The Man Who Was Erdnase

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.

Postby Robert Kane » 06/25/02 10:35 PM

I recently picked up a copy of the above book written by Bart Whaley, Martin Gardner & Jeff Busby. It is well written and a very fun read.

First, I was curious about what sort of reception this book received from the magic & gambling history community when it was published in 1991?

Second, is the information published considered factual and reliable? It appears to have been well researched and carefully organized. Indeed, it appears to have been a true labor of love, especially by Gardner and Busby.

Finally, do most magic & gambling historians agree that Erdnase was a pseudonym for Milton Franklin Andrews...the notorious con man, robber and murderer?

Has additional information come to light since 1991 to further prove this point or what is the current state of knowledge or agreement on the subject?

I don't quite understand why this fascinates me so, but it does. Appreciate any thoughts.

Thanks, Robert :)
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 06/26/02 12:23 AM

Robert,

The Busby book is not the definitive answer as one would be lead to believe by reading it. Richard Hatch of H&R Books has done some extensive research in this area. His first set of findings are discussed in the December 1999 issue of MAGIC. I say "first" because he dished up another suspect at the 2001 LA History Conference, where he also went a very long way in casting doubt on Busby's conclusions. Not to leave out our beloved Genii, David Alexander has an article in the January 2000 issue that you should check out as well.

So what's the bottom-line? It's still a mystery and probably always will be.

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Postby Cugel » 06/26/02 01:31 AM

I think most people who look into this subject will agree that MFA is unlikely to have been Erdnase. (Despite Busby, and Whaley's efforts to bang a square peg into a round hole).

The only person who is known to have met Erdnase and provided a physical description was the illustrator of the book, M.D.Smith. His description does not fit Andrews at all:age height, physique, social graces. Even Gardner has since come out and admitted that MFA is not a good fit for Erdnase.

The Busby/Whaley book is still fun to read, if only for the ubiquitous catty remarks about magic celebrities.

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Postby Bob Coyne » 06/26/02 02:00 AM

I was really interested in David Alexander's theory (January 2000 Genii article) that Erdnase was Wilbur Edgerton Sanders, a mining engineer. Part of what made the theory so intriguing was that Alexander had Sanders' diary that he was in the process of going over. So there was a chance of finding more evidence/information. I was hoping, that by now, he would have published a followup article. The fact that none has appeared (that I know of) leads me to suspect there wasn't any confirming evidence in the diaries. Does anyone know the status of this line of research?
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 06/26/02 12:54 PM

David Alexander has been quite about any new developments, while Richard Hatch has had additional candidates turn up (and he lectured on one of them at the LA History Conference last November).
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Postby Denis Behr » 06/26/02 01:18 PM

Wasn't Erdnase published in 1902? Perhaps I am missing something but I wonder why the 100th birthday of that classic isn't "celebrated" here and there...
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Postby Brad Jeffers » 06/26/02 02:34 PM

I'm with you Denis - I would have thought that someone would have published a 100th anniversary edition of Erdnase. You know, a nice, high quality leather bound limited edition type of thing. As to "The Man Who Was Erdnase" - I enjoyed that book immensely! Although the authors failed to prove thier case, it was an interesting try, nonetheless. I especially enjoyed the chapter on the various editions of Erdnase. The mystery of Erdnase's identity will most likely never be solved, but mabey that's a good thing. I would love to know the truth, but then the game would be over - and I really enjoy the play!
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Postby Pete Biro » 06/30/02 10:30 PM

I think Alexander has found "the man" when he discovered the address and neighborhood as discussed in his lecture at the Conference of Magical History.

