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Howard Thurston vs. Houdini and the Battles of the American Wizards

by Jim Steinmeyer

Pub Date: Feb. 3rd, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-58542-845-8
Publisher: Tarcher/Penguin

Entertaining rescue of a forgotten show-business legend.

We tend to associate modern magic with Houdini, but he was not considered a great magician by most of his contemporaries. If asked to name the greatest magician, most would have named a Houdini rival, an entertainer few today have even heard of: Howard Thurston (1869–1936). When we think of the debonair performer in black tie who patters suavely with the audience while sawing women in half or pulling rabbits out of hats, we are conjuring the image Thurston spent 40 years in show business perfecting. According to Steinmeyer (Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, 2008), a magician, illusion designer and scholar of magic, Thurston may have lacked the dexterity and originality of some of his illustrious peers, but he brought the elements together to drag theatrical magic into the modern world. What made Thurston so great, Steinmeyer argues, was his utter belief in his own con. Though cultivating the illusion of the modern entertainer as a bland, upright businessman, Thurston was actually a one-time street urchin and pickpocket who, while on his way up, was not above grifting when the occasion called for it. The author ably conveys Thurston’s intriguing milieu and relentless adventuring (much of which he labored mightily to hide from the public)—his train-hopping boyhood and travels between carnivals to medicine shows in the wild West as an apprentice magician, his vaudeville and music-hall tours of the United States and Europe, his 1905–06 tour of Australia and the Far East and “last stand” as an itinerant movie-theater performer at the height of the Depression. Thurston’s rise to the heights of showbiz fame paralleled the thrilling American boom years between the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and the financial crash of 1929, and Steinmeyer, in his quiet, workmanlike way, captures it all vividly.

A low-key but thoroughly fascinating biography.