Welcome back to another episode of The Art of Manliness Podcast! In this edition, we talk to Ben Thompson, author of the new book, Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live. He’s also the founder of the popular website, Bad Ass of the Week.
In this interview, Ben talks about some of the badasses from history that are highlighted in his book.
Oh, and as you can imagine, we say badass a lot in the interview, so if that sort of thing bothers you, you should probably skip this episode.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another episode of the Art of Manliness podcast. Now throughout history, great men have risen that singlehandedly built empires and destroyed armies. Their deeds have become legends. In short, they were badasses. Well, our guest today has become an expert on the history of badassitude and has written a book about it. His name is Ben Thompson and he is the author of the book Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live. Ben, welcome to the show.
Ben Thompson: Hi Brett. I just want to say thank you for having me on today.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s our pleasure. So Ben, Badass, how did you get started with this Badass project?
Ben Thompson: Well, it kind of taken from my dad in a lot of ways. My dad was really into history and the way that my dad was able to explain history to me, he was a memorabilia hound and had all these like really cool Samurai swords and knight swords and muskets and stuff like this and he would bring the stuff out and he would give me this really awesome descriptions. It was like an action movie the way he would explain it like Leonidas or Washington or whoever he will be talking about. It was like really intense the way that he explained this and when I went off to college or even in high school when I would learn the same stories they would just be completely boring with the way that they presented. So, I wanted to be like okay well, I’m not really super interested in Washington’s agricultural reforms, I don’t know about all the people that he kicked ass, what would he be. It was like so awesome. I just kind of wanted a funny way to tell like the action movie story of these guys and making jokes and try to make it kind of funny and lighthearted. That’s sort of what I was hoping to accomplish with this.
Brett McKay: Definitely. So, before you did the book it actually started as a website, so you are one of these bloggers-turned authors, right? So, tell us about your website.
Ben Thompson: The website was started in April 2004 and that was just kind of something that I – it’s called Badass of the Week. Basically, every Friday I’d just write a story about some badass, some history or in the website I had some fictional characters or stuff like that. I just kind of started with a joke, I was really bored at my old job and I just started typing these things up and just doing it like kind of a joke for my friends and the next thing I know, I’m starting to get a lot of hits and it started going up, a 100,000, 500,000 it’s like oh my god, this is insane, and so I was kind of lucky to get on with the deal with newspaper columns, they try to get the same published in natural book. It’s been a great ride so far.
Brett McKay: Awesome. So, you’ve been doing the Badass of the Week since 2004. When you decided to sit down and write the book, how did you decide which badasses to include in the book, what are the criteria you had or I mean what was it?
Ben Thompson: It was really a grueling painful process with the short version. I basically had the list of like 150 to 160 guys I thought were going to be really great for a book like this. I ended up just through a very painful bloodletting, it was like killing your own children so I can figure out who I was going to put in and who I wasn’t going to put in. So, I ended up coming up with 30 guys who weren’t in the website. And the great thing about doing the website is that I’ve already got articles up there that people have loved, they got a lot of hits, people sent a lot of positive feedbacks about them. So, I was able to just pick a top ten from the website and then supplemented with some guys that I haven’t written up before.
Brett McKay: Awesome. So, who is your favorite badass that you’ve written about?
Ben Thompson: It’s tough to say. It’s tough to say. Sometimes, I’m doing the Vikings, sometimes I’m doing the Ninjas. It’s really difficult for me to pick a number one. When I’m trying to talk about the book, the guy that I usually referenced is an Irish warrior named Wolf the Quarrelsome. And I just love the name more than anything. Wolf the Quarrelsome is like Vlad the Impaler and not a good one. Yeah, Wolf was an Irishman who was around in I think the 9th century and the Vikings were invading his homeland and we don’t know anything about Wolf the Quarrelsome, he kind of epitomizes the guys I like to write about. Because you don’t know anything about this guy except that he killed a lots of Vikings at this battle. He almost singlehandedly turned back their army and then when the Vikings commander killed the Irish king, this guy hunted him down, punched him on the throat, cut open his abdomen, pulled out his entrails, tied one of them to a tree and then like forced the guy to walk around the tree in a circle pulling out his own entrails until he died of it. It’s like he doesn’t really serve reasonable whole of historical significance, but he was kind of badass guy and these were the kind of stories that I want to be able to hit with the book.
Brett McKay: That’s crazy, wow. Insane. So, who is the most badass US president you think?