Busby's book would make a great movie! :eek:
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Postby Guest » 07/15/02 02:18 PM

Nothing really important to write, I just wanted to add, that I really love the topic, and I believe that someday we WILL know the real S.W.E. From what I remember, Alexander's article was a bit "reaching", with that "shifitng the initials of the name of the shift" stuff. Hatch seemed to have a better grasp. But now, who knows!
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Postby David Alexander » 07/27/02 11:30 AM

While I've been publicly quiet on this subject, I'm still researching it when time permits (I'm working on two other books that are designed to make me money as opposed to researching Erdnase which won't).
However, in the interim I've found additional information that I have yet to publish that adds to my candidate's case. I decided not to broadcast this at the last LA Magic History Conference because I saw no benefit in doing so.
There are many problems with Busby's book, not the least being that his case for Milton Andrews being Erdnase is a circular argument. Martin Gardner relied on Pratt's claim that Andrews was Erdnase without investigating Pratt. Richard Hatch has examined Pratt's background and with that, little or no credibility should be given to Pratt and his claim. Almost certain is that much if not all of what Pratt told Gardner came from a previously published article on Andrews that Gardner was unaware of.
Further, Busby makes statements in the book that have no supporting evidence. Making up "facts" to fit your case is not how to conduct historical research, but apparently that doesn't bother Busby.
Gardner's correspondence with the book's illustrator, Smith, shows that Martin often pushed Smith to correct his memory about Erdnase's size to correspond with Gardner's candidate who was six inches taller than the man Smith remembered.
Smith's memory was accurate on which day he met Erdnase (I examined the weather records) but is faulty in the number of drawings he recalled making for him. Smith remembered 30 (and then created a memory of how he sketched his hands and cards and then inked them in later at his studio) but the book has 101 drawings and the time necessary to produce what is in the book does not tally with Smith's memory.
It seems clear that Smith actually did nothing more than trace photographs on a light table as opposed to making sketches of Erdnase's hands from life, regardless of what the book's fly title claims. I believe I explain this in a footnote in my article.
For those of you interested, the illustrations use both Poker and Bridge-sized cards (something no one else has determined) and were taken with a camera well before Erdnase arrived in Chicago.
There's lots more to discover, but only when I have more free time, unless someone else is willing to put in the time for original research.
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Postby Guest » 07/27/02 01:40 PM

Our magical top hats off to you, David. Thank you, for fighting the good fight. Can you tell us if you think Erdnase's identity will come to light? And, what do you think of Richard Hatch's ideas? Hang in there with the research...it will make you immortal!
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Postby Bob Coyne » 07/27/02 02:02 PM

I second the thank you to David Alexander for his great research on Erdnase. It's the theory that I find the most plausible (and appealing). I only wish there were more evidence and would love to hear anything new which has come to light since the original article.
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Postby David Alexander » 07/27/02 02:34 PM

Thank you for the kind and supportive words. I appreciate them.

Re: Dick Hatch's work - while I admire Dick's tenacity, I simply cannot accept that the intelligence evidenced in the person who wrote Expert would expect to successfully hide his identity with a simple reversal of his name. Therefore, I do not accept that it was ever a man named "Andrews."

That said, I believe that he used the name "Andrews" when dealing with McKinney, the artist, and the bank where he opened a checking account. The checking account would allow him to operate at a distance, placing orders with McKinney to send boxes of books here or there, paying by check as needed. As "Andrews" is a reversal of the pseudonym, being "Mr. Andrews" was perfectly plausable and acceptable and, as best we can determine, this was another job for McKinney.

And on the Busby book: an example of making statements without supporting evidence - Busby claims that Bill Hilliar arranged for the sale of the book's printing plates from McKinney to F. Drake & Co. Where did this come from other than Busby's imagination? There is no evidence supporting that statement and simply saying it doesn't make it so.

When I pointed that out to Martin Gardner some years ago he was under the impression that McKinney was the publisher. I had to point out to him that McKinney was the printer...not the publisher. Erdnase was the publisher and consequently would own the plates. McKinney was not in the business of fronting time, money, and services to an unknown. With all self-publishing, money for services was paid in advance which meant that Erdnase owned the 205 plates created to print the book...which also explains the uncorrected errors in the body of the text as correcting them would require a completely new plate for the whole page.

