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Charles F. Haanel Biography: Story of His Life & Lessons

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Friday, December 15, 2023

Charles F. Haanel has a fascinating story — it’ll help you learn where he came from and who he really was!

There are two things that set Charles F. Haanel apart from most other personal development gurus.

  • ​His goal was making other people rich – not himself
  • ​His first attempts at making other people rich almost landed him in jail

In the past 100 years we’ve known about Charles F. Haanel and The Master Key System through the people who are crazy about it – people like Napoleon Hill, Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie, Rhonda Byrne of The Secret, Terry Crews and many more.

But we’ve never really known much about Haanel himself.

I was convinced I’d find something amazing if I looked into his past…

And what I found blew my mind.

For the first time we’ve charted Charles Haanel’s rise from an office boy in St Louis to becoming the president of one of America’s largest corporations – in the process building one of the craziest investment schemes of the 20th century.

Read on for the story of Charles F. Haanel’s life and the valuable lessons inside it!

PART 1: The Visionary Businessman from St Louis

I want to take you on a quick tour of Charles F. Haanel’s early life.

A longer biography can be found at – but I wanted to share some amazing discoveries that paint a clearer picture of the man.

This is Charles Haanel’s early life and some never-before-seen insights into his life before The Master Key System.

The ‘Office Boy’

Charles Francis Haanel wasn’t born into wealth.

His father, Hugo Haanel, was a teacher at a school in St Louis and there were seven young mouths to feed.

Charles got his first job at the National Enameling and Stamping Company as an ‘office boy’ in 1886 and he worked there until 1901 – when he was 35 years old.

By 1901 Charles was married (to Esther Martha Smith) and had four children: Jennie (1889), Esther (1892), Walter (1894) and Edith (1898).

Building a Six-Figure ‘Side-Hustle’

But that’s not the whole story.

I found Charles F. Haanel had a ‘side hustle’ – this changes everything we know about him.

Looking through newspaper archives I found an advert that tells us this side-hustle was making six figures per year, and probably around $400,000.

The advert is from 1895.

$400,000 in 1895 is about $14.5 million today.

But the company was established in 1884 (when Charles was just 18) so it doesn’t add up with the timeline we thought we knew about him.

Did he start the company?

It’s unlikely.

Haanel didn’t go to college and we know he got his first job in 1886 – two years after the founding of the company.

Did he buy the company out?

It’s unlikely based on the small salary he earned as an ‘office boy’ and four young children to feed.

So how did he take over the business?

What’s more likely is that Charles F. Haanel had begun developing his mindset skills – and the company’s former owners liked his attitude so much they let him run the ship and make everyone a bunch of money.

It’s a pattern that repeats itself time and time again in his life.

Why is this important?

For two reasons:

  • ​We finally know where Charles F. Haanel’s story begins
  • ​We can see living the lessons in the The Master Key System – i.e. Your ‘mental attitude’ is all you need to transform your life and become rich and successful
The Master Key System

Becoming a Top ‘St Louis Capitalist’

Charles F. Haanel radically changed his destiny.

An article from the St Louis Post in 1901 named him among a group of top ‘St Louis capitalists’ who had invested in a railroad from Missouri to the gulf coast in Texas.

Think about it.

Biographies suggest Charles F. Haanel quit his ‘office boy’ job in 1901.

So… how was he mixing with the top businesspeople in Missouri and investing tens of thousands to build a railroad at the same time?

The answer comes back to the core lesson in The Master Key System.

Change your thinking and change your circumstances.

But the truth is, Charles F. Haanel wasn’t just mixing with capitalists to show off his success or prove how far he’d come.

He was hatching a plan.

And his idea was so crazy and unique it made Haanel’s corporation famous (and infamous) from New York to Los Angeles for the next decade of his life.

But… it appears the capitalists he mixed with didn’t share his vision.

The ‘Plantation Promoter’ Who Wanted to Make Everybody Rich

In the very late 1800s, Charles F. Haanel had an idea to make a heck of a lot of money.

