The Magician's Magician
Back in the early seventies, not long before Ricky Jay would write his break-out book about "Cards as Weapons " , he was one of my students in a Cornell freshman course called "Writing from Experience". He had already experienced freshman life at a few other colleges, and would spend only slightly longer at Cornell than Houdini spent chained in a coffin at the bottom of New York Harbor.... but before slipping out, Richard Jay did submit one piece of writing: the monologue of a freak-show barker who pulls us in, only to violate our willing suspension of sympathy, by making it perfectly clear that WE the drooling gapers are the true Freaks... fascinated by the projections of of our own misshapen souls. It wouldn't have gone over well at the Freak Show, but the truth is beautiful enough, so I read it to the class.
Ricky Jay moved on to tending bar and throwing cards at the Royal Palm bar in Collegetown, learned writing and magic from books and mirrors ; later published, not only "Cards as Weapons", but also scholarly articles and coffee- table books on magicians, freaks and prodigies, He appeared occasionally as a writer and a subject in the New Yorker. He played a card-shark and other under-world devils in the movies. and advised the movie industry itself about the business of illusion, through his consulting business, "Deceptive Practices".
In fact, Ricky Jay must be the best known magician after Harry Potter, and one of the best card handlers ever ........ but his own role model , the magician's magician, and the ultimate Expert at the card table, seems to be the great and mysterious S. W. Erdnase.
Or rather, the man who, under that name, wrote the classic book on card handling , which is generally published as "The Expert at the Card table," although the original title was "Artifice, Ruse and Subterfuge at the Card Table a Treatise on the Science and Art of Manipulating Cards...... " Erdnase enthusiasts in the online magic forums refer to it simply as "The Expert " or "Erdnase", as if the book were the man.
Whoever S.W. Erdnase really was, he had a great cloak of invisibility. More than a hundred years since the publication of the book , magicians have not been able to agree on just who wrote it. That question would be less important if the book itself were not an extraordinary piece of literature.
The title page is a full spread and leaves absolutely no doubt what it is about.
The preface of the book takes up where the title left off and then spills generously into an introduction: all so sage, wry, and humorous that some Erdnasians have convinced themselves that the man was actually Mark Twain ..... even though everybody knows , or else should know, that Mark Twain was actually Sam Clemens; and Clemens himself was half Huck Finn, and half Tom Sawyer:
"We betray no confidences in publishing this book, having only ourselves to thank for what we know. Our tuition was received in the cold school of experience. We started in with the trusting nature of a fledgling, and a calm assurance born of overweening faith in our own potency. We bucked the tiger voluntarily, and censure no one for the inevitable result. A self-satisfied unlicked cub with a fairly fat bank roll was too good a thing to be passed up. We naturally began to imbibe wisdom in copious draughts at the customary sucker rates, but the jars to our pocketbook caused far less anguish than the heartrending jolts to our insufferable conceit. After the awakening our education progressed through close application and constant study of the game, and the sum of our present knowledge is proffered in this volume, for any purpose it may answer, to friend and foe, to the wise and the foolish, to the good and the bad, to all alike, with but one reservation,--that he has the price".
The author can be found right there in his book, unless the book is artless. "All art is autobiography", wrote the Erdnase investigator, David Alexander, suggesting that he could cut a decent profile of the Erdnase author from the evidence of the book. Alexander had actually worked for years as a private investigator, part of the time contracted to the Los Angeles
police department, plus he had many years of experience as a stage pickpocket, a card and coin handler, free-hand silhouette cutter , curator, editor, and writer. Alexander was the official biographer of the Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. And he published (under his own name) a little book on the art of picking pockets..... not available outside the brotherhood of magicians. As a volunteer enforcer of professional ethics, he had spent many years tracking and exposing various frauds who used tricks of the profession to defraud widows and others willing to suspend disbelief and pay money for messages from the dead. Stage magic is a work of fiction, and lies are the worst enemy of fiction. So a fully qualified and motivated inside expert was on the Erdnase case.
Others had already observed that Erdnase is not a real name at all........ but that S.W. Erdnase spelled backwards, is E. S. Andrews.
As a matter of fact, an E.S. Andrews did exist in the general area and time in which the Erdnase book was published; and this person was known to gamble.
Many Erdnase seekers have needed to look no further.
