The Greatest Magician of the Early 20th Century Wasn’t Houdini

Poster, circa 1910

A few months ago I was looking for vintage magic images to use in my collages. I stumbled upon wonderful posters for a magician named Howard Thurston. Well, you know how one things lead to another – I soon found myself engrossed in a superb book about said magician and the early history of magic in America. The Last Greatest Magician in the World by Jim Steinmeyer sheds light on the greatest magician of the early 20th century who essentially faded into oblivion. Unless you’re a magician, magic aficionado, or collector, you likely haven’t heard about this guy. Everybody has heard of Harry Houdini, but as Steinmeyer points out, while he was a great escape artist, Houdini wasn’t all that impressive when it came to card tricks and illusions. Thurston was five years older and four inches taller than his peer and oft adversary Houdini.

Early Beginnings

Born on July 20, 1869 in Columbus, Ohio, Thurston had four siblings – May (Myrtle) the eldest was born in 1865, followed by Charles, Howard, Harry (who figures prominently in this story), and William. Their father’s carriage business collapsed in 1873 and he subsequently tinkered with making a wide array of inventions, none of which were successful. Unable to support his family, his father had a mild nervous breakdown and started spending a lot of time at the corner saloon. By all accounts, he was a wretched and abusive father and husband who regularly beat his children and wife. Other than Harry, the only mention of the other siblings in the book is when Charles was murdered in February 1920 while working as a railroad detective in Columbus. The murderer escaped after pumping eight bullet holes into Charles’ back.

When he was just 12, Thurston started earned money selling newspapers on trains between Columbus and Akron. By the time he was 13, he had already seen the magician Herrmann the Great perform. His interest in magic grew a little later when he saw a traveling show on three consecutive nights. Thurston marveled at his first “Arabian Night’s dream,” where the “footlights were fairy lamps and the stage was peopled with wavering shapes, with fairies and elves, with witches and demons, for [all] I knew. Magic had gripped me in its spell, and its hold never loosened.”

With money earned from selling newspapers, Thurston went to the local fairgrounds and horse races. Although he wanted to be a jockey, this aspiration was unrealistic so he and a friend secured work as stable boys. When the racing circuit left for Cincinnati, Thurston left Columbus without telling his mother. He quickly found this work too hard and humiliating, so he resumed selling newspapers. He met another 14-year-old boy Reddy Cadger who taught him all the ropes of hopping freights and the two would engage in extremely perilous antics that cost Cadger his life one night when the boys jumped on a train out of Chicago.

Thurston bounced around for a while, living the life of a tramp – riding the rails and following magic shows. He carried a dirty deck of cards with him everywhere and practiced basic tricks. By age 15, earnings from buying the program concession on the racing circuit with a partner enabled him to get a gold watch, new suit, and some magic equipment. He circled back home, where his mother told him she had a dream that he would be a famous magician one day. He left again – this time for NYC, which would ultimately alter the course of his life.

Bowery Thug to Reformed Young Man

Soon after arriving in NYC, Thurston used the alias William Ryan and fell in with newsboys, derelicts, and thieves, living in flophouses. He joined a Bowery street gang and was taught to pick pockets. While his pals identified the next victim, Thurston slid his fingers into their pockets, using misdirection and deception practices he learned from Modern Magic magazine, meant for other purposes, of course.

When Thurston was caught trying to pick pocket a streetcar conductor, he was arrested. William Round, the secretary of the New York Prison Association sentenced him to three weeks at the House of Industry and Refuge for Discharged Convicts on Houston Street, where he made brushes and mats. When he returned to see Round, Thurston admitted his real name and that he had family in Columbus. Round was impressed with Thurston and hired him for odd jobs including janitorial work, while introducing him to Christianity, both at his church and the Broome Street Tabernacle where Thurston did missionary work and encountered some of his former criminal pals.

After Thurston received a telegram that his mother had died on his 18th birthday, he fell into a depression. At this point, Round suggested that Thurston be sent to Mount Hermon Academy, Dwight Moody’s Christian school for boys in Northfield, Massachusetts. Thurston attended from September 15, 1887 to June 10, 1891. This was two years before his official graduation date, likely due to Round’s mother no longer being able to afford the tuition.