Not just for him.

He wanted to help thousands of people in St Louis never worry about money again.

It was a genius idea.

But to do it, he needed to convince a group of ‘top capitalists’ from St Louis to buy up acres and acres of land in Mexico and let Haanel run the entire marketing strategy.

The land would be used to grow rubber.

Rubber was a new ‘wonder’ product but trade was controlled by the British in southeast Asia.

Charles F. Haanel chose Oaxaca (Wa-ha-ca) in southern Mexico because it could support rubber trees and had the only train line connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean in the years before the Panama Canal.

The international shipping lines were also connected to St Louis, via the trainline he had invested in.

It appears Haanel got an initial $125,000 in funding – around $4.5 million today.

you can work your own miracles

In 1899 Haanel set up the ‘Oaxaca Coffee Culture Co.’ and quickly made plans to grow 100,000 rubber trees, build a huge sugar refinery, buy up acres of sugar cane fields and plant 1 million coffee trees.

But he didn’t just sell wealthy capitalists on the idea…

He wanted thousands of Americans to get in on it too.

Here’s what he did.

Instead of requiring ordinary people to invest a risky amount of capital in stocks he sold the opportunity as a $2 monthly subscription.

Small investors would receive annual payouts from the profits – and there was no barrier to entry.

It also meant his companies had ‘regular monthly income’ to develop the plantations.

you can work your own miracles

Newspapers as far as Los Angeles started picking up on the ‘millions’ flowing to Mexico.

you can work your own miracles

Soon Charles F. Haanel controlled a number of companies growing sugar, coffee and rubber in the Tehuantepec Isthmus in Oaxaca:

  • ​The Continental Sugar Refining Co.
  • ​The Oaxaca Coffee Culture Co.
  • ​The Mount Rosa Land and Cattle Co.
  • ​The Iolita Plantation
  • ​The Pittsburgh Plantation Co.
  • ​The Jumiapa Plantation
  • ​The Mount Verde Plantation

In 1905, all these businesses were consolidated under the Continental Commercial Company which by then had a combined capitalization of $2.5 million (about $100 million today) and was one of the largest business conglomerates in America at the time.

Charles F. Haanel was president.

He continued to advertise the investment opportunity in newspapers, journals and magazine ads across America through inventive tactics.

This ad below from 1905 offers readers the equivalent of $36,000 per year for as long as they lived.

This was Haanel’s ultimate plan.

But… it was all about to collapse in front of him.

you can work your own miracles

The Scandal that Changed Charles F. Haanel’s Fate

By 1913 the Continental Commercial Company was in ruins.

The story of how $3 million (roughly $110 million today) went missing from the company was frontpage news for weeks in St Louis.

Stories claimed that up to $1 million of that (around $36 million today) had been directly invested by people in Missouri.

If we consider that a single person was paying just $24 per year… that’s tens of thousands of small investors.

The articles kept pointing to Charles F. Haanel as the main ‘plantation promoter’.

So, was it all a scam?

you can work your own miracles

The truth is… Charles F. Haanel had left the company in mysterious circumstances a full three years before the assets went missing.

Newspaper stories suggest the original capitalists ‘forced him’ to resign.

These people abandoned the company’s plantations, ground trade to a halt, and they cashed out on the millions still left in the business.

I don’t know how Haanel took the fallout.

But I do know from biographies of Charles F. Haanel that he never spoke about his former companies and he never became involved in investment schemes ever again.

I think we can get two things from it:

  • ​He was a remarkable businessman, a visionary, and was passionate about improving the lives of thousands of people
  • ​He realized that investment schemes were not the answer

PART 2: Writing ‘The Master Key System’

Not even people familiar with The Master Key System know about its backstory.

But by now, you should have an amazing understanding of why he wanted to write this book.

Think about it.

One of America’s largest conglomerates and its innovative investment scheme had crashed before his eyes and made a lot of people very angry.

