The Greatest Magician of All?

“My brain is the key that sets my mind free.” — Harry Houdini

“The function of the magician has characteristics in common with those of the criminal, of the actor and of the priest… and he enjoys certain special advantages impossible for these professions. Unlike the criminal, he has nothing to fear from the police; unlike the actor, he can always have the stage to himself; unlike the priest, he need not trouble about questions of faith in connection with the mysteries at which he presides.”
Edmund Wilson

I’ve been reading a lot about magic again. I say “again” because there was a time in my life when I really loved reading books about magic, especially how to do magic tricks, and especially books about Harry Houdini.

When I visited the late John Bushey, himself a master magician, to see his handcuff collection in late December, I did not expect to also see such an enormous collection of books about Houdini as well. One of these nearly jumped off the shelf because it was the first book I myself had read about Houdini when I was young.

Books about Houdini point to books about other magicians, most famously Howard Thurston and Harry Kellar. Having recently watched The Prestige, a film about two magicians vying for that recognition that comes with being known as the best, I’ve been thinking again about what made the early 20th century such a whirl of circuses, magic and vaudeville shows.

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Photo by the author. Section of the late John Bushey’s bookshelf.

One of the books I’ve been reading is Jim Steinmeyer’s The Last Greatest Magician. Thurston lived from 1869 to 1936. More than 60 million people paid admission to his show. He was a master showman, but also a masterful entrepreneur as well as a psychologist. Steinmeyer writes, “Everything he did, every gesture, every intonation of his voice, every lifting of an eyebrow, had been carefully rehearsed in advance.”

Thurston was a pop star as famous as Houdini, and according to some even more famous in those days. In the latter part of his career it took eight railroad cars to haul his show from town to town. He was a legendary road show in and of himself. The Great Depression killed the traveling circus and likewise brought an end to Thurston’s show, but during this man’s life it could be argued that he was the greatest of the magicians.

There was a critical difference between himself and Houdini, however. It was this: Thurston’s publicity was designed to fill the theaters. Houdini’s aim was to make himself a legend. This is why with the passing of time, Houdini has increased in fame and Thurston has been forgotten.

Originally published at

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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