At any rate, McKinney could not dispose of the plates because they did not own them.

Then there is the matter of the attempt by Drake to steal the book by recopyrighting it under the name "Robert Erdnase." The question is, of course, why didn't he proceed with that bit of literary piracy? What stopped him and why did he continue to publish the book for decades without altering the copyright designation?

...then there is the matter of what happened, or more correctly, what didn't happen in 1930 and what followed in 1937.

I think I know the details to all that, but that's a story for another day.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 07/27/02 02:39 PM

David, how can you tease us so unmercilessly?
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Postby Guest » 07/27/02 09:49 PM

You may think that I am stupid for asking, but I need someone to explain to me WHY S.W.E.'s identity is a mystery. Also, why did he write under a false name?
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 07/27/02 11:43 PM

David,

It's not at all stupid question. Only an Erdnase expert or a twisted card degenerate might know the answer. I am in no way an expert on Erdnase, so here's how I understand it:

The fact that the author wrote the book under a pseudonym is the source of the mystery. We know that Erdnase is a pseudonym because researchers like Richard Hatch and David Alexander cannot find any record of the birth or death of someone named S. W. Erdnase. So, simply put, the author never revealed his true identity.

Why he wrote under an assumed name is a matter of some speculation. While he claims in the book that he did not “betray any confidences” and only revealed artifice of his own device, many experts feel that he did betray confidences and wished to protect his identity. Some “sporting men” of the mid and late 19th and very early 20th centuries were also known for their less than sporting temperament. Simply put, the author didn't want to get whacked for exposing the stratagems of advantage players.

I recall another bit of speculation that the author was actually a member of “polite society” and did not wish to reveal the fact that he was associated with those who “bucked the tiger” (a phrase which means playing faro). This is possible because of the fact that the author was clearly well educated, and it's believed by some that he was from the Northeast (or at least the more northern part of the Midwest). By the period of time the book was written, gambling was no longer a gentlemanly pursuit, at least in that part of the country (it was still considered so, however, in parts of the South and Southwest – though it was losing favor and falling prey to “reformers” rather quickly).

The work of men like Mr. Alexander and Mr. Hatch is fascinating stuff. Busby's work does make for a very interesting *story*, but that's about it. If your thoughts have been provoked enough, I highly recommend reading many of the references cited in this thread.

If you find the whole world of 19th century gamblers intriguing, I also recommend finding a book titled “Knights of the Green Cloth; The Saga of the Frontier Gamblers” (1982; University of Oklahoma Press) by Robert K DeArment. There is absolutely NO reference to Erdnase in this book, it's just a book full of lively tales of gamblers of the old west. But while reading it, it's not difficult at all to imagine the author of “Expert at the Card Table” lurking in the midst of the “sporting” crowd.

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Postby Matthew Field » 07/28/02 08:56 AM

David Alexander -- Your work on the Erdnase mystery is much appreciated by those of us interested in magic history, and by those who consider "Expert" a seminal book (who doesn't?).

I hope you'll post (or submit to Genii) your thoughts and findings, however incomplete.

Erdnase and Charlier are two of the greatest mysteries in our mysterious art!

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Postby David Alexander » 07/28/02 10:58 AM

Thanks Matt...

but as I mentioned previously, I'm in the middle of finishing up my next book which is on the history of 20th Century silhouette artists. Adding to that I'm performing shows and promoting my performing career, so getting back to Erdnase - bringing myself back up to speed on the whole case and then moving forward on some of the fronts I'd like to explore further just isn't in the cards until early next year.

I would like to examine the library at Columbia for any references to informal groups of mining engineering students back in Sanders' day who might have called themselves "Erde nases"...German for "earth nose," local slang or an in-joke amongst German speaking engineering students.

