not all of the passengers on the Mayflower were sterling souls. He may have signed the famous Mayflower Compact, but Billington never kept his end of the deal. He was a foul-tempered wastrel whose son almost (accidentally and stupidly) blew up the ship on the way over and Jack had the gall to badmouth Miles Standish. For this he was bound, neck to ankles, at which point his bravado lessened considerably. But Jack Billington did not learn from that experience and went on to meet a knave’s fate.
Anne Bonney came from a rather nice family in Charleston, South Carolina. Unfortunately she appears to have been something of a sociopath who jumped at the opportunity to take to piracy on the Caribbean high seas with her boyfriend “Calico Jack” Rackham and her close friend Mary Read. Anne Patterson Bonaparte, another adventurous soul, declared early on that nature never intended her for obscurity. And yet, bride to Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother though she was, she seems to have found it. But it wasn’t for lack of trying, and Michael Farquhar’s book details her strivings as well as those of a couple of dozen other fascinating characters.
Not all of them were so self-centered. There was Stephen Pleasanton, the clerk who saved the Constitution from the flame during the War of 1812. Tunis Campbell tried to use his considerable intellectual gifts and education to help lift his recently freed brethren during the hard, early days of Reconstruction. Sarah Winnemucca, “the Paiute Princess,” lived dangerously and controversially but she dared to go to Washington, D.C. to try to convince the President that the Indians needed more than the government was willing to give them.
Others started well and finished badly. William J. Burns (“America’s Sherlock Holmes”) rose In prominence to become the head of the organization now known as the F.B.I. but false rumors and bad company (see Gaston B. Means: American Scoundrel) toppled his career.
You will also find a socialite-explorer, “Lady Edison,” a flopping pole-vaulter, and an actor so enamored of himself that he kept performing with a murderous riot going on directly outside in protest of his presence. A Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten Americans makes for fascinating reading—or listening as it is also available as a downloadable audiobook. The chapters are short, crisp, and alternately gripping or hilarious. They are also true. Readers who love history should enjoy this book, but so will anyone who likes a good tale well-told.