Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Chicago, Sin City

The Everleigh Club,  1911
2131–2133 South Dearborn Street, the Levee

                               This is a free town.
                                          - Carter Harrison 

Around 1900 the term segregation referred to the
geographical segregation of certain activities, such
as prostitution and gambling, within islands of illicit
activity in the city rather than to the separation of
the races.  Many people believed that such areas
were necessary "safety valves" for male behavior,
which without a safe outlet would threaten not only
the stability of marriage and the family but would
also put women at greater risk of being objects of
male aggression.

To our point of view today, most American cities,
were much more vice-ridden then than now.  This
would include New York, despite the presence there
of such powerful do-gooders as Anthony Comstock
and police chief Theodore Roosevelt.

But even by the standards of the day, Chicago was
considered particularly wide open and sinful.  The
mayor at the time of the 1893 Worlds Fair, Carter
Harrison Sr, said "You couldn't make people moral
by ordinance, and it is no use trying.  This is a free

Chicago was so notorious that reformers came all the
way from London to battle the modern Babylon.
The most famous English intervention may be
evangelist Gypsy Smith's march through the "Levee,"
the heart of the vice district in 1909, but as early as
1894 William Stead* published If Christ Came to 
Chicago, an impassioned attack on Chicago's
permissive culture which so generously remunerated
the ruling political class.

Stead wrote well, and there are echoes of his work in
The Expert at the Card Table, which indicate Erdnase
may have read If Christ Came to Chicago.     Here, for
instance, is the opening lines of Erdnase's introduction
of The Expert:

           The passion for play is probably as old, 
           and will be as enduring, as the race of man. 
           Some of us are too timid to risk a dollar, 
           but the percentage of people in this feverish 
           nation who would not enjoy winning one is 
           very small.

Compare this to Stead's words

           The love of gambling is almost as deep-
           seated in the human nature as the animal 
           appetite on which the race depends for
           its preservation and multiplication.  The 
           craving for excitement; the longing to be
           suddenly rich without exertion or  
           expenditure are too deeply seated to be 
           expunged by municipal ordinances....

Though by and large the reformers were more interested
in ending prostitution than gambling, Minna Everleigh,
one of the proprietors of the Everleigh Club, the most
exclusive brothel in the Levee found she had to limit
her patrons' access to the gaming tables to just 30 minutes
at a time, noting of her "... potential Don Juans ...they'd
rather most of the time gamble than screw."  These Don
Juans reportedly included such luminaries as Theodore Dreiser,
Ring Lardner, and boxing champion Jack Johnson.

Entrance Hall
Of course Erdnase himself may have sat down to play before moving onto other matters.  The Everleigh Club was open by the time he is thought to have been in Chicago, late 1901-early 1902, arranging the publication of The Expert at the Card Table.

It was most probably while gambling at the Everleigh Club
that the heir to the Marshall Field  fortune was shot.  He
was found by his family back in his room at home where
he claimed he had accidentally shot himself.   The wound turned out to be fatal.  The inquest ruled accidental death.

In any case, Erdnase and Chicago were very well suited to each other.
Not only were both thoroughly amoral, but both believed in accepting the consequences of such a stance.  From the judge who refused to jail two prostitutes who beat up an elderly patron to rob him of $5, because having ventured into the vice district, he should know what to expect, to the nonchalance with which his family and the municipal authorities shrugged off the death of Marshall Field Jr to Erdnase's refusal to feel bad for players cheated at cards, including himself as a young "unlicked cub", their attitude remains a consistent acceptance of the price you pay to live such a life.

*Like Daniel Burnham, the architect behind the Chicago's Worlds Fair, William Stead died on The Titantic.   For more on the Worlds Fair & Erdnase, see my post of 3/16/2012

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lost Chicago: The Expert at the Card Table

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One of my goals in writing Artifice, Ruse & Erdnase
has become giving back to Chicago a little bit of
its history.

Living in the section of Chicago known as Old Town,
watching the neighborhood lose its architectural
distinctiveness to the desire of home owners for more
space and all the amenities without the corresponding
vision or taste to escape the cookie cutter like building
plans which appeal to contemporary urbanites, I am
uncomfortably aware of how much of Chicago's
heritage has been lost simply to the superabundance 
of life in a vital city.

