There is always room in life for gritty, grimy turn-of-the-century New York City, and TNT's The Alienist (series casting: Avy Kaufman & Lucinda Syson) delivers it in spades. The series, which was adapted from Caleb Carr's 1994 novel by the same name, dives into the psyche of a mysterious serial killer who is making victims of young, male sex workers in 1896. Luke Evans plays John Moore, a newspaper illustrator who finds himself sucked into the horrifying investigation. Although the story is a work of fiction, some characters are based on real figures. So, is John Moore from The Alienist based on a real person?
Well, there's no evidence the John character is based directly from any real person in history. This doesn't mean, however, that Carr wasn't possibly inspired by some real historical individuals to create the intriguing Mr. Moore. In the novel, as well as in the series, John is an illustrator for The New York Times, rather than an investigative reporter. He is somewhat secretly brought on by his friend Dr. Laszlo Kreizler to look into the grisly serial murders of boys who work in the city's brothels. Dr. Kreizler works as an"alienist," which is a term that was used to describe what today we might call a forensic psychologist. Per The New York Times, the term comes from the idea that the mentally ill, including criminals, were 'alienated' from their rightful nature."
John's official character description from the TNT website is as follows:
"John Moore is 'handsome and indolent,' according to his friend Sara Howard, and prone to melancholy as a result of a broken engagement and the loss of his younger brother. He is a society illustrator for the New York Times and a longtime friend and former Harvard classmate of the Alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. To distract Moore from salving his emotional wounds with alcohol and [sex workers], Kreizler involves him in his investigation of the brutal murders of child [sex workers]. While seeming to lack drive and meaning to his professional pursuits, Moore's social skills and charm make him an ideal accomplice to the more cerebral doctor's methods and style."
While John Moore is a fictional creation of the novelist Carr, there are certainly some similarities between his character and another famous crime reporter from the late 1800s, named Jacob Riis. Per the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Riis was a Danish immigrant who became a social reformer and groundbreaking crime reporter and photographer for the New York Tribune, around the time The Alienist (production design, 7 episodes: Mara LePere-Schloop) is set. He is remembered for exposing the severe poverty that was taking over New York City at the end of the 19th century.
It is interesting to note that John Moore's character in The Alienist is said to be friends and former classmates with Theodore Roosevelt, who was also the police commissioner at the time and is a character in the book and the show. Riis was actually also extremely close to Roosevelt, even after the latter took the highest office in the land. Riis wrote a biography of his friend, and the TRC states that they wrote letters to one another until Roosevelt's 1914 death.
So, Riis and John both investigated crimes and their underlying social issues, worked for big New York newspapers, and were personally friendly with future president Roosevelt while he was police commissioner. Moore certainly has his own individual quirks and demons that make him a compelling fictional character, and neither Carr nor TNT point to Riis as his real-life counterpart. Regardless, The Alienist has a strong base in real New York City history.