Give a Murderer His Due

The Expert at the Card TableBack in 1902, the most important magic book ever was written. (This is debatable, but it’s what I think.) It was self-published with the title “Artifice, Ruse and Subterfuge At the Card Table” by a man identified as S. W. Erdnase. It is now known as The Expert at the Card Table and is said to have been a bible to many magicians, most notably Dai Vernon. And no one knew who wrote it.

There was, however, a hint in the author’s name. If you reverse it, the name reads E. S. Andrews—a much more recognizable last name than Erdnase. And in the late 1940s, the mathematics writer Martin Gardner determined that the writer was one Milton Franklin Andrews. This man was already quite famous for something else.

Around the turn of the 19th century, Andrews was a globe trotting poker cheat—perhaps the best of his day. In 1905, three years after the publication of his magnum opus, he and his girlfriend tried to kill and rob one of his disreputable colleagues in Berkeley, California. Andrews and the girl fled to San Francisco to hide out. In the mean time, the SFPD determined that Andrews was wanted in the murders of three other people in different cities across America. Eventually, the police located Andrews, who killed his girlfriend and then himself.

Or not. It is possible that Andrews was innocent of these murders. It is even more possible that the police killed Andrews and his girlfriend. But there is no doubt that Andrews was not what we normally consider a “good guy.” But it is ever so much more pleasant to image him as a lovable rogue who was wronged by law enforcement, rather than a serial murderer. One thing cannot be taken away from Andrews, however: his great accomplishment in writing his book. Or so it would seem.

In the foreword to the Dover Edition of The Expert at the Card Table, Martin Gardner tries to take away this accomplishment from Andrews—at least partly. He writes:

Although there no longer is any doubt that Milton Andrews was the author of The Expert at the Card Table, a great mystery still remains. Andrews never went to college, and a lengthy letter he sent to the San Francisco Examiner, offering to surrend to the police if they would meet certain conditions, makes clear that he could not have achieved the polished prose in which this book is written.

I found this paragraph so upsetting that I had to get the book, The Man Who Was Erdnase by Barton Whaley with Gardner and Jeff Busby. I knew that even though I am a decent enough writer, if I were hand scrawling a letter to the police while worried about my life, my skills as a writer might disintegrate.

Yesterday, I got the book. At over 400 pages, is quite an act of research. It is, unfortunately, not well written—ironically, showing all the signs of lacking any editor, much less a good one. And it includes the entire 18 (?) page letter in an Appendix. Here is just a taste of it:

The first crime I am charged with is the murder of Bessie Bouton, with whom I traveled as man and wife. The police said they found that she was a traveling saleslady from Syracuse, N.Y., and her folks told the police she represented J. Parker Pray & Co. of New York. As I had been living with her, they say I am the murderer. Now, to protect myself, I am compelled to give her history.

This is certainly not the writing of an idiot or ignoramus. It is also worth noting that Andrews wrote his book over a couple of years whereas he was only in hiding for a couple of days. But this is not really the case that Whaley makes in the book. Instead, a kind of deconstructed literary theory is used to sell the idea that Andrews was rewritten (or edited):

While we can’t discount the fact that Andrews’ alibi letters were hurriedly written under pressure, as Gardner pointed out, there is a fair incidence of scholarly words, French and Latinate phrases in the book that do not appear in the alibi letters: cognition, minutia, stoic, curriculum, [bete noire], denouement, talismanic, plebians, Beau-monde, entree, patrician, liege, chicanery, [Machiavellian], commensurate, etc.

It is established in The Man Who Was Erdnase that Andrews hired a professional magician, James Harte, to add patter to the card tricks in Expert at the Card Table. Harte was most famous for his excellent, flowery, Victorian patter. Four of these words are taken from the patter of the very first trick that Erdnase explains (The Exclusive Coterie): “Beau-monde,” “patrician,” “plebians,” and “entree.” That’s 4 out of 15! What’s more, it seems unlikely that anyone in Andrews’ business would not know the word “chicanery.” What’s more, we don’t even have to depend upon the alibi letter, because many people who had met Andrews commented on how well spoken he was.

Perhaps most ridiculous of all: no editor or ghostwriter would change a text in this way. When helping a writer, one always wishes to make the author’s intent as clear as possible. Adding high toned words would tend to make the writing less clear. What’s more, it would explicitly change the author’s style.

The argument seems to be that a regular guy couldn’t have written something as polished as The Expert at the Card Table. But this is nonsense. It could be that Gardner, working most of his life with large publishers, understood how much editors had helped his books. He must have seen that The Man Who Was Erdnase was not turning out to have the kind of polished writing of Gardner’s mainstream books. And so it would have been natural to question whether Andrews could have created the fine writing in his book. But as we’ve seen, Andrews was no regular guy.

Update (12 July 2012 8:30 am)

According to Wikipedia:

Others argue against Andrews being Erdnase because the known examples of his writing are very much inferior to the polished writing of The Expert at the Card Table….

There has been newer evidence in the past twelve years that pretty much puts to rest any assumption that Milton Franklin Andrews was Erdnase. It is obvious that Andrews was a card cheat but that is as far as his connection goes.

After reading The Man Who Was Erdnase, this is very hard to believe. There were a number of people interviewed for the book who knew Andrews when he was writing the book. None of these claims on Wikipedia are referenced. And once again we see this argument that Andrews couldn’t have written it because his alibi letter is not as good as his book.

What the Wikipedia Erdnase pages shows, I think, is the ability of one person with an ax to grind to create a very dishonest page as long as the page is not very popular.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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