No. 432
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
July 22, 2019

Horatio Alger Story.

January 22, 2013
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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.