I LOVE receiving your letters and emails and this week I am indebted to Dot and Alec for their lovely letter and funny story.
Dot and Alec have been visiting their family down south and had particularly enjoyed time with the grandchildren, one of whom was the family prankster … much like his grandad. Alec admitted to all manner of fun and mischief and Dot was charged with bringing him into line with admonitions to stop being a smart Alec. One morning, four- year- old grandson Jeremy decided to wake Grandad with an ice cube down his pyjama collar and it was Grandad’s turn to call him a smart Alec. Jeremy was now very confused … surely he meant a smart Jeremy?
So thank you Dot and Alec for inquiring about the origin of this old and curious expression.
We need to travel back in time to the 1840s in New York City where a petty criminal named Alec Hoag was making a very comfortable living managing prostitutes. Rather than risk losing his favourite to another manager, he married Melinda and they began a new scam. Now working as a twoperson team, they added pickpocketing to the crime of soliciting. Melinda would lure a customer into a dark alley and while distracting him, she’d pick his pockets and hand the proceeds to Alec. He would then raise a ruckus and the client would run away to avoid discovery before he had a chance to realise his belongings had been stolen.
This activity soon gained the attention of the law so the scam was modified. It was known as a panel scam. Melinda would lure a client back to her small apartment. She would assist him to lay his clothes carefully ( so they would not be rumpled) over a chair against the panelled wall at the head of the bed. Once she and her client were “otherwise engaged”, Alec would open a panel from the hiding space behind and steal the wallet, watch and other items. Alec would then exit the apartment and begin to bang on the door claiming ( truthfully for a change) that he was Melinda’s husband.
The police were soon advised of this scam and rather than carting Melinda and Alec off to jail, the arresting officers decided they wanted “in” on the action and began taking bribes to protect the racket. Eventually, Alec and Melinda grew tired of giving so much of “their” money to these crooked police and began holding back money, claiming business was falling off. The two policemen involved investigated and found it was not so and arrested them both, taking care to ensure no evidence led back to their bribe taking. Alec had simply become too smart for his own good and, thereafter, the crooked police would warn other petty criminals not to be like “smart Alec” and to pay their dues if they wanted to evade jail.