Then there would be the searching out of any writings by his classmates who might mention him specifically or in passing which might provide a clue...perhaps he was doing card tricks for them and someone mentions it...but that is a very distant possibility and would require far more time than I have at present, especially for a project that would pay small financial dividends.

I have learned that my guy did play around with his name anagramatically when he was a kid and, of course, since he was the son of wealthy and powerful parents and connected to wealthy and powerful relatives, he grew up with the attitude described in Expert.

And, his journal entries show a fascination with what were then called "colored people," both near his school and in his hometown. You'll recall that the only other voice in Expert is the "colored attendant at a gentleman's club" who speaks in the Negro dialect of the day.

And I have learned that Sanders' wife came from a politically powerful family, similar to his own which is yet another reason for keeping his identity a secret.

Then again, the publication and early distribution of the book may have been a cathartic experience for him and he may have never picked up a deck of cards again...which, of course, does not address why Drake behaved the way he did when he abruptly stopped his theft of the book's copyright, but that drifts into "best case scenario" conjecture on my part.

The great problem is nailing this down to satisfy the doubters who want to see a deck of cards in his hand. That may not be possible since that evidence may simply not exist. We may end up with a "most probable" scenario with compelling circumstantial evidence...but, then again, the prisons of the world are filled with justly-convicted criminals found guilty on circumstantial evidence.

As I mention in my Genii article, at some point the idea of a string of coincidences simply becomes unacceptable and the weight of the evidence becomes overwhelming. I plan on supplying more evidence in the future when time permits.
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Postby Robert Kane » 07/28/02 11:17 AM

David Alexander: Is there any available written commentary or a diary from a magician of Erdnase's time?

I was wondering if a master like Dr. Elliott, De Land or Malini might have possibly known who Erdnase was or where he got his material. Maybe one of these greats left some notes on the subject?

Or has this line of research already been followed by Gardner et al? Just a thought...

Thank you very much for sharing a bit about your research. I look forward to reading what you eventually publish on the matter.
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Postby David Alexander » 07/28/02 11:54 AM

An interesting thought. I am unaware of any such diares...although I am one of the few people who've actually read "Just Malini," the "book" written by Max many years ago. His son, Ozzie, let me read it when I was a kid.

I believe that the first mention of Erdnase in a magic book is in a footnote in Downs' Art of Magic published in 1909, seven years after Expert was published. If Erdnase were known to magicians you would think he'd be mentioned/referenced earlier, talked about more. That doesn't seem to be the case.

I should be clear on this: I don't believe anyone knew who Erdnase was outside of the author himself. As previously mentioned - the reversal of Erdnase to "E.S. Andrews" was a convenient fiction, useful in dealing with the printer, illustrator, and bank, something I believe the author did to conceal his real identity, logical to them when he reversed his name to "protect his identity."

If the printers knew his real identity, anyone wanting to find the elusive Mr. Erdnase would only have to contact McKinney to learn the truth. In actuallity, if someone did, all they would learn was that it was a "Mr. E.S. Andrews," which is a dead end.

I believe that the Erdnase persona was created by the author for a variety of reasons, some I believe I've previously described. I don't believe anyone - magician, card mechanic, whatever - worked or lived under the name "Erdnase." Erdnase is purely a literary device both in persona or writer's voice as well as being a device whereby the author could have his real name "in public" and remain anonymous. The purpose of the creation of the complex anagram was to hide his real identity yet have it out there "in plain sight" so to speak. It must have been quite satisfying to the author.

As a consequence I don't believe any of the stories of anyone saying that their father "knew Erdnase" because that would mean the purpose of the anagram had been discarded or ignored by Erdnase and that he placed his true identity in jeopary, trusting those he told to keep secret something he'd worked very hard to protect.

Two old sayings come to mind: "Three can keep a secret when two are dead," and "I can keep a secret, it's just the people I tell who can't keep their mouths shut."