Not just angry – it made thousands poorer and a few capitalists richer.

Charles F. Haanel goes quiet for a number of years.

And then, around 1915, he pops up again with a brand-new method of helping people improve their lives – this time it’s going to help them in a way no outside forces can steal or destroy.

It’s an investment product.

But now the investment is in your own mindset.

A Self-help Book Like No Other

Charles F. Haanel is most associated with the ‘New Thought’ movement.

It was a philosophy that started up in America in the 19th century with philosophers like Phineas Quimby.

Quimby believed that all illness originated ‘in the mind’.

Later on, writers like Prentice Mulford introduced the idea that we can use our minds to manifest our wildest dreams – this is better known as the ‘Law of Attraction’.

Charles F. Haanel became obsessed with the idea.

He dedicated the final 30 years of his life to helping hundreds of thousands of people across America to achieve success through visualization and concentration tactics.

But he didn’t actually write The Master Key System as a book.

He sold The Master Key System as a 24-week course that came with homework and questions – he even personally corrected each person’s responses.

This sets The Master Key System apart from all other self-help books for a couple of reasons.

First of all, The Master Key System was a business.

The regular monthly income Haanel received from subscription payments meant he could afford to personally help every single person who took the course.

Also, because he could sell his 24-week course for multiple times more than the price of a book, he could build the business in a sustainable way.

That’s why from 1920-1930 the newspapers of St Louis were full of Charles F. Haanel job offers requiring expert mail order managers, stenographers and assistants.

A Marketer Way Ahead of His Time

In December 1924, Charles F. Haanel ran an advert for The Master Key System in one of the leading New Thought journals – The Nautilus.

The advert was simple.

But the last sentence is fascinating:

‘Send for a Master key booklet which will be sent without cost or obligation of any kind’.

Most modern-day marketers and business owners are familiar with a ‘lead magnet’.

It’s a free report or eBook that people can download in exchange for their email or phone number.

Yes, this ad is a 100-year old lead magnet!

But there’s more.

Within four years of running this lead magnet Charles ran a new ad in October 1928.

The ad came with a number of new inventions:

  • ​Charles Haanel stuck a price of $0.10 on the pamphlet
  • ​Charles Haanel stuck a cut-out order form on the advert

This order form is a prototype of modern-day email and contact forms – and the price of $0.10 on a lead magnet is a concept used by top marketers and called a ‘front-end offer’.

It’s amazing to see Charles F. Haanel in a completely different way: a genius marketer

He could afford to lose money by mailing out pamphlets on the front-end because he made the money on the back-end through selling his courses.

It’s literally the strategy used by modern-day info product course creators today.

It’s fascinating to see how successful Charles F. Haanel was too.

The ad below suggests more than 1 million pamphlets had been mailed out – other sources suggest the pamphlets helped to sell 200,000 correspondence courses.

These would have made Charles F. Haanel millions of dollars.

And this time, more than just making himself wealthy, Haanel’s business went above and beyond all other self-help writers to personally help every reader in their quest for success.

It was the realization of his life ambition.

And… it’s because of this we remember Charles F. Haanel as the ‘father of personal development’ and not as the scandal-struck plantation promoter of St Louis.

The Influence of The Master Key System

Finally, let’s talk about The Master Key System itself!

The core idea of the book is captured in this one short sentence which Charles Haanel calls one the fundamental ‘Natural Law’:

“The law is that thought will manifest in form.”

An extension of this law is the idea that anyone can become rich and successful by changing the quality of their thinking.

This is what Charles F. Haanel called the ‘Master Key’ to all of life.

In his words:

“This is the law by which, and through which all things come into manifestation; it is the Master Key.”

The idea has continued to influence thousands in the 100 years since its publication.

The list includes people like Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie and Claude M. Bristol.

But here’s a quick overview of people who’ve specifically named him as their inspiration.

Napoleon Hill

Six years before Napoleon Hill wrote his first major book – The Laws of Success – he wrote a letter to Charles F. Haanel.