Round set Thurston up to work at the Burnham Industrial Farm, where he was tasked with supervising boys aged 9 to 12 in a new program. Although he didn’t earn a salary, Thurston was obligated to do so since Round and his mother had paid for his schooling. When he left on January 5, 1893, Thurston saw Herrmann the Great perform, the magician who left an indelible impression on him during his youth. One show turned into several as Thurston followed the show as it traveled and came face to face with the great magician on the train. During each show, he carefully studied Herrmann’s deft hand movements and was hit with a Eureka moment – he would become a magician.

Chicago World’s Fair – Columbia Exposition

Unable to sell his card tricks as an act, Thurston worked the Midway Plaisance as a talker for the African Dahomey Village, the creation of Xavier Pene, a French entrepreneur. Just down the midway, a young Houdini wore greasepaint and played the part of an Indian fakir in the Algerian and Tunisian Village. Harry Thurston visited his brother and the two prowled the midway in search of new opportunities. Harry was enchanted by the “hoochie coochie” dancers and this kind of entertainment would inevitably inform the rest of his career. After the fair closed, Dahomey Village moved to Coney Island and Thurston followed.


Poster, circa 1914

From Struggling Magician to the Greatest Magician in the World

At 344 pages, Steinmeyer’s terrific book eloquently unveils the tale of Thurston’s transformation from a struggling and often thieving sideshow performer to the greatest magician in the world. I’m including a just a few milestones in this blog, since my goal isn’t writing a definitive piece on the magician, but rather, sharing the magnificent posters.

The overarching message from reading this book is that Thurston was graceful and charming – a master of the theater with incredible control of his audience. To build his image, he embellished details about his life, outright lied, and often had to resort to extreme measures due to the secretive brotherhood of magicians and fierce competition to outdo one another. For more than 30 years, Thurston had a troupe of 20 or more assistants, various animals, and more than 250 trunks and boxes of property and equipment.

1897: Debuted his Rising Card Trick, in which an audience member’s chosen card would rise slowly upward from a freshly shuffled deck, floating out of the pack and into Thurston’s open hand. He then threw the card directly into the lap of the person who had chosen it.

1900: Thurston debuted at the Palace Theater on November 5 to great applause and success, despite reservations due to specific parts of his act getting cut back. In fact, it was such a rousing success, Thurston got a six-month contract and was able to appear each night at his preferred time of 9:25 pm.

 1900: Published his first book on card tricks, which eventually attained a circulation of more than two million.


Card Tricks, 1903

1907 – 1908: Thurston paid $7,000 for the rights to master magician Harry Kellar’s illusions and props, including the famous Levitation of Princess Karnac. They toured together for Kellar’s final season, and the following year, Kellar retired and bestowed on Thurston the title of “The World’s Greatest Magician.” But Kellar had doubts about Thurston and often tried to micromanage and influence his act.


Harry Kellar Poster

1914: After years of work, the Thurston’s Kiss Waltz Ride was completed, patented, and delivered to Luna Park at Coney Island. According to one of his friends, the gyrations of the ride “caused many a loving couple, under the delusion that they were waltzing, to throw up their hot dogs.”



1921: While he didn’t invent it and several other magicians performed it with boys, including American Horace Goldin, Thurston perfected the Sawing a Woman in Half routine. He accomplished this due to the talents of Harry Jansen, a master builder of illusions for magicians and Goldin’s blessing to perform it. Sawing a pretty ingénue in half was brilliant, as this reflected the mood of melodramatic thrillers with damsels in distress that were all the rage back then.

1924: Performed at a White House Christmas party for Calvin Coolidge, his wife, and about 20 guests. Thurston turned to his old Watch Trick in which he asked Coolidge for his gold watch, switched it for a cheap watch, hammered the cheap watch into smithereens, asked Mrs. Coolidge to cut a loaf of bread in half and the president’s watch was inside. This trick was such a hit, Time magazine mentioned it along with a political cartoon picturing Thurston.

