In 1988, Princeton admitted Alexi Indris-Santana into its class of 1992. An autodidact who herded cattle by day and taught himself philosophy by night, Santana was also a talented distance runner who put himself through a gruelling, self-imposed daily training regimen in the Mojave Desert. “On a visit to campus in March,” reported the admissions office the year he was admitted, Santana “slept indoors for the first time in ten years.” On campus, he preferred the hardwood floor to his standard-issue bedframe and frequently wore a cowboy hat, lending legitimacy to his identity as a rugged western cowboy. He told his peers, among other things, that he spoke French fluently, had starred in a Peter Markle movie and had competed in the Olympics as a skier. He was a top performer on the men’s varsity track team and a member of the Ivy Club, Princeton’s oldest and most elite eating club. Each week, he held intimate champagne parties to which carefully selected female undergraduates—known as Alexi’s Harem—were invited.
Despite this less-than-patrician background, Santana earned 1410 on his SATs—well above Princeton’s average. He pulled straight As, consistently earned a spot on the dean’s list, and reportedly beat the curve on an infamously difficult freshmen chemistry exam—all while taking six or seven classes a semester at a school where the normal course load is four. Princeton’s exams “are written for babies,” he allegedly told his roommate Ben Richardson. “Princeton babies their students. It’s incredibly easy.”
He was a star, a diamond in the rough, a rugged bootstrapping incarnation of the American dream. But he wasn’t real. There was no Alexi Indris-Santana. This became apparent on 26 February 1991, when, halfway through his second year on campus, he was arrested in his Geology 316 class and charged with theft by deception for having taken scholarship money from the university under a false identity. He was ordered to repay the scholarship and sentenced to 270 days in jail, along with 100 hours of community service. Somebody from his life as a western drifter had recognized him at a track meet and reported him to the university administration, who launched an investigation into his past and found his credentials to be phony. And so, the jig was up. As quickly as he had been brought into the world, the man who had captured the hearts, minds and imagination of so many people ceased to exist. Alexi Indris-Santana was dead.
The fictitious creation of a rootless western drifter with a rap sheet as long as his muscular runner’s legs, Santana wasn’t so much a person as a character—played to the nines by James Arthur Hogue, a man whose incredible true story has been documented by David Samuels in first a New Yorker article and subsequently in a book. M. John Fayhee also wrote a detailed 2017 follow up story on Hogue in Aspen Soujourner. The 18-year-old “self-educated ranch hand who read Plato under the stars,” as Samuels puts it, was actually a 29-year-old man who spent a year in prison for bicycle theft immediately before entering Princeton.
Other than that, details about his life before Princeton are somewhat murky, though it is clear that he had carried out other impostures before the Ivy League con. In 1985, calling himself Jay Michael Huntsman, he enrolled in Palo Alto High School and ran on their track team. A disgruntled parent upset at the newcomer blowing past his own child did some research and discovered the con. Hogue left town after that. In 1987, Hogue presented himself as a Stanford PhD in bioengineering while working at Jim Davis’s Vail cross-training camp. And while he was applying to Princeton with his phony credentials, he submitted concurrent applications to Brown and Stanford.
After serving out his 270-day jail sentence for theft by deception at Princeton, Hogue, with the help of Princeton professor Giacinto Scoles, landed a job at Harvard’s Mineralogical and Geological Museum, from which he proceeded to steal more than $50,000 worth of precious gems. In 1996, he was arrested at Princeton again—this time for trespassing after hanging around the graduate college, pretending to be a graduate student. In 2007, he was sentenced to five years in federal prison for stealing all kinds of things from homes in Colorado over the previous few years. In 2017, he was arrested for squatting. He was given a six-and-a-half-year sentence for this and other crimes. At his sentencing, the presiding judge noted that, “There is no indication that Mr Hogue feels the rules apply to him.”
The Harvard heist, the business of sneaking around the graduate college and the Colorado arrest all came after he had been expelled from Princeton. Would a Princeton degree granted to Alexi Indris-Santana have enabled James Hogue to abandon his life as a western drifter and serial petty criminal and have trampolined him into a better life? It seems unlikely. Like the scorpion who couldn’t resist stinging the toad, Hogue seems incapable of not stealing and misrepresenting himself.