Here’s the letter:

April 21, 1919.
Mr. Charles F. Haanel,
St. Louis, Mo.

My dear Mr. Haanel:

You probably know [...] that I began twenty-two years ago as a coal miner at a dollar a day.

I have just been retained by a ten million dollar corporation at a salary of $105,200.00 a year [...]

I believe in giving credit where it is due, therefore I believe I ought to inform you that my present success [...] is due largely to the principles laid down in The Master-Key System.


I shall cooperate with you in getting your course into the hands of the many who so greatly need your message.

Cordially and sincerely,
Napoleon Hill,
Editor, The Golden Rule

Chicago, Illinois

Rhonda Byrne

You’ve probably heard of the self-help book and film called The Secret.

The book made $300 million in sales in the first three years of publication, and turned author Rhonda Byrne into a worldwide sensation.

But the majority of The Secret can be linked back to Charles F. Haanel’s ideas.

Here are two direct quotes from the book:

In 1912 Charles Hanel described the law of attraction as “the greatest and the most infallible law upon which the entire system of creation depends.”

Visualization is a process that has been taught by all the great teachers and avatars throughout the centuries, as well as by all the great teachers living today. In Charles Haanel’s book, The Master Key System, written in 1912, he gives twenty-four weekly exercises to master visualization.

Terry Crews

The actor, TV host and former American football player Terry Crews is another Charles F. Haanel fan.

Crews often talks about his long-standing pornography addiction and attributes a lot of his success and mindset to The Master Key System.

Here he is talking to Tim Ferriss:

"I have read hundreds of personal development books, but The Master Key System is the one that clearly showed me how to visualize, contemplate, and focus on what I truly wanted. It revealed to me that we only get what we desire most, and to apply myself with a laserlike focus upon a goal, task or project. That in order to 'have', you must 'do', and in order to 'do', you must 'be' - and this process is immediate. [...] I also reread it probably once a month to keep my vision clear".

PART 3: Final Thoughts on Charles F. Haanel’s Life and Lessons

Before reading this blog you likely only knew of Charles F. Haanel as a personal development guru.

But his life tells us a different story.

Charles F. Haanel was a man who rose to the heights of success in business, only to watch his creation crumble and ordinary people lose out on their investments.

It obviously affected him as he never returned to the world of finance.

But instead of quitting, he turned his attention towards the power of ‘thought’ as the best way for anyone to manifest the wealth and success they desire in life.

I think there’s a huge lesson for us in Charles F. Haanel.

First of all, Haanel constantly repeats the message that ‘selfishness’ brings defeat.

We now know why he believed that so passionately – a group of selfish people had ruined his investment vision.

But there’s a second part to this lesson.

If you want to be successful you have to look out for your customers’ long-term success.

Haanel’s writings remain influential not just because they’re powerful, but because he built a business that helped him spread his lessons far and wide for a period of 20-30 years.

I really hope this story inspires you today.

What you’ve seen here is just scratching the surface – the deep wisdom is within the 100-year old pages of The Master Key System.

Want All Of The Master Keys!?!👇👇👇

All active Secrets of Success members get two credits every month that they can redeem to unlock exclusive courses and content in our author library?? In fact, The Master Key System from Charles F. Haanel is inside…

Here’s how to get it!

how to get master key system
  • Step 1 → Log into
  • Step 2 → Click on “Library”
  • Step 3 → Click on Charles F. Haanel
  • Step 4 → Click on The Master Key System
  • Step 5 → Click “Yes, Use 1 Credit”
  • Step 6 → Learn the secrets of success!! 🤯

Talk soon,
Russell Brunson

P.S. Not a Secrets of Success member yet? I'd love to send you your ​FREE Secrets of Success Kit that includes a copy of "Think and Grow Rich" and two UNPUBLISHED books from Napoleon Hill. After joining, follow the steps above to find The Master-Key System inside your members area.

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