1934: Thurston and Jane performed at the annual Easter Rolling Festival at the White House. So that’s where eggs come from?! Thurston, pulls an Easter egg from the mouth of Buzzie Dall, one of Franklin and Eleanor’s grandchildren. 


From left: Jane Thurston, Sistie and Buzzie Dall, grandchildren of the President, Thurston, and Eleanor Roosevelt

The Glorious Posters and Merchandise

In 1899, Harry helped finance fancy new posters from the Donaldson Litho Company of Newport, Kentucky. Printed in full color, they showed Thurston performing the Rising Cards Trick before the magician Herrmann, leveraging the fact that Thurston had once mystified the great magician with this trick.

In 1908, Thurston hired the Strobridge Lithographic Company of Cincinnati, the company that created Kellar’s artistic posters. And like Kellar, Thurston incorporated the same mischievous red devils perched on his shoulder. These posters included the words, Kellar’s Successor, and/or Mr. Kellar Says: “Thurston is the greatest Magician the World has ever known.”


Poster, circa 1910

Most famous magicians of the time printed throw-out souvenir cards. These were aimed at the audience with power and precision, typically at the end of a show. When Thurston’s adopted daughter Jane joined the show, her portrait was added to the other side of these cards.



Thurston’s Magic Box of Candy included instructions for magic tricks and chocolate taffy kisses wrapped in white paper. Twenty thousand of each of 50 tricks were produced for a total of one million boxes. Thurston expert and collector extraordinaire Rory Feldman has the only known complete box in existence. The tricks were similar to those found in beginning magic booklets, including Thurston’s.

Thurston published several books and pamphlets, in addition to his popular 1903 Card tricks, and you can still buy original copies on eBay and other sites.



George Davis White

George was born on February 2, 1887 in NYC and answered Thurston’s ad for an assistant when he was 12. He was initially paid 50 cents a week and given room and board. Incredibly loyal and diligent, White called the magician Governor and stayed with him until his death. When they performed together in 1900 in London, George wore a handsome jade green bellman’s uniform, with gold epaulets and brass buttons made by Grace. The British press was impressed that this black boy moved so gracefully and didn’t assume the stereotypical (and racist) expressions or demeanor popular in acts of this era.

Harry Thurston

The relationship with the brothers was difficult. Trying to forget his early life as a petty thief, Howard felt that his younger brother was crude and wanted to distance himself from Harry’s dime museums and ties to the Chicago mob, including Al Capone. Harry had become a big-city con man and a notorious wheeler dealer in Chicago’s First Ward. Harry hit it big with dime museums in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Cleveland. These museums featured “freaks” and dancing naked ladies – the carnival-type attractions Thurston had left behind. Games of chance and slot machines helped supplement the different live acts.


Dime Museum in Chicago

Throughout his career, Thurston often relied on Harry for financial assistance and also stored some of his illusions above one of his Chicago dime museums. The financial assistance he provided to Thurston emboldened Harry to leverage his now famous brother’s reputation as the greatest living magician. Harry wanted to call a new Chicago dime museum Thurston’s World Museum, but Thurston convinced him to drop this endeavor. Although he reluctantly agreed, this didn’t spell the end of Harry riding the coattails of Thurston’s burgeoning fame.

Toward the end of Thurston’s career, he reluctantly agreed to let Harry open a magic act and leverage his famous name. Thurston’s Mysteries of India opened on May 18, 1931 and wasn’t successful during its run. Harry didn’t have any of the finesse, charm, suave oratory abilities, or deft of hand that helped make his brother such a huge success. And Harry’s assistants claimed he was smuggling liquor during Prohibition, in partnership with his mob connections in Chicago and Cleveland. Apparently, good ‘ole Harry couldn’t give up his criminal activities. Harry died in Miami, Florida on May 6, 1941.




Thurston was married four times – his most enduring marriage was to Leotha Willadssen, a divorcee with a little girl. To the outside world, Thurston may have seemed like quite the catch since he had a successful career. In reality, he had an unpredictable temper, criminal past, shaky finances, failed marriages, and association with low-brow show biz he never quite shook, thanks in part to his brother Harry.

