Feb 23, 2020

What's in a Name, Smart Alec

The insult is dismissively applied to those who think they know everything. The real Alec was not.

Alec Hoag was a prominent criminal in 19th century New York. Hoag’s wife, Melinda, disguised herself as a prostitute. While the johns were distracted, Alec pilfered through their pockets. Because Melinda could be easily identified and to keep the business flowing, the police received a portion of the profits from the stolen goods.

Hoag improved upon his scheme with a move called “the panel game.” In the middle of a tryst, Alec again took the valuables out of the discarded clothes of the unsuspecting mark. He then barged in the room accusing the man of sleeping with his wife. The adulterer would pick up their clothes and escape without thinking of their missing items.

Eventually, Hoag made enough that he thought he no longer need law enforcement’s help. They disagreed. Alec and Melinda were quickly arrested. Mocking him, the police ironically referred to him as “smart Alec.” The phrase entered the lexicon shortly after.

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