This, of course, would not stop individuals from claiming to be Erdnase since no one knew who he was and certainly he wasn't going to come forward to correct things as he would have nothing to gain. This is like the occasional codger who claims to have been one of the Little Rascals or was the "guy in the monkey suit" in the original King Kong.

I don't think anyone, inside or outside of magic, knew who Erdnase really was. Certainly Bill Hilliar didn't.
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Postby Guest » 07/28/02 06:04 PM

Perhaps the author lived on SE Andrew S(treet).
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Postby Guest » 07/28/02 07:04 PM

FWIW, the staying power of the S.E. Andrews theory is somewhat reminiscent of the tenacious -- but false -- legend that the Peruvian colaratura mambo queen Yma Sumac is in fact a former Brooklyn housewife named Amy Camus. She really, truly is a Peruvian of Incan descent named Yma Sumac (and still living, God bless her and her five-octave range).
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Postby Cugel » 07/29/02 02:33 AM

David Alexander writes:
'...while I admire Dick's tenacity, I simply cannot accept that the intelligence evidenced in the person who wrote Expert would expect to successfully hide his identity with a simple reversal of his name. Therefore, I do not accept that it was ever a man named "Andrews."'

I think it's more likely that the man who wrote the book was indeed an E.S.Andrews (or similar) who reversed the spelling to create a nom de plume with the full expectation that it would be decypherable. The idea that he would create a fake name, then reverse it, is way too complicated if he wanted the name on the cover to totally conceal his identity. All he'd need to do is come up with ANY fake but plausible name (and use that for his chequing account, etc.) Drake & Co. wouldn't have given a damn who he was - they just wanted his business.

Let's look at this from a commonsense perspective. Rather than investing energy in creating the kind of puzzle that magicians love, let's step back and remember that this book was written by a human being, not some fin de siecle conspiracist.

If we do that, then it seems fairly likely that the reason for using a fake name that (EASILY) rearranges into a real name is a desire for privacy, yes, but a desire informed by a natural vanity. The man who wrote the book didn't want his name to be obvious to the casual reader, but wanted a way to prove it was in fact his book. This is an age-old device in literature.

Similarly, your assertion that 'the intelligence' who created the book wouldn't have settled for a simple inversion of his name doesn't hold up in the sense that, while the book is extremely clever, you could hardly state that the author was a genius. Yes, he was a person who had a genius (or more probably a knack) for creating card moves and tricks. But hardly a genius in the popular sense. These are card tricks after all. In any case, how do you infer a cryptological bent from the text of a book of card tricks? Not everybody who loves magic likes puzzles, and there seems to be no evidence of this idiosyncracy in Erdnase beyond the author's name.

I think that we need to apply a rigorous approach to our analysis of the facts at hand - not just to our archival research. However - I will concede that if you are proven correct in this matter, that is that E.S.Andrews was a pseudonym that was in turn inverted to create the cover name - then it is clear that Erdnase was a magician and not a cheat. Only a magician could have been bothered to have created a puzzle more complicated than was necessary to serve its purpose.

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Postby Bob Coyne » 07/29/02 07:44 AM

Assume the author is WE Sanders and he wants to encode his name. He finds an anagram SW Erdnase that has meaning (the mining engineer, ground sniffing stuff) that is also another name (ES Andrews) spelled backwards. A very plausible and clever solution. If you were a mining engineer named WE Sanders who liked puzzles (there's evidence for both), what better pseudonym would you come up with? This is not to say that an ES Andrews couldn't also come up with SW Erdnase. But I think that is less likely. If I were ES Andrews, I'd probably pick WE Sanders (a real name and an anagram) as a pseudonym rather than the nonsense-sounding SW Erdnase. The fact that SW Erdnase sounds so fake is evidence that either a more natural solution wasn't available or that it is embedding several meanings and hence constrained into unnaturalness by them. Both Sanders and Andrews had natural solutions (each other's names), so we're left with the constraints of a puzzle being the most likely determining factor. As a puzzle solution, WE Sanders wins hands down.
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