Grace Butterworth: The pretty, petite singer and dancer with a mass of blonde curls and green eyes wasn’t yet 16 when Thurston lied and bamboozled her into getting married in August 1897. Performing with and traveling with him in the early days of his magic career, Grace was subjected to unbelievable hardships. He alternately neglected and abused her and at a mere 20, Grace got fed up and left Thurston.

Beatrice Foster: Thurston met the small slender girl with alabaster skin and a huge crown of brunette hair when she was appearing in a Broadway play. When she was 20, Beatrice (nickname Tommy) applied to be Thurston’s assistant and since she no longer dreamed of stardom, was happy in this role. While she accompanied him all over the world on tours for seven years, his divorce from Grace wasn’t finalized until May 1910. They finally got married on June 1, 1910 at the Marble Church on 5th Avenue and 29th Street in Manhattan. After several years of estrangement and an apparent affair on her part, Thurston filed for divorce from Beatrice in October 1913 and it was finalized on April 24, 1914.

Leotha Willadssen: Unlike his first two wives who were petite waifs and small enough to fit into his magic trapdoors, Leotha was deemed too large to be a Ziegfield showgirl during her brief showbiz career. Apparently Thurston and Leotha had attended parties together and by the summer of 1914, both were recently divorced. Thurston was impressed by her wealth, Broadway friends, and social status – falling madly in love with her, unlike his previous wives whom were more of a convenient arrangement. They were married on November 5, 1914 and for the first time, Thurston reveled in his life as a family man. He adored Leotha’s daughter Jane, adopted her, and she would later star in his acts.

While Leotha was instrumental in making improvements to Thurston’s act, she was frequently ill. This put a strain on Thurston, especially since he was often traveling with his show. Although it isn’t referred to as a mental health disorder, it’s clear from the book that Leotha suffered from debilitating bouts of depression and was possibly suicidal. She became dependent on depressants to help her sleep and reduce pain. On April 8, 1934, Leotha died from an accidental overdose of Medicinal, a type of prescription barbiturate. A friend and maid reported that she had gone to the bathroom and taken an unknown number of tablets dissolved in water and became maniacal, prior to falling into a deep coma and dying at 6 pm the same evening. Poor Thurston was notified of this prior to going on stage. Jane later wrote about that night, “Someone once said, ‘The show must go on,’” and it did.

Paula Clark: Thurston met her when she auditioned to be an assistant with his show in the 1920s. At one time, she was married to Thurston’s chauffeur Kenneth Claude, and apparently had a reputation as a loose woman and heavy drinker. When they were married on May 25, 1935, Thurston was 66 and Paula was a mere 27. Jane was extremely displeased with the marriage and hissed insults at her new stepmom backstage. She married Charles Collins after Thurston’s death on November 22, 1938 and died in 1941 at the age of 33.

Poster, circa 1935

Thurston’s Last Bow

On October 6, 1935, Thurston had a four-day engagement at the Kearse Theater in Charleston, West Virginia. As Herman Hanson (Thurston’s technical director since 1929) helped him put his coat on, Thurston experienced a stroke, collapsing to the floor. Paula took him to Briarcliff Manor, New York and prevented Jane from seeing her father. When he was well enough, Thurston went down to Biloxi, Mississippi to be with his brother Harry and sister-in-law Rae. Subsequently, Paula and Thurston found an apartment near Harry and Rae’s in Miami Beach. On March 30, 1936, Thurston suffered a stroke during his sleep, and while his condition improved, he died from pneumonia on April 13, 1936 at age 66. At the time, Ed Sullivan of television fame worked at the New York Daily News as a columnist. He wrote, in part:

Millions of children have seen the slight, scholarly-looking magician scale a card from the stage to the top tier of the balcony, or float a girl’s body to the footlights and back again. Death exceeded Houdini, and now Thurston. The stage is poorer for their passing.

Photo sources: Collector’s Weekly, eBay, Library of Congress, Pinterest

One Comment:

  1. That was a great summation of the story. Sounds very interesting. I’m going to look the book up…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.