No. 531
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
July 26, 2021

Horatio Alger Story.

An inspiring author with an unsavory past.
January 22, 2013
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32 Coxwell Road was not, even by the standards of council houses in 1950s Birmingham, England, anything special to look at.  But for the family of 31-year-old ex-paratrooper Frank Pell, it was a palace compared to their previous lodgings--a house so dilapidated it was officially condemned.  The three-bedroom home was newly decorated, on a quiet road close to all necessary services.  And the rent
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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

When painters depict the East River, it’s usually from the Manhattan side: a steel bridge, choppy waters, and a Brooklyn or Queens waterfront either thick with factories or quaint and almost rural. But when Richard Hayley Lever decided to paint the river in 1936, he did it from Astoria. What he captured in “Queensboro Bridge […]
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[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
When Horatio Sherman took sick after returning home from a week-long drunken spree, he said it was just one of his “old spells.” His wife Lydia agreed, and dosed him with brandy as usual. But Horatio’s doctor, who had treated his alcohol induced “spells” before, was suspicious this time. Horatio died two days later, and the doctor ordered a post-mortem examination which revealed the cause of
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Harrison Ave.Leadville, ColoradoJuly 21, 1880Luke and Wheeler photographers(Click image to enlarge)  S THAT SOAPY'S PARTNER IN CRIME? Those who have read Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, you may recall seeing the photograph (#6A) below, in the first photograph section of the book.  Soapy Smith and his partner in crimeHarrison Ave.Leadville, ColoradoJuly 21, 1880Luke and
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 7/21/2021
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.