A woman rose in mid-air. Cards hovered, and a box of candy became a rabbit. A horse and rider vanished, floating away as if in a dream, spangles sparkling in audiences’ eyes. At the magician Howard Thurston’s show, the world flouted nature. Through it all, the audience felt Thurston’s affection. Dale Carnegie included Thurston in his famed self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People, because Thurston had told Carnegie that before every show, he stood behind the curtain, saying over and over, “I love my audience.”
In the 20th century’s first decades, Howard Thurston thrilled people with his own brand of stage magic, a giant production requiring 40 tons of equipment. Today, he’s all but forgotten, eclipsed in history by his contemporary Harry Houdini, even though Houdini was more of an escape artist than a magician. But in his day, Thurston was the best. “It’s sort of like the hype of everybody that wanted to see Hamilton,” says Rory Feldman, a magician with a Thurston collection of more than 65,000 pieces. “Thurston—that’s what it was.”
Born in Ohio, in 1869, Thurston had a rough childhood that included some time riding the rails. While contemporary accounts reported that he’d been training for the ministry when he decided upon magic, biographer Jim Steinmeyer says that the young Thurston was a near-criminal who escaped institutionalization by saying he had found religion. Steinmeyer unearthed correspondence between authorities about the high-school aged Thurston. “It’s kind of jaw-dropping what they write about this kid,” he says. “They say ‘If you don’t take him, he’s at the end of his game.’ And ‘I really think this guy is redeemable, but he’s the roughest case I’ve ever seen.’” Thurston overcame those early trials, hiding his background to become, by the time he reached his early 30s, a stage magician whose success rested in part on his gentlemanly demeanor, what Steinmeyer calls his “bank president” grandeur.
In his white tie and tails, Thurston performed incredible tricks. One, called the “Rising Card,” started with an audience member choosing certain cards, as if for a regular card trick. But expectations turned upside down when Thurston put the deck into a glass goblet. He would then call up certain cards—the king of spades, the ten of clubs—and they would rise two feet in the air, into his hands. The dazzling end was when all 52 cards were thrown, serially, into the audience. One reporter wrote that they fluttered to audience members “like beautiful butterflies.”
Audiences of the ’10s and ’20s loved magic. Many vaudeville shows included magic acts. Thurston inherited the “mantle of magic” from Harry Kellar, who popularized the floating woman illusion, or the “Levitation of Princess Karnac.” Thurston added Ziegfeld-inspired touches to his show, like gaudy costumes for his assistants. And he closely observed European magicians he encountered, as Steinmeyer writes, especially those at London’s Egyptian Hall, where the most accomplished magicians gathered.