Usually these losses are irreparable and will never be redeemed,
but occasionally, you can get a little back.  With this book,
I'm hoping to give S. W. Erdnase and the publication of
The Expert at the Card Table back to Chicago.

In the August 2011 issue of Magicol, a journal for magic
collectors, I go into why Erdnase may have decided to
publish in Chicago.  (A slightly abridged version of this
article is also a chapter of Artifice, Ruse & Erdnase.)

When I started I had no inkling of a connection between
S. W. Erdnase and Chicago.  In fact I knew very little of
Erdnase.  I answered a query from looking
for an author to write on an undisclosed subject.  I was
interested, because I had in recent years grown fascinated
with an area of magic known as mentalism.  I was looking
for a way into the magic world, and having started
performing after I was 40 years old, all I had to offer
were my skills as a writer.

The publisher was not put off by my ignorance concerning
Erdnase, the identity controversies surrounding him or
even card work in general.  He wanted someone to come
to the subject with fresh eyes and no stake in the argument.
He envisioned a monograph, summarizing the different
theories, weighing them against each other and then coming
to whatever objective conclusions the evidence would bear.
He did not necessarily expect the piece to answer the question
of Erdnase's identity.  He thought it might take until October
to finish.

When I told him I didn't even know where to start, he
directed me to Erdnase Forum on the Genii Website.
I was immediately captivated.

I was also overwhelmed.

I told Chris, the publisher, that a monograph was too little;
it had to be a full book, and it would probably take about a
year to finish.  As the year drew to a close, I was drowning
in research, but I was not ready to come up for air.

I was frank.  I said I wanted to do more research and ad-
mitted I had no idea how long it would take.  I also wrote
an introduction to show I was actually working my way
through the material.  I felt the need to study all sorts of
things I would never have guessed at in the beginning of
the process, such as the stability or lack thereof of long
term memory.    Chris didn't blink an eye: he told me to
take all the time I needed.

It's now been more than 2 and a half years, and the book's
coming out - in less time I must admit than I sometimes
thought it would take.  There comes a point when you realize
time must have a stop.  At least I came to believe that any
more research, except for the loose odds and ends which
came up during the writing would be counterproductive,
that I could not usefully synthesize any more information.

Also, I came to suspect that to keep researching less and
less likely possibilities may have been my way to put off
the hardest work of the book:  the literary analyses.
In any case, the research stopped, the literary analyses
started and the writing got done.  The finished work is
now about to come out, and I realized that one of my
goals has become to take a very small part in the con-
versation shaping the history of Chicago, and by doing
so, to give the gift of Erdnase back to the city, which
provided Erdnase a secure base from which to launch
his magnum opus and then never bothered to read it,
promptly fogetting about him in fact, probably just
because there was too much else going on.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Artifice, Ruse & Erdnase Pre-Publication Offer

•                                         •                                          •

For short time you can order Artifice, Ruse & Erdnase: 
The Search For One Who May Not Want to Be Found
at a pre-publication discount.

See Pre-Publication Offer

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Friday, March 16, 2012

S. W. Erdnase & The 1893 World's Fair

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What does it mean to call Erdnase a Chicago writer?
It's not at all clear how long he lived in Chicago.  We
can safely assume, it seems, that he was here in 1902
when  The Expert at the Card Table was published,
and he seems to have spent enough time in the city 
in the 1890s to have come to know some people in 
the gambling community.  

One common line of speculation is that he came 
to Chicago for the 1893 World's Fair, part of an
influx of gamblers and conmen who flooded the
Windy City at the time to help relieve the 
20 Million visitors to the Fair of their excess dollars.  

Observer lurking outside the 1893 World's Fair

It's difficult today to appreciate how important 
the Fair was in America's Cultural Imagination
at the time.  Frank Baum based the Emerald City
of Oz on the White City of the Fair

The buildings were made of white stucco which was as dazzling as it was temporary - only one of the structures was made to survive longer than the few months the Fair was open to the public.  The contrast to the heart of the City, far to the North, was  especially strong as Chicago itself was often called the Black City because of the soot that hung in the air and clung to the buildings.  

