One thing I’ve learned over the years is, that if the inclination ever comes upon you to start pontificating and verifying a new theory in a long-held-and-ever-so-precious set of legendary beliefs, one can also expect a level of blowback.
Gallielo figured this out, and Socrates did too, as he gulped down the Hemlock of Enlightenment on his way off the anthropological turnpike.
About seven years ago, a guy walked into thrift shop in Fresno, California and said “hey that 2 dollar photo looks like Billy the Kid playing croquet.” He had zero idea that the cognoscenti was going to mobilize like white blood cells and attempt to take him out at the knees. It turns out that only ONE known picture of Billy the Kid was in existence and held the attention of the historians, the collectors, and the world in general. ANY attempt to dilute the status quo of the clandestine is an act of war. Don’t believe me? Read this rundown of experts, expressing their near delirium tremens that this thing could be valid.
All that was a set up to write about a new film Looking for Erdnase. A film that has nothing to do with William McCarty, William H. Bonney, or any to her other names used by young Billy–unless he happened to be a notorious card cheat and also happened to be around in 1902 to write a book.
Now, to those not familiar with magicians, card tricks and the bedrock literature that makes them tick, understand, one book has gained legendary status; a 1902 text that not only explains for the first time in print, card cheating techniques and feats of sleight of hand, but also carries with it a DB Cooper-level of mysterium—no one knows who wrote the book.
Thus, theories abound, mostly centered around the curious and apparently non-existent surname of the author, “Erdnase”–or more to the point, S.W. Erdnase.
One day, someone noticed that an anagram of the name in reverse would spell E.S Andrews, and the prognosticators have been flailing away at forensic spelunking expeditions ever since. Apoplexy has been in great supply.
So when a young German filmmaker decided he was going to make a movie about this issue, I had great fear that his youth and inexperience would see him trying to close the book on the subject–or try to be too cute by half. Hans-Joachim Brucherseifer did nothing off the sort.
In fact he did something that was smart: he made a film that presents the mystery and majesty of the shrouded writer and allows non-magicians to become wrapped up in the story. For the most part, it covers four main theories–all prevalent, all valid and all within the margin of plausible error.
The foreward to my Dover paperback edition has an essay written by the late Martin Gardner–who emphatically tries to present the author as a serial killing whoremonger named Milton Franklin Andrews. He does a marvelous job at convincing himself that this was case-closed, but the fervor in which he pronounces the issue to be resolved always bothered me. The movie covers this respectfully, and gives Gardner the credit he deserves for his passion and knowledge.
What’s interesting is, there are four camps of thought laid out between the numerous magicians and researchers that bring in commentary in the PBS sort of way. All of these people are credible thinkers, to include Jason England, who owns perhaps the largest collection of the 120 year old text, first edition. But even he has his biases like all of us.
The point being, the film is a snapshot of a continuing and perpetual conversation that has resided in the single longest conversational thread in all of magic’s on-line forums (some poor guy named “Roberto” asked a simple question in 2003, and 19 years later, none–to include me–can seem to shut up about it). It attempts to solve nothing–it just tries to illuminate interest for outsiders, and show that yet another rabbit hole of intrigue exists, in the event that someone gets bored with pursuing Jack the Ripper, The Lindbergh baby, or Jimmy Hoffa’s corpse.
I give the film four out of five stars for the humility in the effort and commend Mr, Brucherseifer for a job well done.