English has a lot of terms that link a name with a characteristic, such as Clever Dick, Contrary Mary and Billy No Mates.
‘Smart Alec’ can be traced back to 1865 and means someone who is a know-it-all and can be smug and superior. In the mid-1980s, Gerald Cohen put forward a new argument which turned against previous beliefs that the phrase was merely another version of ‘Clever Dick’. Cohen believed that ‘Alec’ was in fact ‘Alex’, a celebrated thief from New York in the 1840s.
Alexander Hoag worked in tandem with his prostitute wife Melinda. Together they fleeced unsuspecting visitors to the city and then shared the loot with two policemen who prevented any charges being brought. According to the New York periodical called The Subterranean, Melissa would lure her victim into her room, tell him to lay out his clothes and while she was having sex on the bed with the curtains drawn all around it, Alex would rifle through the victim’s clothes after emerging from a secret panel. Alex would then make the victim scarper by banging on the door in the guise of Melissa’s husband. The victim would leave the room before checking his possessions.
Alex and Melissa were eventually arrested.