If Baum's imagination turned the Fair into  a magical city, Henry Adams' reaction was far more typical: 

   One lingered long among the dynamos, for they were new, and they gave to history a new phase.  Men of science could never understand the ignorance and naivete of the historian, who, when he         came suddenly on a new power, asked naturally what it was; did it pull or did it push? Was it a screw or thrust? Did it flow or vibrate? Was it a wire or a mathematical line? And a score  of such questions to which he expected answers and was astonished to get none. 

  Education ran riot at Chicago, at least for retarded minds which had never faced in concrete  form so many matters of which they were ignorant. Men who knew nothing whatever -- who had never run a steam-engine, the simplest of forces -- who had never put their hands on a lever -- had never touched an electric battery -- never talked through a telephone, and had not the shadow of a notion what amount of force was meant by a watt or an ampere or an erg, or any other term of measurement introduced within a hundred years -- had no choice but to sit down on the steps and brood as they had never brooded on the benches of Harvard College, either as student or professor, aghast at what they had said and done in all these years, and still more ashamed of the childlike ignorance and babbling futility of the society that let them say and do it.

For Adams, as for most Americans, the Chicago's World Fair was the picture of modernity, and Chicago was the pre-eminent modern city, founded on laissez faire capitalism and the latest technologies,  sky scrapers and the industrialization of agriculture were its great innovations.  Politics was brutal in Chicago, based on a frankly acknowledged war class warfare, and run by a political machinary which seemed to sacrifice no efficiency to the corruption which was its essential driving force.  Most Americans viewed it as a thoroughly, if not proudly,  immoral center for prostitution and gambling where they thrived unchecked as long as the politicians and the police received their share of the spoils.  

One way to understand Erdnase is as a modernist emblem within this Social Darwinistic context.  After all he spoke of cheating at gambling in terms of survival:

  The passion for play is probably as old, and will be as enduring, as the race of man. Some of us are too timid to risk a dollar, but the percentage of people in this feverish nation who would not enjoy winning one is very small. The passion culminates in the professional. He would rather play than eat. Winning is not his sole delight. Some one has remarked that there is but one pleasure in life greater than winning, that is, in making the hazard.

  To be successful at play is as difficult as to succeed in any other pursuit. The laws of chance are as immutable as the laws of nature. Were all gamblers to depend on luck they would break about even in the end. The professional card player may enjoy the average luck, but it is difficult to find one who thinks he does, and it is indeed wonderful how mere chance will at times defeat the strongest combination of wit and skill.

A little further on, he writes:

  The average professional who is successful at his own game will, with the sublimest unconcern, stake his money on that of another's, though fully aware the odds are against him. He knows little of the real value of money, and as a rule is generous, careless and improvident. He loves the hazard rather than the stakes. As a matter of fact the principal difference between the professional gambler and the occasional gambler, is that the former is actuated by his love of the game and the latter by cupidity. A professional rarely "squeals" when he gets the worst of it; the man who has other means of livelihood is the hardest loser.

Keplinger Caught Cheating
  In other words, the advantage player doesn't cheat because crooked gambling is a good way to make money, he cheats so he can keep gambling.  His survival as a gambler is at stake.  To survive as a gambler, one not only had to find money enough each cold Chicago's winter night for room and board, one had to find enough to fund the next game.  If the gambler passed himself as a wealthy amateur or ranch-owning Texan, he had to find enough to maintain such an illusion.  There was no safety net to catch those who failed, and being caught was hazardous to life and limb. 

The world of crooked card sharps is a closed one, but as far as we can tell, Erdnase has never been embraced by their number.  It is magicians who have appreciated his insights, built upon his techniques and taken him to their hearts.  Magicians bring us back to Frank Baum who based his Wizard on Harry Kellar, often cited as America's first great magician, but Kellar represents the Golden Age of American Magic, and The Expert at the Card Table is the founding text of modern magic.   