Ben Thompson: There are so many good ones. The big three you would think would be, I think, you got George Washington, you got Andrew Jackson and you got Theodore Roosevelt. Those were the three that are really some of the toughest guys that have been in office. I also talk about Zachary Taylor when we are talking about badass presidents. He didn’t really get much publicity or as much credits like other guys but Zach Taylor was kind of a badass guy. Also he was a war hero from the Mexican-American war. He had fought up an Indian attack at the fort with just like himself and two other guys and they made him president for the Whig Party because he was so successful and because he kicked so much ass in the Mexican-American war but then he wasn’t the kind of guy who was just going to be a political puppet. The Whigs put him up thinking that oh yeah we’ll just ride his credibility to the White House and then make him do whatever we want. But once he got there it was like giving his orders and he was like yeah I don’t want to do that, you’re going to have to make me, and and then he just didn’t give a crap about anything or didn’t basically run the Whig in anyway and then they kept trying to get him to put their policies forward, he just told them to get lost.
Brett McKay: Wow. So, yeah he had some political weavers there.
Ben Thompson: Yeah. He didn’t care.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s funny you mentioned Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, those are two presidents actually had assassination attempts on them but the way they handled it was like really badass, I mean this is before secret service.
Ben Thompson: Intriguing I mean.
Brett McKay: So, when it comes to Andrew Jackson, he was like in a duel. He was actually an assassination attempt and the gun misfired and then Andrew Jackson, he’s like his old guy. Goes and chase down the guy and beats him with his cane.
Ben Thompson: Right. Beat him up with his cane and then build the statue for himself on the site where he was almost assassinated.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Ben Thompson: He was a tough guy, they said that his body used to rattle because he had been in so many duels, he had the gunshots and there is a famous story about him being in this duel and he faces off against this other guy who said something about Jackson’s wife or something like that. But the guy was just really talented, really badass dude he is. And they turned, they turned fire or whatever and Andrew Jackson just basically stand there and let the other guy shoot him first so that he can take his time when he is aiming. Seems like, that’s like bothers me right there.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s crazy and then Theodore Roosevelt, this was after he was president, he was running on the Progressive Party, the Bull Moose Party or whatever and some guy shot him and instead of going to the hospital he gets up and give a 90-minute speech and shows the audiences.
Ben Thompson: Stand outside.
Brett McKay: Yeah, he showed the audience his wound. This is like you can’t keep a bull moose down. I don’t think you’d ever see that happen today.
Ben Thompson: No, no, no chance. I mean standing outside is extremely cold I believe at the time and in front of all these people. Yeah, unbelievable, unbelievable.
Brett McKay: Very cool. So in your book, Ben, you’re an equal opportunity badass appreciator and you also include some women in your book. So can you give us an example of a badass woman and her exploits?
Ben Thompson: Yeah. One of the toughest women in the book is Anne Bonny. Anne Bonny was a pirate. She was living in Nassau. She was the wife of some small time pirate and then that pirate that she was married to started selling out their pirates to the local government for money and she really thought that this was BS. So she escapes, like made off with some other pirate guy and the two of them just basically sailed around, did all the good pirate things, plundering and pillaging a lot of these good stuff and she was dressed as a man for the first little bit of their voyage. Eventually, people caught on that she was a woman, but she was so tough and it was really bad luck at this time to have women on board pirate ships, but she was so tough and she was one of the mean people on board that they didn’t care if she dressed as a woman the whole time and nobody really should have a problem with it. And then when the pirates eventually get captured, she was the only one – most of them are really drunk and they were ambushed by the British navy and there was a small battle in which basically Anne Bonny and there’s this other woman Mary Read, who was the other woman on board and they were the only two who fought back. All the other pirates were just like whatever I’m with I don’t care and so these two women fought back for a while, they eventually were captured and as they were being dragged off by the British, they turned their guns on their own men for being cowards.
Brett McKay: Wow.
Ben Thompson: So, they didn’t have any tolerance for people who didn’t fight.
Brett McKay: Yeah, no tolerance for wussies.
Ben Thompson: Yeah, exactly, exactly and then they went to trial and they eventually were able to get off from being hang and vanished in the history. We don’t know what happened to Anne Bonny afterwards because she escaped. During the trial, all the people who testified against her basically said that she was the most evil person they had ever met. She was the worst of all the pirates on board; it was great.
Brett McKay: That’s funny. You also have a section about badass animals.
Ben Thompson: Yes.
Brett McKay: One of the stories I thought was really cool and funny was about a bear, that the Polish army recruited. Tell us about this bear.
