Skip to content

The Wizard in the Wings

Magician and author Jim Steinmeyer rescues a forgotten American icon from Houdini’s shadow

"You have to realize that, in their day, Howard Thurston was every bit as well known as Harry Houdini," magic enthusiast Walter B. Gibson (creator of "The Shadow") once told author Jim Steinmeyer. But "as each year passes, Houdini becomes more and more famous, and Thurston is forgotten."

Steinmeyer, a magician himself, attempts to correct this inequity in his entertaining biography of Thurston, who held audiences spellbound for four decades with a parade of startling illusions that came to be known as "The Wonder Show of the Universe." In The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards, Steinmeyer chronicles the eventful life of this "immaculate, elegant, ministerial" performer. He also conjures the bygone era in which Thurston flourished, when the stately magic of the Victorians gave way to the electrified glitz of vaudeville.

Thurston came to prominence at a time when "World's Greatest Magician" was a hard-won title. The American public, Steinmeyer explains, "seemed to accept only one great magician at a time," and Thurston appeared destined to fill the role. In his press materials he embroidered his early life, claiming that he had been "stolen by the Mohammedans" in Algiers at age 3 and schooled in the mystic arts.

The truth was no less remarkable. Born in 1869, Thurston spent his teen years as a drifter, eventually falling in with a gang of thieves in New York's notorious Bowery district, where his compact size enabled him to clamber through doorway transoms. At age 17, Steinmeyer recounts, Thurston had a sudden — perhaps too sudden — epiphany on hearing an inspirational lecture at a downtown church, as if "the very vibration of the words" had stirred the better angels of his nature. Either the young Thurston was genuinely moved by the speaker's words, Steinmeyer speculates, or he scented an opportunity: "another transom swinging open, through which he could maneuver a convenient, wriggling exit."

Though he did not go so far as to train for the ministry, as he later claimed, Thurston turned away from the petty crime and confidence tricks of his youth and found a more socially acceptable form of deception as a professional magician.  Both extremes — the con man and the conjurer — were captured nicely by a double-edged catchphrase he often uttered in his later career: "I wouldn't … deceive you … for the world!"

Steinmeyer is an accomplished historian of magic; his books about the art include Hiding the Elephant and The Glorious Deception. He is also a noted designer of illusions, having worked with such headliners as Doug Henning and David Copperfield, and he brings an infectious enthusiasm to his descriptions of Thurston's miracles. "It seemed as if gravity had been suspended," he writes of "The Levitation of Princess Karnac," a complicated floating-lady effect. The hovering form appeared to be "no longer a person, but a flower petal turning pirouettes in a spring breeze." Steinmeyer anchors this rhapsodic account with a telling detail: Princess Karnac got a bit of backstage help from the Otis Elevator Company.

As a young man, Thurston occasionally worked as a carnival "talker," using a slick line of patter to lure people inside to see the show. Steinmeyer deploys much the same technique in his book's subtitle, which appears to set the stage for some serious fireworks with Harry Houdini.

Thurston first crossed paths with the budding escape artist at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, where the 19-year-old Houdini was working in dark greasepaint as an "authentic Hindu" mystic. In the ensuing years the two men developed a healthy rivalry that simmered occasionally but never quite boiled over into a full-scale "battle of the American wizards." Most readers will forgive the smoke and mirrors; Steinmeyer's opening scene, in which Houdini must be coaxed onstage to inspect Thurston's floating-lady apparatus, is worth the price of admission.

The real fireworks occur in Steinmeyer's account of Thurston's friendship with another illusionist: Harry Kellar, "the Grand Old Man of Magic." Kellar was the undisputed "World's Greatest Magician" as Thurston was making his name in the early 1900s, and the younger man managed — through a combination of hard work, flattery and a business partnership in which Thurston essentially bought his way into the show — to establish himself as the anointed successor.

It proved to be a fragile bond.

"Kellar had been devoted to magic," Steinmeyer writes. "He fussed over it, defended it, and loved bringing it to his audiences." Thurston, by contrast, was more concerned with showmanship and presentation. "Magic," he told his colleagues, "comprises only about thirty percent of a magic show." At one point, angered at a perceived slight, Kellar exploded: "You see this match? I wouldn't waste it to burn down the whole damned Thurston show!"

Even so, both men saw value in their alliance, which culminated in a joint tour in which Kellar literally passed over his magician's wand to his successor. "That final season together seemed to grant Kellar — an argumentative, poorly educated, and self-made Pennsylvania street waif — the exalted status as the approving monarch," Steinmeyer writes. "It seemed to christen Thurston, a confidence man and sideshow talker, with the title of crown prince. Behind the scenes, it was a ragtag partnership, but in the bright lights of the stage, it had transformed both men."

Or perhaps Thurston — at age 38, with more than 25 years of magic still ahead of him — had scrambled through his final transom. As if in a puff of smoke, the street urchin had vanished. All that remained was the world's greatest magician.

Daniel Stashower, author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl, is a 30-year member of the Society of American Magicians.