Napoleon Hill is the most famous conman you’ve probably never heard of. Born into poverty in rural Virginia at the end of the 19th century, Hill went on to write one of the most successful self-help books of the 20th century: Think and Grow Rich.
In fact, he helped invent the genre. But it’s the untold story of Hill’s fraudulent business practices, tawdry sex life and membership in a New York cult that makes him so fascinating.
That cult would become infamous in the late 1930s for trying to raise an “immortal baby”. But even those who know the story of Immortal Baby Jean may not know that the cult was inspired by Hill’s teachings, practically using his most famous work as their holy text. Don’t worry, the whole story of Napoleon Hill only gets weirder from there.
Modern readers are probably familiar with the 2006 sensation The Secret, but the concepts in that book were essentially plagiarised from Napoleon Hill’s 1937 classic Think and Grow Rich, which has reportedly sold over 15 million copies to date. The big idea in both: The material universe is governed quite directly by our thoughts. If you simply visualise what you want out of life, those things and more will be delivered to you. Especially if those things involve money.
The past few decades have been a profitable era for all sorts of self-help and business success books. Napoleon Hill blazed a trail for an entire industry. But Napoleon’s early work is seen as “the source” when people get deep into self-help and business success literature. Hill’s Think and Grow Rich is passed around in certain business and real estate circles like some kind of ancient text. In fact, when The Secret emerged on the scene in the mid-2000s, countless entrepreneurial writers would pen their own books, pointing to the works of Napoleon Hill as the true basis for what The Secret called the Law of Attraction.
You can see the influence of Hill in everything from the success sermons of Tony Robbins to the crooked business dealings of Trump University. In fact, you can draw a direct line to Donald Trump’s way of thinking through Norman Vincent Peale, an ardent follower of Napoleon Hill. Reverend Peale, author of the 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking, was Donald Trump’s pastor as a child.
“You always, when the service was over, you said, ‘I’d have sat there for another hour,'” said Trump of Peale. “There aren’t too many people like that. It wasn’t the speaking ability, it was the thought process.”
The legend of Napoleon Hill has grown and morphed over the years. He really did live an extraordinary life, just not the life that his thousands of disciples over the years have claimed. It’s just too bad that Hill spent most of his life as an utter fraud — a fraud who by hook and by crook was constantly reinventing himself.
Napoleon Hill’s Wikipedia page sometimes warns that it’s written like an advertisement. Which pretty much hits the nail on the head. Hill’s entire life was an advertisement; one that spoke of honour and taught that if people visualised their dreams and narrowed down their own purpose in life, good things would come to them. And if the lessons in Hill’s writings “work” for some people, I say good for them. I’m not here to say that there’s nothing to be learned from some of Hill’s writings — especially those that speak of self-confidence, being kind to others and going the extra mile for something you believe in. But the real story behind Napoleon Hill’s life is long past due.
After countless hours of research, I still feel like I’ve captured just a mere glimpse of the complex man that was Napoleon Hill. But it’s a glimpse that I share in the interest of uncovering Hill’s real life; a life that has been hidden to so many lost souls looking for answers in a confusing world seemingly without order or meaning.
Hill was a product of the late 19th century New Thought movement and the magic that came along with believing that mere thoughts could move mountains, or at the very least cure cancer. And after Napoleon Hill’s death in 1970, practitioners of the Prosperity Gospel would offer little but empty promises for their own enrichment. Somewhere in between we have the life of Napoleon Hill.
By Matt Novak / Gizmodo