Crime and Scandal

Horatio Alger and the 100-Year-Old Secret

Horatio Alger wrote rags-to-riches stories about poor boys who succeed through hard work, often helped by a wealthy benefactor with a guilty secret.

Horatio Alger in 1852

Horatio Alger in 1852

Alger is often believed to have patterned his earnest young characters after himself.

Actually, he patterned the wealthy benefactors after himself. The ones with guilty secrets.

Horatio Alger’ s guilty secret stayed secret for more than a century. The First Unitarian Parish of Brewster, Mass., kicked him out of his job as a minister for sexual misconduct with boys.

The Eligible Parson

Horatio Alger was born on Jan. 13, 1832, in Chelsea (now Revere), Mass. Both his parents came from old New England families, but he was hardly aristocratic and certainly not rich. His father, Horatio Alger, Sr., was a minister who wanted his son to pursue the same career.

Horatio Alger, Jr., entered Harvard at 16 and graduated eighth in a class of 88. He tried to make a living at writing, but he couldn’t support himself and reluctantly entered Harvard Divinity School. In 1864 he was installed as pastor at the Brewster church. He threw himself into his work, delivering vigorous sermons and involving himself in all aspects of parish life. He was especially passionate about organizing games and excursions for the boys’ groups.

Parishioners noticed he was ‘always with the boys.’ They also wondered why he didn’t court the parish’s eligible young woman. He was 32, single, and something of a catch.

Ragged Dick

Ragged Dick

They began to ask why, and finally investigated him through a committee made up of the church’s male lay officers. Parish records made public in the 1970s revealed Horatio Alger and the boys had engaged in acts ‘too revolting to relate.’  The report named two young boys and hinted at others.

The committee called Alger on the carpet, and he denied nothing. He admitted to ‘imprudence.’ Then he left Brewster that evening, never to return.  The parish notified other Massachusetts parishes about his dismissal without disclosing the reason. But it did report to the church hierarchy his crime: ‘the abominable and revolting crime of gross familiarity with boys.’

Atonement

Alger moved to New York City and wrote Ragged Dick, his all-time best seller. Published serially in 1867, it told of an honest 14-year-old bootblack who rescues a drowning child.. The boy receives a reward for his good deed: a new suit and a job.

He won lasting fame with stories about honest poor boys outwitting evil.

At the same time, it seems, he tried to atone for his sin and repress his sexual urges. He supported the Newsboys’ Lodging House, which fed and sheltered poor newsboys.

But he also informally ‘adopted’ two street boys who lived with him in his apartment.

During his lifetime he published about a hundred volumes of fiction and poetry. His books faded in popularity toward the end of his life, but enjoyed a resurgence after his death.

Horatio Alger died on July 18, 1899 in Natick, Mass.

With thanks to The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal by George C. Kohn. This story was updated in 2019.

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