The Golden Age of Magic was an era of showy effects, filled with flourishes and expensive apparatus.  The post-Erdnasian magician sought invisibility above all.  Taking what he said about gamblers and applying it to themselves, magicians began valuing naturalness and uniformity & ease of manner above all else.  Rather than work in front of large audiences with expensive equipment, Erdnase imagined the magician doing card tricks in a parlor with a deck of cards the most expensive apparatus needed.  

Magic still survives on the stage, but close up forms of magic have come to dominate.  Only in Las Vegas do people really plan on attending magic shows anymore.   Elsewhere magicians are much more likely to be found walking around a corporate gathering or party, or working on a street corner these days than working the stage.  Rather than flourishing cards in fancy displays, most magicians aim to make their workings seem as smooth and natural as possible.  Erdnase's mechanics are still current.  The Modern Era of Magic which rises out of Erdnase is still with us.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

S. W. Erdnase & The Chicago Renaissance

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The very early years of the 20th Century made
up one of Chicago's Golden Eras of Literature.
H. L. Mencken referred to Chicago as "... the
literary capital of America." Theodore Dreiser
published Sister Carrie in 1900 to kickoff the new
century and the new era.  Upton Sinclair's explosive
novel, The Jungle,  came out in 1906, and the Chicago
connection must  not be forgotten when it comes to
Frank Baum whose Wizard of Oz was also published
in 1900.  It  was first sold at a book fair at Chicago's
famous Palmer House Hotel.   Some writers still on the
near horizon to come were Sherwood Anderson,
Ring Lardner and Ben Hecht.

One name you would not find in such lists - and which
most certainly deserves a place in the Chicago canon of
great writers - is S. W. Erdnase.  He is largely forgotten
outside of the magic world, because he wrote in a
disreputable genre, the how to cheat at cards genre - yes,
that one.

This may seem a little off-putting, and the technical
sections are not for everyone; but the introductory
material in which he talks about the methods and psychology
of gambling, in particular about advantage play, his term for
cheating, is fascinating for almost anyone, not just card players.

And he writes like a fallen angel:

We betray no confidences in publishing this book, having only ourselves to thank for what we know. Our tuition was received in the cold school of experience. We started in with the trusting nature of a fledgling, and a calm assurance born of overweening faith in our own potency. We bucked the tiger voluntarily, and censure no one for the inevitable result. A self-satisfied unlicked cub with a fairly fat bank roll was too good a thing to be passed up. We naturally began to imbibe wisdom in copious draughts at the customary sucker rates, but the jars to our pocketbook caused far less anguish than the heartrending jolts to our insufferable conceit. After the awakening our education progressed through close application and constant study of the game, and the sum of our present knowledge is proffered in this volume, for any purpose it may answer, to friend and foe, to the wise and the foolish, to the good and the bad, to all alike, with but one reservation, that he has the price.

Sounding like an excerpt from P. T. Barnum's memoirs as ghosted
by Walt Whitman, the writing is muscular and exuberant.  Although
he writes of the "overweeening faith" in his own powers as a thing
of the past, the writing still brims with confidence.  He comes across
as an only slightly chastened literary Hotspur, to whose words from
Henry IV Pt I, he seems to refer: "They wound my thoughts worse
than thy sword my flesh."  Hotspur mourns the loss of his "proud
titles," but Erdnase's pride is intact, no matter the "jolts to [his]
insufferable conceit".

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Monday, March 5, 2012

Where've You Been?

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For those of you wondering at my long lay off
from this blog, I've been correcting proofs and
wondering, Is there no end to error?

The Search For One Who May Not Want To Be 
Found is in the hands of the printer, and I'm
starting a series of blogs to answer the question,
Who Was Erdnase?

The answer is we don't know.  He wrote under
a pseudonym and his full identity remains a mystery.
ARTIFICE,  RUSE  & ERDNASE* is about the
attempts to solve the mystery, my own efforts included.

He is an enigmatic figure, a lively writer notable for
a bracing honesty and an unfairly forgotten part
of Chicago history.  In the postings to come, I'll go
into all that about S. W. Erdnase which fascinates us.

*S. W. Erdnase was the author of The Expert at the Card Table,
also known as Artifice, Ruse & Subterfuge at the Card Table

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