Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Booknotes: Kentucky Barracuda

New Arrival:
Kentucky Barracuda: Parker Hardin French (1826-1878) by Joe Goodbody (Mascot Books, 2018).

American history is replete with the antics of con men, from small-time grifters to orchestrators of elaborate confidence games. Lesser known today, Parker Hardin French engaged in both extremes and was one of the nineteenth-century's most notorious practitioners of the art of the con. The discovery that one of his ancestors was victimized by French prompted author Joe Goodbody to research the swindler's life of crime. Along the way, the author "pieced together information from primary sources gathered from historical archives, personal journals and diaries, period newspapers, public records, government reports, court documents and cooked accounting books to recreate Parker Hardin French as he lived." The result is the biography Kentucky Barracuda: Parker Hardin French (1826-1878), a "barracuda" being, in the parlance of the time, someone who was a "con man, crook, hustler, swindler, clip artist, fraud, scam artist". Goodbody's book brings French "out of the shadows and into the spotlight," finding that the "crafty Machiavellian contributed more to mid-nineteenth century history ​than has been previously documented."

More from the synopsis: "In the era of steam, sail and horse, the rapidity of French's movement and breadth of his adventures is almost mind-numbing. As a runaway kid he fought in the British Navy in the first Opium War. When he was just 22 years old, he was a commission merchant and, a year later, built the first ocean going ship on the upper Mississippi. Before he was 30, he was the leader of an infamous gold rush expedition; implicated in an irregular invasion of Cuba; jailed bandit and then military hero in Mexico; lawyer, district attorney, legislator, journalist, and political enforcer in California; part of an American cabal which governed Nicaragua; and, appointed but rejected Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States. He didn’t slow down in his 30s: he was a real estate developer; lawyer; journalist; part of a conspiracy to invade Mexico; suspected seditionist agitator and Confederate agent; jailed as a political prisoner; and, lawyer and purveyor for Union troops. His final days were spent in obscurity but the period was still peppered with the occasional swindle that garnered both regional and national attention. First and foremost, he was a barracuda."

French did indeed have significant Civil War connections. One chapter in the book discusses the possibility of French's involvement with the Knights of the Golden Circle, and the four that follow it recount his activities during the Civil War. After victimizing the citizens of Massachusetts and Connecticut, French was arrested and jailed in Fort Warren under suspicion of being a Confederate agent. After release, he was, amazingly enough, allowed to be an army sutler and defense counsel or legal consultant in two court-martial cases.

You can find more information about French and the book on the author's website. Go here to check it out.

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