Howard Thurston, the Magician Who Disappeared

Overshadowed by more famous contemporaries, the visionary behind “The Wonder Show of the Universe” left a far-reaching legacy

Early 20th century poster of magician Howard Thurston's spirit box illusion (GRANGER / GRANGER — All rights reserved)
smithsonian.com

A woman rose in mid-air. Cards hovered, and a box of candy became a rabbit. A horse and rider vanished, floating away as if in a dream, spangles sparkling in audiences' eyes. At the magician Howard Thurston's show, the world flouted nature. Through it all, the audience felt Thurston's affection. Dale Carnegie included Thurston in his famed self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People, because Thurston had told Carnegie that before every show, he stood behind the curtain, saying over and over, "I love my audience."

In the 20th century's first decades, Howard Thurston thrilled people with his own brand of stage magic, a giant production requiring 40 tons of equipment. Today, he's all but forgotten, eclipsed in history by his contemporary Harry Houdini, even though Houdini was more of an escape artist than a magician. But in his day, Thurston was the best. "It's sort of like the hype of everybody that wanted to see Hamilton," says Rory Feldman, a magician with a Thurston collection of more than 65,000 pieces. "Thurston—that's what it was."

Born in Ohio, in 1869, Thurston had a rough childhood that included some time riding the rails. While contemporary accounts reported that he'd been training for the ministry when he decided upon magic, biographer Jim Steinmeyer says that the young Thurston was a near-criminal who escaped institutionalization by saying he had found religion. Steinmeyer unearthed correspondence between authorities about the high-school aged Thurston. “It's kind of jaw-dropping what they write about this kid,” he says. “They say ‘If you don't take him, he's at the end of his game.’ And ‘I really think this guy is redeemable, but he's the roughest case I've ever seen.’” Thurston overcame those early trials, hiding his background to become, by the time he reached his early 30s, a stage magician whose success rested in part on his gentlemanly demeanor, what Steinmeyer calls his "bank president" grandeur.

In his white tie and tails, Thurston performed incredible tricks. One, called the "Rising Card," started with an audience member choosing certain cards, as if for a regular card trick. But expectations turned upside down when Thurston put the deck into a glass goblet. He would then call up certain cards—the king of spades, the ten of clubs—and they would rise two feet in the air, into his hands. The dazzling end was when all 52 cards were thrown, serially, into the audience. One reporter wrote that they fluttered to audience members "like beautiful butterflies."

Audiences of the ’10s and ’20s loved magic. Many vaudeville shows included magic acts. Thurston inherited the "mantle of magic" from Harry Kellar, who popularized the floating woman illusion, or the "Levitation of Princess Karnac." Thurston added Ziegfeld-inspired touches to his show, like gaudy costumes for his assistants. And he closely observed European magicians he encountered, as Steinmeyer writes, especially those at London's Egyptian Hall, where the most accomplished magicians gathered.

By 1925, a typical Thurston show included elements of the circus, dancing girls, and a full orchestra and featured an astonishing 36 presentations with engineering marvels. Sometimes, a Baltimore reporter wrote, the number of attendants drew attention to the "complicated apparatus" that made a particular trick work. A list for Act 3, from one of Thurston's workbooks: Nine People Cabinet, Pigeon Pie, Bangkok Bungalow, Egg Trick, Glass Trick, Prisoner of Canton, Phantom Piano, Lady and Boy, Triple Mystery.

Thurston performed for royalty, celebrities and presidents. He pretended to smash President Calvin Coolidge's watch to pieces, only to have Mrs. Coolidge find it in a loaf of bread. Theodore Roosevelt's son Quentin saw the show so many times that he outsmarted Thurston once, by bringing a bag that foiled a trick involving an egg.

