December 06, 1982 12:00 PM

by William Bramhall

Care to meet Stephen Meek, a frontier scout who led a wagon train into Oregon in 1845 and promptly got lost? Or how about Ann Putnam, the 12-year-old Puritan lass whose “unusually active imagination” helped to launch the Salem witch-hunt? Then there’s William Walker, whose ambition to rule a Latin American country of his own was thwarted by a Honduran firing squad in 1860. They are among a gallery of 26 true-life rogues and nincompoops, scalawags and poltroons that Bramhall, a humorist-illustrator, has portrayed through word sketches and ink drawings, all done tongue in cheek. With the premise that the eccentric is more fascinating than the heroic, the author provides a lesson in American history as it was never taught in school. Some of his targets are sitting ducks (Gen. George Custer, President Warren Harding, millionaire miser Hetty Green). But most are more elusive. Just what, for goodness sakes, are we to make of Lord Corn-bury, Colonial governor general of New York in 1702, who had a penchant for appearing in public in his wife’s gowns? Probably not much beyond a bemused admission that there must be oddballs in every crowd. (Clarkson N. Potter, $7.95)

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