Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Murder in Peekskill: A Literary Detective Story


Like many former Hudson River post-industrial towns, Peekskill, N.Y., has seen better days, With a picturesque location on hills gently sloping down to placid Peekskill Bay, it still offers picture postcard vistas. Unfortunately, in the 1950s, it participated in an orgy of urban renewal that almost destroyed its downtown.

A city since 1940, Peekskill is today enjoying a resurgence and has attracted a growing community of artists and writers, Two gems make it worth a visit: the Paramount Center for the Arts and the Bruised Apple, an old-fashioned second-hand bookstore. Browsing one day in the stacks of the Bruised Apple, I came across a 1963 biography, Rags to Riches: Horatio Alger, Jr. and the American Dream, by John Tebbel, whose credentials as professor and chairman of the Journalism Department at New York University, seemed impeccable. The price was right, and I snapped it up.

Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832-1899) is today remembered as the creator of more than a hundred nineteenth-century novels with rags-to-riches themes. In these--by pluck and luck--a poor boy achieves success, usually toward the end of the last chapter. Originally a Unitarian minister, Alger gave up preaching religion in 1866 to become a crusading author of popular books for young readers in which he preached the gospel of success through work. Alger's literary output, extraordinary in numbers yet humdrum in content, sold in the millions. He died in 1899 at the age of 67.

A Murder in Peekskill
Perusing the Tebbel book at home, my attention was drawn to an account of a murder in Peekskill. It seems that one Jeremiah Hardy had been shot and robbed. Suspicion turned on his widow, who was arrested and charged with the crime. She denied it, and told police that she had seen a prowler in the neighborhood just before her husband was murdered.

The time period was the 1890's; Peekskill, famous for its foundries and cast-iron stoves, was in its prime. A police officer making his rounds had come upon the body of a Peekskill resident, Jeremiah Hardy, who had been shot and robbed. Suspicion focused on his widow, who was arrested and charged with the crime. She denied being involved, and told police she had seen a prowler in the neighborhood just before her husband was killed. Acting on this information, Peekskill police arrested a suspect who claimed to be Horatio Alger, Jr., the writer.

A stranger in town, Alger appeared disheveled and ill. When questioned, he became incoherent. Mrs. Hardy made a positive identification, so police released her and threw Alger into jail. Before the day was over, however, the real murderer came forward and confessed to the crime, so Alger was set free. This incident had the makings of a colorful local-interest story. According to Tebbel's book, the relationship between Edith Hardy and Horatio Alger did not end there. Out walking in Peekskill one day, she met the now-free Alger and invited him home for tea. Soon Horatio was romancing Mrs. Hardy's sister, Mrs. Russel [sic] Garth, newly returned with her husband after living in Europe. A smitten Horatio pursued Una Garth all the way back to Paris, an amour that left him temporarily insane.

Something seemed amiss and unlikely here. The prudish author of so many uplifting books for children involved in a love triangle? A lifelong bachelor in his 60's competing with a husband for his attractive wife's affections? This Peekskill murder story definitely had interesting overtones.

Alger died in 1899. By piecing together the few chronological markers in the book, I concluded the incident must have happened around the mid-1890s. I enlisted the aid of Barbara Zimmer, librarian at the local history archives of the Field Library in Peekskill, who undertook a diligent search. She checked Peekskill directories of the period, but found no trace of Jeremiah or Edith Hardy. She sifted through cemetery records. She searched the genealogies of Peekskill's families, compiled by Franklin Couch. She could find no record of a Hardy family in Peekskill in the 1890s.

In the preface to his Alger book, Professor Tebbel paid tribute to the research of an earlier Alger biographer, Herbert R. Mayes, saying, "It can hardly be improved upon nearly four decades later. The primary sources of Alger material are meager, indeed, but Mr. Mayes appears to have examined all of them, and no new original material has turned up in the intervening decades." Mayes's book was obviously the next place in which to search for clues. Extremely scarce, Alger: A Biography Without a Hero had been published in 1928. The Croton Free Library successfully located a copy for me through Interlibrary Loan.

In a chapter provocatively titled "Escapade," Mayes related the Peekskill murder story and the spicy romantic interlude, as well as other facts and anecdotes about Alger in Tebbel's book. To call Tebbel's book a knockoff of the Mayes book is to label it precisely. Tebbel had done virtually no original research, but had merely reprocessed Mayes's words of thirty-five years before to avoid a charge of plagiarism. Both books shared another similarity: a lack of dates--surprising lacunae for biographies. On publication, the Mayes book had received largely favorable reviews, but sold less than 1,500 copies. As the only biography of Horatio Alger, however, it soon acquired a cachet of authenticity, becoming the primary source for articles on Alger in every major encyclopedia and in the authoritative multivolume Dictionary of American Biography.

Upon publication, the Mayes book was regarded as definitive by critics. Such acceptance came as an embarrassing surprise to the author and his publisher, posing an especially thorny problem forthe latter. "Don't miss it!" Harry Hansen, respected reviewer for The New York World, urged his readers. Hansen and other literati who had praised the book were George Macy's friends; he simply could not offend them by revealing it was meant to be a spoof. Macy decided to say nothing and count himself lucky if he recovered the costs of paper, printing and binding.