Children flocked to Thurston's shows, causing reviewers to remind readers that if they were insistent on spotting a false panel move during one of the cabinet tricks, they should let it go to preserve the kids’ happiness. He performed annual shows for orphanages. “They're all children, these patrons of mine,” Thurston said once. “I am proud of my calling as an entertainer—a dealer in magic art that involves the practice of deception without causing harm.”

Feldman says that part of Thurston's impact was the language he used. “It did not appear as though he was reciting lines. And the stories he shared felt like he was saying them for the first time,” he says. “The impression that he made on people was so strong. People who saw him perform returned years later with their own children to see ‘The Wonder Show of the Universe’ once again."

Thurston, master magician all out of a hat
"Thurston, master magician all out of a hat" lithograph poster, 1910 (Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

An excerpt of Thurston's stage patter found in one of his workbooks shows his unique delivery style:

"Many of you are saying to yourself that it is impossible for Fernanda to float in space without any performance and that Fernanda is hypnotized. I'll prove it to you. Wake, wake Fernanda and raise your right hand. Rest and sleep, Fernanda. In all our lives there are certain events that stand out that cannot be forgotten. I am going to show you something now, ladies and gentlemen, you will remember a long as you live. Behold the impossible."

Feldman says that in these moments, many people trusted what they saw. They thought that Thurston himself was magic. “They really believed it. I have some letters that are to Thurston where people are like can you help me find the love of my life? Can you tell me where my brother is?”

Thurston took his role seriously. "The conjuring fever was consuming me, and there was no relief," wrote Thurston in his 1929 autobiography, Life of Magic. “I know of no business, trade or profession that exerts so powerful an influence as magic. The love of it becomes a passion.” He told a reporter in 1903 that he practiced card tricks for an hour every day and then again before his performances, and he had his hands massaged three times a week, to keep them smooth.

So why don't we know about Thurston today? Why has Houdini's legacy remained in a way Thurston's has not? Thurston and his stagey, flamboyant magic have fallen away, while people remember Houdini's muscular brand, the chains and the suffocating amounts of water. Even his name—the exciting vowel at the end, the echo of a whodunit—"Houdini" seems mysterious, powerful. Thurston, by contrast, seems like a name from an agricultural report, heavy and stolid.

Steinmeyer's 2011 book about Thurston—The Last Greatest Magician In The World— takes up this question. He says that the two men came into direct competition only a few times, including when Houdini poached one of Thurston's former assistants for his own show. Houdini served as the president of the Society of American Magicians shortly before Thurston did. More often, he says, they were "circling each other in different forms." Thurston had his over-the-top touring magic show, and Houdini was a vaudeville star with a shorter act and a specialty as an escape artist. They also possessed diametrically opposed personalities. "You can kind of see how they puzzled over each other personally because Houdini was bombastic and sensational, and sort of exhausting to be around in his own way," says Steinmeyer.

Thurston continued performing into the 1930s, appearing on the radio as well as on stage, growing his audience, as Steinmeyer writes. In 1935, he had a stroke and died the following year of pneumonia after a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving behind his wife Paula and adopted daughter, Jane. "Leading American Illusionist Had Vast Repertoire," ran the New York Times' obituary.

Houdini flexed and fought shackles and performed seemingly impossible tasks, but Thurston was as unbelievable in his own way, creating a hazy, glittering world around him that dissolved reality, and eventually ended with his own disappearing act from public memory.

People may not remember Thurston's name, but Feldman sees his legacy in today's magicians. "If you ever watch old footage of Thurston, it really is what you would see if you went to a magic show today. It's the same effects and illusions, it's just a different patter. His fingerprints are literally on everything across the board, whether or not people realize it. People are watching sawing a woman in half on ‘America's Got Talent,’ and people don't realize Thurston popularized it."

"He was really the most remarkably honest magician that we had," says Steinmeyer. "He had an unbelievable understanding of what the audience wanted. He had a love for the audience and an incredible desire to please them. And all the people that knew him, that's what they appreciated--how hard he used to work for the audience. And it's a shame for that reason that he's not remembered."

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