Even before the ad appeared, it created such a stir in the newsroom that the editors decided to write a front-page story about the offer, assuring it citywide attention. The headline read:
MAN WHO FELT DEPRESSION'S STING TO HELP 75 UNFORTUNATE FAMILIES:
ANONYMOUS GIVER, KNOWN ONLY AS "B. VIRDOT," POSTS $750 TO SPREAD CHRISTMAS CHEER.
The story noted that five years earlier — before the crash and the Depression — the benefactor had enjoyed all the comforts of life and "money poured in." Then the Hard Times caught up with him. Two years earlier — 1931 — he was broke and "headed into bankruptcy.
"But there were friends who believed in him," the story went on, "and creditors who had confidence that he would come back. He hung on, and fought." The story was a Depression-era parable of the Good Samaritan and a plea to others not to give up. There was also an ominous reference to the donor's "remembrance of much darker days." Just how the writer knew this much of the donor is unclear. Perhaps he was privy to the secret, or perhaps some intermediary shared this information with him.
The gift, the paper explained, was meant for those who might otherwise "hesitate to knock at charity's door for aid." Such hesitation went beyond the stigma attached to accepting charity. Canton's streets, like those of other Depression-era towns, teemed with grifters and con artists. An offer like B. Virdot's was sure to draw as much suspicion as hope. Was this stranger who hid behind a false name really on the up-and-up? To the skeptics, the paper offered words of reassurance: "This is a genuine Christmas gift, involving no strings and no embarrassment to the recipients."
"The name, 'B. Virdot,' is of course, fictitious," the paper observed. "Perhaps the name 'Kris Kringle' is fictitious too, but the genuineness of the spirit of giving he represents has never been questioned."
Not surprisingly, within two days, the post office was deluged with letters addressed to "Mr. B. Virdot, General Delivery, Canton, Ohio." And though the offer was specifically addressed to the "White Collar Man," it ignited a wave of appeals from men and women alike, from the elderly and from children.
From A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness — and a Trove of Letters — Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression by Ted Gup. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2010 by Ted Gup. Read an interview with Ted Gup.