Nevertheless, some literary researchers harbored suspicions. In 1945, critic Malcolm Cowley questioned the Mayes biography, and asked for substantiation. Mayes claimed that he had based his book on Alger's private diary, which he had later turned over to the Newsboys' Home in New York City, operated by the Children's Aid Society--but the material could never be found there. Thirteen years later, Mayes alleged to a persistently inquisitive Cowley that the Alger diary actually had been contained in a series of books. Mayes so intimidated inquirers that a defeated Cowley observed in the magazine Horizon that the Mayes biography of Alger was the best available book on the subject. For more than four decades, Mayes continued to stonewall questioners when asked about his sources, always citing the now-vanished Alger diary and letters.

Mayes Tells All
Herbert R. Mayes died in 1987 at the age of 87. Before his death, he decided to come clean. First in private correspondence and later in print, he acknowledged his book was--and these are his words: "a complete fabrication, with virtually no scintilla of basis in fact. Any word of truth got in it unwittingly. I made it up out of nothing. Most of the few facts I uncovered were intentionally distorted."

In 1927, Mayes, then editor of a Hearst-owned trade magazine, The American Druggist, had proposed to fledgling book publisher George Macy that he write Alger's life story. Mayes himself was a classic Horatio Alger hero. Born in a New York tenement, he later went on to become editor of Good Housekeeping and McCall's. When he began to research the subject, however, Mayes found little solid information on which to build an Alger biography. At Alger's request, his sister had destroyed his personal papers after his death.

Mayes decided to take a friend's advice and do a takeoff on Alger--a parody. He would create a fiction, a life the real Alger never lived. His publisher was unsure such an approach would work. But after Mayes showed him the first chapters, Macy was not only satisfied, he was overjoyed. Mayes was just as happy. "Here was a project that with scant trouble I felt I could handle in a matter of months or even weeks. All I had to do was to come up with a fairy tale. No research required. Nothing required but a little imagination.

"Thus I began, and the going was easy, particularly when I decided to quote from Alger's diary. 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 sent to Alger, none of which I had ever seen. Because there had to be a few facts, I corresponded with a handful of people, interviewed a few and made a visit to South Natick (Alger's hometown in Massachusetts) for all of two days. The project was undertaken with malice aforethought--a takeoff on the debunking biographies that were quite popular in the 20's, and a more miserable, maudlin piece of claptrap would be hard to imagine."

Had Mayes dug deeper, he might have uncovered the secret that haunted Alger throughout the last half of his life. Alger had indeed abruptly given up the calling of Unitarian minister in the town of Brewster on Cape Cod, but not because he wanted to be a writer, as he claimed. In church records stored in a local bank vault, Mayes might have learned that Alger had resigned from the ministry upon being charged with pedophilia--engaging in sex acts with two young boys in his congregation--and threatened with prosecution. Alger's indiscretion was to remain hidden from public view for more than a hundred years until it was revealed by author Richard Huber in his 1971 book, The American Idea of Success. Alger left Cape Cod for New York City, where he began his successful writing career.

"As anyone who has read my book is aware," Mayes later wrote, "I made Alger out to be a pathetic, quite ridiculous character. I provided him with mistresses. I had him adopt and become quite attached to a little Chinese boy, and then had the boy killed by a runaway horse. I credited to him as a child essays and verses--never existent--that a child of ten might have written. I had Alger dreaming of a great novel that someday he would write. I put in the mind of the character I created the delusion that someday he might be President of the United States."

The Alger created by Mayes bore no physical resemblance to contemporary depictions or photographs. The real Alger was a shy little man, scarcely more than five feet tall, near-sighted, frail and sensitive. In later life, still short and still shy, he was described as pink, portly and balding--hardly anyone's image of a Lothario. Mayes lamented afterwards, "Unfortunately--how unfortunately!--the book when it appeared was accepted pretty much as gospel. Why it was not recognized for what it was supposed to be baffled the publisher and me."

How could the spurious Mayes biography have gone unquestioned for so long? There are several explanations: First, it appeared during the go-go years of the 1920's, and perpetuated Alger's image as the incurable apostle of business success. Also, few documents existed against which it could be checked. Because Mayes had avoided a sensitive area in Alger's past, surviving family members and friends did not object to his unlikely picture of Alger as a womanizer and a neurotic obsessed with getting ahead.

Surprisingly, Mayes's revelation of his astonishing literary hoax caused only a minor stir in the book world. One can only speculate how many earnest academics have written serious essays based on the false information in the Mayes book. And how many term papers by high school students incorporated the specious Alger facts now entrenched so solidly in standard reference works?

Four More Biographies
In the thirteen years between 1961 and 1974--before Mayes finally confessed to his deception--four other biographies of Alger appeared. These were Frank Gruber's Horatio Alger, Jr.: A Biography and Bibliography (1961), both fact-based and not well-received by critics; and two pseudobiographies, From Rags to Riches: Horatio Alger and the American Dream, the Tebbel 1963 work that originally sparked my curiosity and started this inquiry; Ralph D. Gardner's Horatio Alger, Jr. or the American Hero Era (1964); and Edwin Palmer Hoyt's Horatio's Boys (1974). All leaned heavily on Mayes's phony documents, invented anecdotes and fabricated facts. Not only did they fail to correct obvious distortions, they multiplied them.

So, on close investigation, a promising lead to a local-interest story about Horatio Alger, Jr., had evaporated. The murder in Peekskill turned out to be only a figment of the fecund imagination of Herbert Mayes, embellished and given extended life by four other writers. What these five authors succeeded in doing was to give the field of biography a bad name.

Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, suggested "nonfiction novel" as a category for books in which actual events are related using the devices of fiction. Using a similar new classification, perhaps librarians will find a way to shelve the three bogus Alger pseudobiographies where they belong--among works of fiction. It's the least they can do for that pink and portly little man who inspired so many young people to strive for success.


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