Ben Thompson: Yeah, the bear is on the website, you can look the bear up, his name is Voytek. He was a Syrian brown bear cub that was rescued by the Polish as they were travelling through the Middle East towards, you know, gearing for their invasion of Italy. And they kind of raised this bear from birth and wrestled with him, he smoked cigarettes, he drank beer, he marched all the time along with the men when they did like parade stuff. It was crazy and the bear sort of distinguishes himself by, you know, the bear use to like take bath in the bath houses that they would set up in their camps and he found a German spy in one of these bath houses and that he could just growl at the guy and so the guy like basically wet himself and surrendered. That was cool and then there were reports at the battle of Monte Cassino and this is one of the things in the book that it’s so insane you wouldn’t believe it, you are able to find six to eight collaborating stories just for it. But at the battle of Monte Cassino he carried artillery shells, walking on he’s hind legs carrying artillery shells in he’s hands from the trucks to the guns.
Brett McKay: Wow.
Ben Thompson: It’s ridiculous, right?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Ben Thompson: That’s unbelievable that he’s on all of the heraldry of the unit now, he’s on their official radar and everything like that and he was in Edinburg zoo after the war and his old buddies who come to visit him and jump into the enclosure and horrify everybody that was around it was like jumping at the enclosure and wrestle with them like they used to. It was this crazy stuff.
Brett McKay: Well, so an artillery shell carrying, cigarette smoking, beer chugging bear. That’s pretty badass, that’s definitely badass.
Ben Thompson: Yes, it’s sort of humbling writing this book because he was a bear, he was more badass than I. How is that possible?
Brett McKay: It’s Stephen Colbert’s worst nightmare.
Ben Thompson: Yeah no kidding.
Brett McKay: So, Ben, most of the people you include in the book are long dead. Do we have any badasses living among us today?
Ben Thompson: Yeah. We do. We do for sure. I didn’t include any in the book – everybody in the book is apparently dead because I wouldn’t get screwed in short version. I have a lot of present day people on the website because people don’t like it. If somebody reads it, there are obviously badass you put on the website and they come to me and say I don’t want to be up there, you got to pull it down off the website, but you can apparently had a stuff. So, there are a lot of badass people doing stuff right now, you’ve got firefighters, you’ve got soldiers, you have got so much badass still happening every day. The story that I would like to tell is a couple of years ago there was a guy who was a master-at-arms in a cruise ship and the cruise ship was coming under attack by Somali pirates and this would’ve been basically a complete nightmare if these pirates got on board the cruise ship. And this guy was the master-at-arms but he didn’t have access to weapons or anything and he didn’t have any guns on board or anything like that but he could actually managed to fight off two boat loads with full of guys with AK-47s and RPGs. So, he grabbed the front deck fire hose for the cruise ship and used the hosed at these guys down. They were shooting AK-47s at him, and he fights them off with a fire hose, like 12 guys with bazookas; that’s crazy stuff.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. So, Ben in your book you do not make any bones about this kind of being and over-the-top hyperbolic, it’s really humorous the writing you do and it’s definitely fun to read. But were there any real life lessons you took after researching about the people, the men that you include in your book that has helped you become a better man?
Ben Thompson: Yeah, yeah. That’s right. I did try to do a little bit over-the-top and that’s something that I think it’s kind of a good flavor for… I try to do some funny stuff and do some cool stuff with it but in all seriousness the one thing that tie all of these characters together where you have Leonidas on the one hand who is defending his homeland and then I’m going to say a guy named Bonny even the other people walk the plank or Vlad the Impaler, who’s murdering his own people. The important thing that kind of tied these heroes together is that they are all determined. They have this determination and they have this one thing they will accomplish whether it’s their conquest or freedom or whatever it’s and the don’t let anything stand in their way, they just will knock down anybody who gets in their way or break down – they don’t do crap, they will do what they want to do and that who’s going to stop them.
Brett McKay: So, determination.
Ben Thompson: Exactly, exactly. That’s the one unifying factor in all people who are badass.
Brett McKay: Well, Ben, thanks for talking to us today. It’s been a pleasure.
Ben Thompson: Yeah, yeah. It’s been… thank you a lot for having me.
Brett McKay: Our guest today was Ben Thompson. Ben is the author of the Badass and you can pick up his book at amazon.com or any other major bookstore. And make sure to check out Ben’s website badassoftheweek.com to read about more badasses from history.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice check out our website at artofmanliness.com, and until next stay manly.