On New Year’s Day in 1844, Charles Wilson was born to Protestant parents in New York City. His father sold fruit on the street, and his mother worked odd jobs as a seamstress. Charles grew up poor, in a tenement building on the Lower East Side.
With four younger siblings, Charles had to grow up fast so he could work to help support the family. At the age of nine, he began helping his father sell fruit, and by the time he was twelve, he had secured an apprentice position with a local cigar maker. Every afternoon, Charles would help his father on the street, and every evening he would learn the art of making cigars from his mentor. But in the mornings, Charles would practice writing and do Bible study with his mother and siblings. Despite their financial struggles, the Wilson’s valued reading and writing, and taught their children about Christianity from an early age. When Charles was nineteen, he started selling cigars on his own, and he managed to save enough money to rent his own apartment at 72 Forsyth Street in Chinatown.
He used the money he made selling cigars to pay rent and buy food, and gave what was left to his parents and siblings. He remained very religious into his adult life, never drinking or smoking, and attending church every Sunday. On one of those Sundays, he met a young woman named Alice Scott. Charles began courting Alice, and after a few months he asked her father for permission to marry her. Charles married Alice in 1865, at the age of twenty-one. They had three children together, one son and two daughters. Charles was very devoted to Alice, so much so that he had her initials, “A. S.” tattooed on his left arm, so he would always have her with him. Despite his love for her, however, Charles did not make enough money to support his family well. He began pickpocketing a bit uptown, around 42nd Street, in the hope of getting something valuable, so he could then sell it and get additional money. He really wanted to get Alice something nice for Christmas, but since he couldn’t afford anything, he tried to steal a necklace from a jewelry store window. Unfortunately, he was caught, and on January 6, 1871, Charles Wilson was sentenced to five years in Sing Sing Prison for grand larceny.