Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was first published today in 1843.
It’s as classic a Christmas story as there is: with some otherworldly help, cold-hearted Ebeneezer Scrooge finally sees the error of his miserly ways and learns to treat others with kindness and generosity just in time for December 25th.
The character of Scrooge is said to be based on a real life person, though which person it was that inspired the story depends on who’s telling the story.
One candidate is Ebeneezer Scroggie.
Supposedly Dickens came across his gravestone and thought it read “mean man.”
He wondered how awful a person would have to be to have it written on their gravestone that they were “mean,” which back then meant “cheap.”
But the tombstone actually read “meal man”; Scroggie he sold corn for a living, and while he was said to be well-off like the fictional Scrooge, he was neither cheap nor cold hearted.
He loved throwing wild parties and, to put it very mildly, he was handsy.
It’s hard to be sure how much of his story is true; the gravestone that supposedly inspired Dickens either disappeared or was never there in the first place.
But there’s plenty of evidence for another possible real life Scrooge: John Elwes.
He was so well known that Dickens wrote about him in books and letters.
Elwes inherited a huge fortune as a young man and then proceeded to spend as little of it on himself as possible.
He wore ragged clothes that he refused to replace.
He went to bed when it got dark so he didn’t waste money on candles.
And he ate food that was so old virtually anyone else would’ve thrown it out.
One legend has it that Elwes once took food from a rat!?!
Now John Elwes was also reportedly quite generous to his friends; there’s another legend about how he loaned a friend thousands of pounds to bet on a horse race.
And Elwes invested in a number of construction projects in London.
Some of the buildings are still standing.
But when it came to himself, he remained cheap his whole life: when he was elected to Parliament his fellow lawmakers said they didn’t have to worry about Elwes being a turncoat – since he only owned one suit.
Scrooge was so cheap that in the book he has a little saucepan of gruel, but the Library of Congress says that actually wasn’t his Christmas Eve dinner.
Back then, people thought gruel was good medicine for a cold, so Scrooge was basically taking medicine before bed.
His actual meal, they say, was probably the stuff Scrooge suggested caused him to see ghosts: “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”
Campaign To Honour Real-Life Ebenezer Scrooge John Elwes (Huffington Post)
Revealed: the Scot who inspired Dickens’ Scrooge (The Scotsman)
Image by Charles Dana Gibson; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Nigel Cholmeley-Jones via Creative Commons