Martin Gardner, the long time Scientific American puzzle-master, who wrote the introduction to a modern edition of The Expert and co-authored a book with two others on Erdnase, argued that Erdnase was Milton Franklin Andrews: a small-time gambler and card-shark who had dropped out of school , lived with his mother, and at the age of thirty- three, having been run to ground due to his crooked dealings, shot himself .
But Alexander insisted, and it is easy to agree, that a destitute, small time gambler under the age of thirty could NOT have written lines like this:
"The vagaries of luck or chance have improved the professional card player with a certain knowledge that his more respected brother of the stock exchange possesses, viz.--manipulation is more profitable than speculation; so to make both ends meet, and incidentally a good living, he also performs his part with the shears when the lambs come to market."
Before David and Richard Kyle, who assisted him , had begun any serious investigations, others had observed that the the name S.W. Erdnase can also be read as an anagram of W. E. Sanders. David began investigating a W. E. Sanders who was a copper miner on several levels, the son of a Montana Senator, and in the right places at the right time. He had studied German, Greek and Shakespeare in the East, on his way to becoming a mining engineer, mine owner, and oil explorer, caereering for many years through the mountain West from Chicago to California.
Notice, as did Alexander, that in the German language, which likes to join words end to end, Erdnase means "Earth Nose".
Read Sanders diaries and you will note one entry that lists the items he has packed for an up-coming trip, including five packs of cards.
In nineteen ninety-one Alexander published an article on the Sanders/Erdnase connection in the magicians journal Genii, titled:
" The Magician as Detective
New light on Erdnase " .
He also presented his conclusions at a magicians convention in Los Angeles, profiling a man clever enough to have deliberately made the fake backward spelling shift to lead attention away from the anagram. Ricky Jay, who himself has said that he doesn't like to offer himself around among clustering magicians.... happened to be there anyway, came up to David after the talk, and complemented him on the presentation.
But David hadn't convinced all of those who were partial to an explanation involving one of the Andrews suspects, Just wanted it to be Mark Twain, or preferred the ongoing mystery.
David Alexander continued his Erdnase research, performing as a magician, and putting together a fine collection of works by mostly twentieth century silhouette cutting by his mentor and others.
In 2007 he and his wife Cassidy moved to Aurora Illinois, where a friend had recruited him to help reorganize and "fix" a new hands-on science museum. Cassidy is a professional portrait artist, who, as a volunteer, working on short notice , started doing portraits of slain Chicago police officers. Portraits with an illusion of three dimensions , blood in the cheeks, and light in the eyes. She could do great wanted posters.
But no sooner was the science museum on a new track, than the Great Recession hit, funding was cut....and of course the museum was running and didn't need to be set up anymore anyway.... so David was freed to pursue Erdnase.
The Vagaries of Luck
David Alexander, whom I never actually met, graduated from the same high school in the same year as Kristal Forest, to whom I was once married.
Looking at his high school memorial page he noticed that Kristal was listed as deceased or missing, so he went to Google and soon came up with my blog post regarding her, which you might read some day : http://dogs-plot.blogspot.com/2010/08/kristal-forest-dali-lama-and-me.html
A few years ago, Kristal disappeared out in Arizona, and was presumed to have been murdered.
But he didn't write to me as Detective/ magician, about the mystery of her vanishing. We were already fairly sure her murderer was in jail already, for other crimes. It was as writer to writer, he wrote. He recognized the difficulty of the subject, and said that he had shared my blog posts with a few friends students as a model of good writing.
If I wanted to ease up close to a writer and pick his pocket, I might say things like that. I trusted him anyway,
That began an exchange of emails about family secrets, Manachian characters, borderline personalities, writing, and magic.
His emails to me sometimes ended only because Cassidy had dinner ready.
December 2010 came and I hadn't heard from David in a month or more, so I went to his Facebook page.
His magician friends had been posting there, giving bits of information.
One day David and Cassidy had driven to a rental property they owned, where the tenant had reported a leak in the ceiling, David went up to the attic to investigate, and he didn't come down.
An uninsulated water pipe in the cold attic had burst and wet the wiring, which was apparently also poorly insulated, causing death by electrocution, though it took six weeks to be recognized as the official cause of death.