Following his expulsion from Princeton, some people celebrated Hogue as a tragic hero. In a 1991 opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian, Robert Tsai, who sat next to Hogue in mathematics class, referred to him as both a “serious scholar” and “Princeton’s Jean Valjean”:
For Alexi, knowledge was salvation. It was the path by which he could escape his ignoble past. Clothed in a new name [and] armed with a Princeton education … Alexi hoped to lead a life he had never known … I still can’t help but admire him, not for what he did, but for what he tried to do … He stole, he repented, and he tried to steal a new identity to lead a new life. I am glad that he was caught for the former heist, but I only wish that he could have pulled off the latter.
For Tsai, Hogue was Alexi. There was no distinction.
And there is something tragic about Hogue. He designed a better version of himself and impersonated that better self. But he couldn’t quite pull it off. And, as his long rap sheet indicates, Hogue is no hero. He lied to his friends, teammates and romantic partners.
There is no shortage of self-invention in popular American mythology. Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Theodore Roosevelt in politics, Little Richard, Nikki Sixx (né Frank Feranna) and Kanye West in music, and characters like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Horatio Alger’s protagonists are still fondly regarded by millions as self-invented rebels who designed their own characters right from the drawing board, and breathed life into them. Creating a more interesting, more successful version of yourself and toiling relentlessly to become that person can be a good thing.
Issues arise when one’s self-conception relies on constant, escalating deception, leveraged for the purposes of exploiting others, as in the case of Elizabeth Holmes. But as people like Little Richard and Kanye West show, this does not have to be the case. Self-reinvention need not involve lying about one’s past.
Another important question is whether Hogue was merely a victim of circumstance. He came of age in a society riven by class differences and a rapidly growing gap between the haves and the have nots. As a convicted criminal, when he applied to Princeton he had few prospects for social mobility that did not involve concealing his past. But this kind of exculpation ultimately denies Hogue agency.
He was a brilliant autodidact. His achievements speak for themselves. He couldn’t have cheated on every test in every class for multiple consecutive semesters. Nor could he have easily fudged his SAT scores. Getting recruited to a varsity long-distance running team at an Ivy League school is no easy feat, either. You have to be really good. And you have to train hard, which requires tremendous discipline.
In Ted Demme’s 2001 film Blow, about notorious drug dealer George Jung, the protagonist attempts to justify his behaviour to his father. “I’m really great at what I do, Dad,” he says. “I mean I’m really great at what I do.” His old man has a simple response: “Let me tell you something, George: you’d have been great at anything.” With his propensity to learn, and the discipline he brought to running, Hogue too would’ve been great at anything. He didn’t have to lie. He chose to.
Another important question relates to Princeton’s admissions requirements. If Hogue—a man without a high school diploma or any formal credentials—could excel there, why should he have been denied the opportunity to do so, and what is the point of those requirements to begin with? One takeaway from the Hogue saga is that the admissions requirements at places like Princeton are often frivolous, arbitrary and unwarranted. Hogue should have been admitted on his SAT scores alone. However, Princeton does not admit prospective applicants based solely on their grades and scores. This is perhaps why Hogue replaced his Anglo-Saxon last name with a Hispanic one (Santana) and created an outrageous backstory about overcoming tremendous hardship.
Standardized testing is not perfect, but it’s a pretty fair way to ensure equality of opportunity. When I applied to McGill University in 2017, I was admitted almost immediately on the basis of my standardized test scores alone. No recommendation letters, no essays about saving the world, no lists of extracurricular pursuits, no statements about hardship and personal growth were required: just numbers. Likewise, Australian high schoolers are admitted to university largely based upon their ATAR scores.
In America, we love a good con. We love to cheer on Bonnie and Clyde as they buck the system. But the real tragedy here is not that Hogue got caught. It’s that he believed that he needed to invent a fake identity for himself in order to get into Princeton. If we’re not willing to extend equality of opportunity to someone as intellectually gifted as he was, regardless of his background, what does that say about us as a country?