Monday, March 21, 2016

Clever Alexander

When I was young and sassy, my mother would often tell me, “Don’t be such a smart aleck.” I knew exactly what she meant, but it never occurred to me to ask who Aleck was or why I was being compared to him. Now, it turns out, Professor Gerald Cohen of the Missouri University of Science and Technology has discovered the original actual smart Aleck was a 19th-century pimp.

Defined as a “bumptious, conceited wise guy,” who is too smart for his own good, smart Aleck (or Alec) first appeared in print in 1862 in a Nevada newspaper, referring to a know-it-all convict. It all started with Alexander Hoag, born in New York in 1809, who became a successful confidence man. Known as Alec, Hoag set up a prostitution business with his wife, Melinda. Their scheme was for Melinda to lure a customer into a dark alley, distract him by embracing and fondling him, and while he was in the throes of erotic ecstasy, pick his pocket and pass the loot to her husband lurking in the shadows. 

Some of the customers didn’t care for this kind of gratification, and they reported the Hoags to the police. To protect his business, Hoag offered to pay the cops  a share of his loot, and he found a few who gladly accepted his largess in exchange for leaving him alone. Now emboldened by police protection, Hoag refined the operation into a more elaborate ploy.  In a specially constructed room, as an 1844 book by George Wilkes explains:

“Melinda would make her victim lay his clothes, as he took them off, upon a chair at the head of the bed near a secret panel, and then take him to her arms and closely draw the curtains of the bed.  As soon as everything was right and the dupe not likely to heed outside noises, Melinda would give a cough, and the faithful Alec would slyly enter, rifle the pockets of every farthing or valuable thing, and finally disappear as mysteriously as he entered.”

Greedy Alec decided to increase his profits by short-changing the crooked cops, and he began to lie about the amount of his hauls. When the cops found out (as cops always do), they arrested Hoag and he soon found himself behind bars for a long stretch. With typical police humor, the officers began referring to Hoag ironically as “smart Alec,” implying that he was too smart for his own good. Within a decade, the term had spread to general use, and it is with us till today.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has sometimes been called a smart Aleck, which he says is better than being called a dumb Aleck.

                        A Parisian pimp named Alec,
                        Determined to downplay the phallic,
                                    Offered quiche by the slice
                                    In each hooker’s price,
                        For he thought that was suitably Gallic.

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