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Who Was Erdnase? Card Conjuring’s Most Enduring Mystery

August 2020

Most magicians today know Dai Vernon only through his books and from a wonderful series of videos made in 1982 that show him “sessioning” over 17 hours at a card table with three students. When Steve Freeman, one of Vernon’s most accomplished students, hesitates over a quote from S. W. Erdnase about a unique move called the S. W. E. Shift, the Professor jumps in, confidently citing the phrase practically word for word. At the time, Vernon was 88 and quoting—from memory—a passage he had first read as a boy 80 years before in the book The Expert at the Card Table .

Although Vernon solved the mystery of the center deal by locating Allen Kennedy, he never did determine the true identity of the author of this bible of card conjuring, which lays out in eloquent detail so many of the fundamental sleights employed by card cheats and magicians alike. He was not alone. The book has proved to be one of the great success stories of American publishing, as well as one of its most puzzling mysteries.

Indeed, in the century since he first self-published The Expert , in Chicago in 1902, the author has eluded the best efforts of researchers, writers, historians, ex-detectives, and magicians to track him down. “With magic enjoying unprecedented popularity,” the Erdnase hunter David Alexander wrote recently, “with a tidal wave of magic secrets available to the public as never before through conventions, books, magazines, pamphlets, and videotapes, with secrets exposed on the Internet and on television by Masked Yahoos, one secret has remained sacrosanct: the identity of S. W. Erdnase.”

And it’s not as if The Expert at the Card Table were some dusty lost text crumbling under glass in a museum. Far from it. Since its first appearance, The Expert has never gone out of print, an astonishing record for any book, let alone a technical treatise on sleight of hand with cards. There are currently two standard reprint editions on sale, as well as several smaller-run editions available through magic- and gambling-supply houses. In all the time the book has been out, thousands upon thousands of copies have been in circulation, making The Expert a staple of used-book stores as well. It has been translated into several languages; an Italian Web site features the complete text (in English); and it has even spawned two complete annotated versions, one by Vernon himself and another by a top card magician named Darwin Ortiz. Erdnase is also quoted and cited in hundreds of other books on card magic, and the effects outlined in the book have become standards of modern repertoire. In his brilliant theater show of card magic, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants , Jay—another devoted Vernon student—uses patter outlined in The Expert at the Card Table .

And yet, who was the author, this mysterious S. W. Erdnase? The most popular theory in the magic world is that the name is a simple anagram. In the 1920s, the publisher Frederick J. Drake gave in to persistent pestering from none other than J. C. Sprang, telling the industrious Chicago card man that S. W. Erdnase was in fact E. S. Andrews backward. As he had with the center-deal rumor, Sprang passed the tip on to Vernon.

Two decades later, it seemed that the Andrews angle had indeed led to the solution of the mystery. In 1946 Martin Gardner, a magician, mathematician, writer, and good friend of Vernon, managed to locate the Chicago-based artist Marshall D. Smith, who had done the drawings that illustrate the descriptions of the sleights. Smith did remember the author from their single meeting 44 years earlier, and because of Smith’s information and other leads provided by an old-time gambler-magician named Edgar Pratt, Gardner became convinced that Erdnase was a cardsharp from Hartford, Connecticut, named Milton Franklin Andrews. Gardner’s candidate had died in 1905 in San Francisco in a lurid murder-suicide just as the police, who wanted to question him about the killing of a prostitute in Colorado, were closing in. His premature death helped explain one of the most tantalizing puzzles of the Erdnase mystery: why the author had never bothered to renew the copyright on his masterpiece.

Now, as the book closes in on its centennial, the search for Erdnase has heated up again, and a fresh batch of suspects has been proposed by a group of hunters colorful enough to do Vernon proud. Many Erdnase seekers have long been troubled by apparent holes in Gardner’s Milton Franklin Andrews theory. (Vernon himself never believed in Milton Franklin Andrews, but his son Derek Verner says that may have been because the Professor didn’t want to accept the notion that his idol could have been such a lowlife.) The skeptics cite discrepancies in Smith’s recollection of Andrews’s height (he remembered him as five-six when police reports listed him as over six feet) and age, along with sharp differences in the writing styles of the book and a 9,000-word letter Milton Franklin Andrews wrote to the police. Smith was also certain that Erdnase had told him he was related to a well-known turn-of-the-century political artist, Louis Dalrymple.

Enter Richard Hatch, a magician, book dealer, and dogged Erdnase researcher, who has pursued several alternative suspects. He’s currently focusing on one Edwin Summer Andrews, a longtime traveling agent for the old Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, whose job would have given him plenty of opportunity to ply the cardsharp’s trade. Hatch has discovered that the railroad man signed his name “E. S. Andrews” on an 1898 license to marry Dollie Seely in Illinois. Louis Dalrymple’s mother was named Adelia Seeley (a slightly different spelling), and she was from upstate New York, which was apparently the home turf of Dollie’s father, Solomon Seely.

The most provocative new suspect comes from David Alexander, who goes so far as to state of his research with his partner, Richard Kyle, that “we found Erdnase.” Alexander, who besides being a magician is a biographer, silhouette cutter, and former private detective, worked up an investigative profile of Erdnase and then unscrambled the anagram (and even the original title page) in a different way. He came up with Wilbur Edgerton Sanders, a wealthy and well-educated mining engineer and the author of a standard text on mining, who was the scion of a politically powerful family in Montana. He even finds significance in the S.W. E. Shift, arguing that it’s really Sanders’s clue to “shift” the initials to W. E. S.

While Alexander has yet to reveal if he has connected Sanders to gambling or magic, he’s convinced he’s got his man. For his part, the 86-year-old Gardner laughingly dismisses Alexander’s theory as “pure baloney,” while Alexander says Gardner’s continued faith in Milton Franklin Andrews is based on “fundamental errors in research.”

Regardless of whether the renewed hunt has finally uncovered the author, it has definitely fueled a miniwave of Erdnase mania, and the book has now even made an impact on the dot-corn world. Last summer, when Gardner put up a first edition of The Expert —signed by Smith—for auction on eBay, it went to an amateur magician in California for $10,259. The sale attracted the attention of The Wall Street Journal , which put the story on its front page, and that report in turn helped spark a run on the book at Amazon.com.

Still more Erdnase-related projects are in the works. The magician David Ben, who is working on a comprehensive biography of Vernon, is bringing out a book later this year on ways to enhance creativity based on Erdnase’s approach to his unique craft. He has plenty to work with. The Expert at the Card Table is filled with delightful aphorisms that could seemingly be applied easily to any profession: “To be suspected of a skill is a death blow to the professional,” “Excessive vanity proves the undoing of many experts,” and, perhaps the most celebrated observation, “The resourceful professional failing to improve the method changes the moment.”

Vernon certainly found Erdnase to be the supreme work of creativity in his chosen art. “I defy anyone,” the Professor once told Ricky Jay, “to write a clearer explanation of how to perform a card move than Erdnase.” But what of the cardsharps? Have they been similarly enthralled? Ron Conley, an expert on poker and sleight of hand with cards who oversees security at a California casino, says that in 35 years around what he calls “card thieves,” he’s found that “very few” of them have ever read Erdnase. Like the center deal, The Expert at the Card Table seems to have exerted a far greater influence on card magicians than on card cheats.

“Some of them have heard about it,” Conley says of the book. “But basically they don’t read it. I feel they should have read it. They’ve missed something. There’s never really been anything done that’s comparable to Erdnase.”

—K.J.

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