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Horatio Alger festival roiled by abuse claims

A riches-to-rags story could be unfolding in Horatio Alger’s hometown, where leaders are considering dropping Alger’s name from the festival next year because of allegations of pedophilia against the 19th-century children’s author.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A riches-to-rags story could be unfolding in Horatio Alger’s hometown.

As this Boston suburb gets ready for its 11th annual Horatio Alger Street Fair, town leaders are considering dropping Alger’s name from the festival next year because of allegations of pedophilia against the 19th-century children’s author.

In the 1860s, Alger quietly resigned as a Unitarian minister at a church on Cape Cod after he was accused of assaulting two boys — an incident that is old news to literary scholars but came as a surprise to some civic leaders in Marlborough.

“This was an absolute shock to me,” said school board member Joe Delano. “That’s a sad world, goodness gracious.” Delano, the father of three girls, said: “I’m confident the city will change the name next year.”

The dispute has come up at the same time the City Council in this community 25 miles west of Boston is considering an ordinance that would ban sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, day care centers or anywhere else children gather — effectively putting 95 percent of the city off limits.

Rags to riches to revulsion?
Marlborough officials said it is too late to change the name of this year’s Oct. 1 festival because the promotional materials are already printed, but Mayor Nancy Stevens plans to push for a new name next year, her spokeswoman said.

“It is a great event for children,” spokeswoman Karen Kisty said. “Entertainment comes to town. In order to keep that spirit, she would be a proponent” of changing the name of the festival, which includes street performers, music, a chowder fest for adults, and games and face painting for children.

Alger, who grew up in Marlborough, is remembered for more than 100 novels about boys who go from rags to riches by working hard, often under the tutelage of wealthy men. Alger also is credited with helping to improve working conditions for youngsters.

The festival is organized by the Marlborough Regional Chamber of Commerce in cooperation with city. Janet Bruno, chairwoman of the chamber’s fair committee, told The MetroWest Daily News that the panel looked into the allegations nearly a decade ago and found that they were never proved in a court of law.

Alger’s biography on the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Web site describes complaints lodged against him when he was a minister in Brewster in 1866. It said he did not contest them, and left town.

Author accused of ‘revolting crime’
In letters now housed at the Harvard Divinity School, Brewster church officials wrote to church higher-ups in Boston, complaining of Alger’s “abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys,” according to Swarthmore College professor Carol Nackenoff, who has studied Alger. Alger’s father, himself a Unitarian minister, promised that his son would resign and never again work in the church.

“I believe the complaint was not baseless,” Nackenoff said.

Nackenoff said there is no known correspondence from Alger himself regarding the allegations, which were essentially hidden until about 1980 or so, when some Alger biographies came out.

She said Marlborough should not change the name of the fair.

“He was an important literary figure who I think we should celebrate,” Nackenoff said.

After leaving Brewster, Alger moved to New York and rose to fame with books including “Luck and Pluck” and “Tattered Tom.” He died in 1899 and was buried in Natick.

Alger’s descendents upset
Alger’s great-great-great niece Augusta Alger Price, 87, said she had never heard of the allegations.

“That’s not something we have in our family lore,” she said. “I would like to think that they keep the Horatio Alger name for the good he did, for exposing the plight of poor boys on the street.”

Gary Brown, chairman of the Marlborough Historical Commission, said had Alger been accused today, he would have been prosecuted. “Even the U.S. Postal Service was kind of duped,” he said.

The Postal Service issued a stamp in 1982 to mark the 150th anniversary of Alger’s birth. At the time, the post office noted that Alger’s 1872 novel “Phil the Fiddler” helped expose forced labor involving boys and led to the formation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Postal Service spokeswoman Toni DeLancey said she did not know whether postal officials 24 years ago were aware of the allegations against Alger.

Lifelong Marlborough resident Patricia Foti, whose two grown children and two granddaughters plan to go to the fair, said Alger’s name should not be dropped from the event.

“It was just hearsay. To ruin a name like that is disgusting. It’s just terrible,” said the 53-year-old health care worker. “I know there are people that are pedophiles. Do something about those people. Never mind Horatio Alger.”