No. 499
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
November 29, 2020

Horatio Alger Story.

An inspiring author with an unsavory past.
January 22, 2013
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Thomas Marshall WordNov 7, 1857 - Feb 5, 1929(Click image to enlarge)    OAPY SMITH RELATED TO ONE OF THE VIGILANTES THAT HELPED END HIS REIGN! December 2009: Fred Wood contacted me as a descendant of Tom Marshall Word, one of the vigilantes that helped end the reign of Soapy Smith in Skagway, Alaska. That alone was very interesting, and I was very happy to hear from him, but at that time he
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 11/27/2020

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Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine, because he and his brother, with the help of […]
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020

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Strange Company - 11/27/2020
Colorization can sometimes add another whole dimension to vintage black and white photos. We’ve done this one of the crime …

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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 8/31/2020
The morning of February 8, 1898, the nude, dismembered body of a man was found floating in the East River, near a ferryboat slip on Roosevelt Street, New York City. The entire front portion of the head was missing, leaving only the right ear and a portion of the back of the head. The left leg was missing from a point just above the knee and the right leg had been cut off at the hip. Both arms
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Murder By Gaslight - 11/28/2020

It’s been a good century or so since New Yorkers celebrated Evacuation Day. But in the late 18th and 19th centuries, this holiday—on November 25—was a major deal, marked by festive dinners, parades, and a deep appreciation of the role the city played in the Revolutionary War. Evacuation Day honors the day in 1783 when […]
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Ephemeral New York - 11/23/2020
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
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Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
Insane Criminal Escapes. | Vive Le Sport!

Horatio Alger Story.

Ragged Dick“Horatio Alger Story” has become a generic term for the rise from poverty to wealth through hard work and determination. Horatio Alger Jr. wrote more than a hundred books, in the late 1800s, about young boys gaining success through luck and pluck. Though Alger’s own story is hardly rags-to-riches, it is an all too familiar one—before achieving literary success he was a minister, defrocked for molesting young boys.

Horatio AlgerHoratio Alger Jr.

Horatio Alger Jr. was the son of a prominent Unitarian minister who hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps. In 1848, at age 16, the younger Horatio was admitted to Harvard College where he discovered he had a penchant for writing. After graduation he tried his hand at professional writing and though he had several poems and stories published in magazines, it brought in very little money. In 1857 he reluctantly enrolled at Harvard Divinity School.

Alger continued writing and had received some recognition (if little money) by the fall of 1864 when he became pastor of the First Unitarian Parish of Brewster, Massachusetts.  He was a vigorous and engaging speaker and was very active in church affairs. He was especially zealous in organizing and participating in boys’ activities such as sports, hiking and studying.  His reputation for being “always with the boys” was noted with disappointment by the single women of the parish who viewed Alger as an eligible bachelor, though he was short, balding and 32 years old.

Then rumors began to circulate regarding inappropriate behavior on the part of the pastor. One of the boys told his aunt that Reverend Alger had molested him.  Rumors of other “evil deeds” surfaced until church officials could no longer ignore the situation. At first they decided to just not rehire Alger the following year, then, with a prudence seldom seen today, they decided it was wrong to let him go to another pulpit, free to continue his bad behavior. The parish decided to form a committee to investigate further until they could either exonerate or indict Alger.

The committee confirmed the rumors and reported, “We learn from John Clark and Thomas S. Croaker that Horatio Alger Jr. has been practicing on them at different times deeds that are too revolting to relate.”  When they brought the charges privately to Alger, “he neither denied nor attempted to extenuate but received it with the apparent calm of an old offender.” The matter was reported to the Unitarian Association in Boston; Alger was removed from his position and he hastily left Massachusetts for New York.

Horatio Alger

Four years later, wracked with guilt over the incident, Alger discussed the matter with psychologist, William James, son of philosopher Henry James. The elder James remarked that, “Alger talks freely about his late insanity—which he in fact appears to enjoy as a subject of conversation.” But there is no evidence that he discussed this with anyone else.

Horatio Alger

Horatio Alger was able to keep his indiscretions secret, and became enormously successful writing books and stories about young boys overcoming adversity and achieving their dreams. Though there was a sameness to all the stories—or in Alger’s words they had a “family resemblance” – this did not seem to bother their young readers. The books were popular among boys for the rest or Alger’s lifetime and well into the twentieth century.

Alger continued to work with young boys, both directly and philanthropically, with a special interest in the Newsboy’s Lodging House in New York City, but there is no indication that he ever repeated his earlier indiscretions. In fact there is no evidence that he was anything but celibate for the rest of his life.


Sources:

  • Kohn, George C.. The new encyclopedia of American scandal. New York: Facts on File, 2001.
  • Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. The lost life of Horatio Alger, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.