Where the Boys Are
By Evan J. Albright
Today's Catholic Church is under fire for protecting pedophile priests. One hundred fifty years ago, a Protestant parish on Cape Cod was embroiled in a similar scandal, although the outcome was somewhat different. This time, the man who victimized young boys became one of the bestselling authors in the world.
His name was one of the most recognized in America -- Horatio Alger Jr. But what very few knew was that Horatio Alger harbored a terrible secret, one that could have destroyed his career. Fortunately for Alger, it was a secret that was buried in the sandy soil of Brewster, and kept secret by the heads of the Unitarian Church. When he died, slightly more than a century ago, his numerous novels had sold millions of copies. He became even more popular after he died. Estimates today of his total sales range between 100 to 250 million copies, making him one of the most popular writers of all time.
His books were almost always about poor boys from the country who travel to the city to seek their fortune. Instead they find evil and certain disaster, but through pluck and luck they overcome their travails and triumph in the end. The formula was so popular and well known, that the author's name is invoked, even today, when describing any story in which the protagonist goes from rags to riches -- a "Horatio Alger" story.
Horatio Alger Jr. was born in New England in 1832, the son of a Unitarian minister. At 15 he entered Harvard and was graduated Phi Beta Kappa. His intellect and scholarship did not translate into a dependable source of revenue, however. He managed to cobble together a living by teaching school and writing for magazines.
In his mid 20s, Alger followed his father into the ministry. He returned to Harvard and earned a divinity degree. After graduation he spent several months touring Europe, then returned to New England where he found work as a substitute minister.
He continued to write, but found that there was no money in it. He needed an income, and he only knew writing and the Gospel. He had had some success in writing for children, so he tried his hand at a juvenile novel.
America was in the midst of the Civil War, so Alger wrote about a young boy whose father is away at battle, leaving the youngster to defend the family farm. He sold the book to A.K. Loring, a small publisher in Boston. The advance was small, although promising, but Alger needed a more regular income. In October 1864, he was invited to preach at the First Parish Church in Brewster.
Something clicked. Alger liked the parish, and the parish liked him. In November his first book, Frank's Campaign was published. In December Alger was ordained at his new church on the Cape in a stirring ceremony that required a half-dozen visiting ministers, including his father and Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man Without a Country. The Yarmouth Register said the ceremony was "one of peculiar and general interest," involving an "intelligent and animatedly interested congregation."
A couple weeks later, the Rev. Alger spoke at the Lyceum in Yarmouthport about his travel through Europe. There he demonstrated all the characteristics that made him an effective preacher and author. "It was a most admirable performance ... and was characterized by good sense, discriminating judgement and shrewd observations of the peculiarities of people," the Register wrote.
The Rev. Alger's popularity began to sour after he had been in the job for slightly more than a year. Whispers of improper conduct began to circulate around Brewster. On March 6, the Unitarian church's standing committee voted not to renew the Rev. Alger's contract. That action infuriated some members of the church who felt that if the horrible rumors were true and nothing was done, then the Rev. Alger would be free to continue his depravities at another parish. An investigation was called for, and it revealed what everyone feared: Horatio Alger, the minister and children's book author, was a pedophile. And he had been preying upon boys in the parish.
The church investigating committee confirmed that at least two boys had been molested. In a report to the American Unitarian Association in Boston, one of the investigators submitted a summary of their findings, which said in part:
"Horatio Alger Jr. who has officiated as our minister for about 15 months past has recently been charged with gross immorality and a most heinous crime, a crime of no less magnitude than the abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys, which is too revolting to think of in the most brutal of our race -- the commission of which under any circumstances is to a refined or Christian mind too utterly incomprehensible ..."
When confronted with these accusations, Alger did not deny them, nor did he confirm them except to say he had been "imprudent" with the boys in question. He left town that day, never to return.
The rest of the story, unfortunately, has become all too familiar in modern times. Alger never returned to the ministry, but continued to write articles on faith and morality for Unitarian journals aimed at youth. When outraged Unitarians from Brewster complained, the national organization claimed there was nothing it could do. The matter was effectively swept under the rug.
Alger went on to write his very successful series of novels for boys. There is no record that he continued molesting children, although he did move to New York City where one could indulge in such appetites with anonymity. When he died he was beloved all over America by millions of children and adults for his life-affirming tales of the courage of young boys in the face of adversity. Alger was loved everywhere except in the small, quiet village of Brewster which knew that no matter how many wonderful novels you write, it was not words, but deeds, by which we measure a man.
© 2002 Mystery Lane Press