The phrase “Horatio Alger story” is used on a daily basis to describe someone whose hard work and perseverance leads to some unlikely triumph over great adversity. The writer to whom the phrase refers had a profound effect on 19th century life, as boys and young men found lessons within his many novels.
While Horatio Alger's name is enshrined as a figure of speech, he’s not well remembered as a person. That’s partly because his own life was deeply troubled. And we now know it was marred by a serious scandal.
It appears Alger’s own writings may have been an attempt to either obscure or atone for disturbing criminal behavior.
Student and Minister
The son of a Unitarian minister, Horatio Alger was born on January 13, 1832, in what today is Revere, Massachusetts. As a boy, Alger was known for religious devotion, and when he entered Harvard College in 1848 it was assumed he would follow his father into the ministry.
At Harvard, Alger paid for his first year’s tuition by serving as an errand boy for the college president. He excelled during his four years in college, but after graduation in 1852 his life was unsettled. After entering Harvard Divinity School he left to pursue a career in journalism, but eventually returned to religious studies. He graduated from the Divinity School in 1860.
Apparently unhappy with work as a minister, Alger left on a long trip to Europe. He arranged to defray expenses by writing articles for the New York Sun, but grew disappointed with erratic and low pay. He returned to the United States, where he was drafted for the Civil War but not inducted as he was barely over five feet tall.
In December 1864 Alger found a position as a minister in Brewster, Massachusetts. And he began submitting stories to a magazine for juveniles, Student and Schoolmate.
Horatio Alger Was Accused In a Scandal
In 1866 Alger was involved in a local scandal when two boys, aged 13 and 16, accused him of molesting them. The Unitarian church convened a committee to investigate the charges, which were found to be credible.
The report by the investigators determined that Alger, while with the boys, had been “practicing on them, at different times, deeds that are too revolting to relate.” Alger didn’t deny the accusations. He agreed to leave the ministry and quickly left Brewster. No criminal charges were filed, and all parties agreed to suppress the scandal.
Alger soon settled in New York City, where he continued submitting material to Student and Schoolmate. A serialized novel, Ragged Dick, the story of a young bootblack who becomes a success in business, became very popular. And it led to a series of similar books.
While in New York, Alger was often in contact with young newsboys and bootblacks who stayed in buildings operated by the Children’s Aid Society. He became a prominent advocate for homeless and impoverished children, and it seems apparent that no one in New York knew of the scandal in Massachusetts. In New York he lived a rootless existence, generally moving from one rooming house to another.
Alger's Characters Succeeded Through Hard Work
Alger churned out a cascade of novels, with such titles as Fame and Fortune, Mark the Match Boy, Ben the Luggage Boy, and Rufus and Rose. He also wrote several series of novels, such as the “Luck and Pluck Series” and the “Brave and Bold Series.”
Much of Alger’s written work follows a basic template. A typical Alger character is youthful and downtrodden, but somehow has an optimistic attitude. And he rises from the streets through hard work and strokes of good luck.
It’s noteworthy that when the term “Horatio Alger story” is used today, it’s generally invoked to describe someone who has become very wealthy. Yet Alger’s characters don't actually attain great riches. They escape from poverty and become members of mainstream society.
Writing with astounding speed, Alger produced more than 500 novels. Critics have noted that his haste is evident, as plots and events were carelessly duplicated.
None of that mattered in the marketplace. The many novels Alger wrote for children sold very well, and it has been estimated that more than 20 million copies of his books were published in his lifetime.
In later life Alger attempted to write for an adult audience, but his efforts were generally not successful.
And despite the vast popularity of his many children's novels, Alger did not become wealthy himself. He later supported himself by tutoring the children of wealthy New Yorkers. One of his students was future Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo.
When Alger died, in 1899, he was apparently impoverished, living with his sister in Massachusetts. After his death, his sister destroyed all of his papers, which created a natural impediment to any biographer.
A Mysterious Life
Alger’s peculiar life story took a strange turn after death, when the first biography of him appeared in 1928. A young writer named Herbert Mayes published the book, which was purportedly based on an Alger diary which had been found.
For many years the book by Mayes was considered a definitive source on Horatio Alger, and it was cited by literary scholars. Yet in the 1970s Mayes finally admitted that the book had been a hoax, meant to be taken as a joke. The Horatio Alger diary did not exist. Neither did various Alger mistresses. Mayes had created them.
When Mayes himself passed away in 1987 at the age of 87, his obituary in the New York Times only mentioned in passing the disputed Alger biography published nearly 60 years earlier.
The obituary did mention that Herbert Mayes had grown up in a New York tenement, began working as a messenger and stenographer in his teens, and eventually talked his way into a job as an editor. He went on to become the editor of such magazines as McCall’s and Good Housekeeping, and became something of a legend in the American magazine business. The young man who had perpetrated the hoax biography of Horatio Alger had essentially become a classic “Horatio Alger story.”