Horatio Alger (1834
) was one of the United States
' most influential and popular writers of the end of the 19th century, even if his didactic moral fables of young poor boys striking it rich through pluck and hard work were more Hardy Boys
than Charles Dickens
Many reference sources about Alger's life, especially those dating prior to the 1970s, are suspect because of Alger's first biography, Alger: A Biography without a Hero
) by Herbert R. Mayes
. Mayes' biography was highly praised and used as a source of information about Alger for decades. The problem was that Mayes made it all up, crafting a parody of Alger's work that has Alger as the victim of many of the same kinds of melodramatic tragic scenarios that his protagonists starred in. For example, when the charitable Alger attempts to adopt a Chinese
boy, the youth is killed by a runaway horse. And when Alger attempts to enlist during the Civil War
, he accidentally breaks his arm. Twice. Even when critics couldn't find the diary the work was supposedly based on, Mayes' book was considered an authoritative source until he confessed his prank in the 1970s:
"If Alger ever kept a diary, I knew nothing about it. In any case, it was more fun to invent one. I had no letters ever written by Alger, which was fortunate. Again, it was more fun to make them up, as it was with letters presumably sent to Alger, none of which I had ever seen."
But Alger's real life was more strange than perhaps Mayes could have imagined. Alger didn’t write tales of young boys just because he stumbled upon a best selling formula that appealed to moralists around the country. Alger really liked
little boys. He was a pedophile
Alger was born in Massachusetts
, the son of a Unitarian
minister. He graduated from Harvard University
with Phi Beta Kappa
honors. After a brief stint as a schoolteacher and magazine writer, he attended Harvard Divinity School
, graduating in 1860
. In 1864
, he was ordained
and manned a pulpit
in Brewster, Massachusetts
, but split town two years later under a cloud of suspicion:
"That Horatio Alger, Jr., who has officiated as our Minister for about fifteen months past has recently been charged with no less magnitude than the abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys.
"Whereupon the committee sent for Alger and to him specified the charges and evidence of his guilt, which he neither denied or attempted to extenuate, but received with apparent calmness of an old offender - and hastily left town on the very next train for parts unknown."
His next stop was New York City
, where there were plenty of shoeshine boys and street urchins to befriend. His novel Ragged Dick
(hopefully, no pun intended there), the sentimental story of a shoeshine boy made good, was an enormous success, its popularity aided by the social reformers and moralists who cited the work as a positive one. Alger knew a good thing when he saw it, and churned out over a hundred more often laughably horrible copies of this formula over the next three decades.
Alger himself became one of those social reformers, heavily active in causes like the Newsboys' Lodging House
and other organizations which aided orphans and runaways. Alger also helped himself to a number of them in his bedroom. Alger, the toast of the town, was often seen at society events accompanied by a couple of his favorites d'jour. No matter how many camping trips he took them on, he somehow always managed to avoid even the hint of scandal. Sources: britannica.com; Richard Shenkman, I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not; Charles Panati, Sexy Origins and Intimate Things