The Biggest Self-Help Charlatan You Never Heard Of

Napoleon Hill wrote a best-selling book, but he also lived a life of 'countless scams'
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 26, 2016 1:32 PM CST
Updated Dec 31, 2016 11:05 AM CST
The Biggest Self-Help Charlatan You Never Heard Of
Did Hill offer the steps to success or utter nonsense?   (Getty Images)

Long before Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins started preaching about how to be the best you possible, Napoleon Hill was peddling his own self-help mantras, penning 1937's Think and Grow Rich and inspiring not just cult-like behavior, but an actual cult. Matt Novak dives into Hill's jaw-dropping backstory for Gizmodo's Paleofuture, including how 2006's The Secret basically lifted many of the ideas—including achieving success through concentrated visualization—from Hill's best-selling tome, which Novak says is still disseminated in "certain business and real estate circles like some kind of ancient text." But Hill was an often lonely and depressed "fraud who by hook and by crook was constantly reinventing himself" and a "charlatan through and through." Novak points out how Hill said he'd advised both FDR and Woodrow Wilson and interviewed Andrew Carnegie, putting out a book based on that supposed meeting—all claims that Novak says were shady.

Hill was also involved in "countless scams" in which his business associates apparently stole from him; crumbling businesses, including failed attempts at magazine publishing and running a candy company; and two short-lived schools that critics said were swindling people. He was married at least five times, once announced a scheme to adopt 15 children (a plot to keep book sales going that never came to fruition), and was involved with the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians cult on Long Island, which used his writings as a focal point and attempted to raise an "immortal" baby of whom Hill was the godfather. Novak says Hill was a man who was "always dancing the thin line that separated brilliant marketing technique and outright fraud." Novak even manages to show the two degrees of separation between Hill, who died in 1970, and Donald Trump. More on Hill's scandalous story here. (Read more Longform stories.)

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