A meaningless dead end, but hard to get out of my mind......especially since I am actually a roofer, If I had been a REAL life friend and lived in Aurora, Illinois instead of Aurora, New York....I could have been the man in the attic.
Dead-end thinking, and that will be the end of it, but when you die, you begin to reappear in stories, and after David died he continued to be cited in the Genii Erdnase forum. David had discovered that Sanders onced served as librarian of the Montana Historical society, where he was in charge of arranging the Society publications. It was that fact especially which motivated Marty Demerest and others to extend David's investigations.
Eventually, Genii magazine published an article by Marty Demerest with more details about Sanders and an endorsement of Sanders as the Erdnase candidate.
W.E. Sanders died in 1935 out in Berkley California, where he was last involved in oil exploration.
Here's a picture of him as a young man in Montana, sitting on seems to be a buffalo robe thrown over a shipping trunk.. What are those white dots all over is suit? Is that beard for real? What arcane symbol is on his tie? Somebody should write a book about that Wag.
So how could David Alexander solve the Erdnase mystery a few years ahead of the Scientific American puzzle master and way ahead of so many other people who had given a lot of thought to the question?
David Alexander claimed that he always used " Occam's razor " in his investigation.
Occams razor, as you learned long ago, and I learned recently, is the basis of the scientific method. A common summation of William from Ockam's alleged rule, is that the simplest explanation of anything is generally the right one. But the text by William of Ockam can be disappointing, because it mentions no razor, and William didn't have just one simple, clean-cutting rule. As Alexander points out, when you proceed from a working assumption, but encounter anomolies, you might need a more complex explanation.
Seek endless coincidence, says Alexander. That's a good and simple rule; it stands by itself.
Those are just the rules of common sense and open mindedness, but everyone says and agrees that common sense and open mindedness are rare. It takes a strong minded person like you, me, or David Alexander, one who is "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" ............. as John Keats said.
He called that high tolerance for ambiguity " Negative Capability".
But Keats himself pointed out in the same sentence, that when this particular genius is followed closely, beauty overcomes all other considerations: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" said Keats, or at least his Grecian Urn did.....and anyway T.S. Eliot dismissed the line as a crock of un-poetry, empty of meaning. And you wouldn't think it a particularly useful working basis for science or police procedure.
And then you might need to think again.
It is a really cool and convenient coincidence that Martin Gardner ( the math puzzler and Erdnase expert we spoke of, who coauthored the book we have not read, that proposed one of the Andrews candidates as the true wizard of Erdnase) wrote an article in the Scientific American, with the title "Is Beauty Truth and Truth Beauty?"
In fact, that very question was a long running theme of Gardner's career at the Scientific American. The idea would seem to violate the traditional separation of Art and Science, but we learn from Gardener and from the book he reviews that in modern science, as in the complex simplicity and invisible symmetry of nature, beauty IS truth.
All is endless fractal coincidence; the parts continually resemble the whole, as the atom resembles the solar system. O.M.G !
That Beauty is Truth is good to know, even if the meaning keeps clouding into ambiguity, and even if it is not necessarily ALL you need to know for life here below.
The Real Alexander
Who was the real David Alexander? How should I know? How should I who never met him, know what to make of the fact that his name happens to be a reverse, trans-gender shift of the name of Alexandra David, who wrote and published under her married name, Alexandra David Neel, one of my favorite books -- "Magic and Mystery in Tibet " in which she witnesses Yogis who can melt blocks of ice by sitting on them, and other marvels? Which makes me wonder who was David Alexander that he he could sit on the couch with his friend for half an hour, talking of this and that.... and then suddenly pull a five pound block of ice from under his hat? And how did he manage, at will, to pull a bird cage out of his pants? Was there a bird in it? Was it alive?
Why a bird cage of all things? Why did he do magic anyway?
Well, who wouldn't, except that they couldn't?
Given a mentor or two, some professional secrets, a lot of practice and fake confidence, even a shy boy like me might be able to get a traveling magician gig and use it as a cover for free range secret agent work in ports around the world, making new friends squeal with delight , and making fools of spies, impostors, hecklers, and common pests, all by means of subterfuge, ruse, and artifice........able to steal the shirt off a man's back, to profile a suspect with just scissors and paper, to communicate across time and space, and to confront massive ambiguity, without taking it too seriously.