2/18/13 - the last greatest magician in the world

In today's selection -- in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a golden age for American magicians on the vaudeville circuit, Howard Thurston was America's preeminent magician, besting even his friend and rival Harry Houdini. In 1883, however, Thurston was an fourteen-year-old runaway in Ohio. He had escaped from his abusive, alcoholic father and was trying to scrape together a living along the glamorous new railroad lines criss-crossing the country. The abuse he suffered was all too common given the extraordinarily high per capita consumption of alcohol in America -- which ultimately led to Prohibition -- as were the instances of teenagers leaving home in an era when the word "teenager" had not yet appeared, and high school was not yet established as a mandatory part of the American experience:

"With a little extra money earned from selling newspapers, Thurston was drawn to the fairgrounds, then the races -- he was just small enough to fantasize about being a jockey. Together with a friend, he found work as a stable boy and secured assurances that he could learn to ride. When the racing circuit left Columbus for Cincinnati, Howard left home without telling his parents. He knew that his decision would crush his mother. He pictured her standing by the window, waiting, sobbing. But he had come to fear his father's erratic behavior and violent discipline.

"Once he joined the races, the stable duties were too hard and too humiliating. Instead, he found another newsboy partner in Cincinnati, a redheaded adventurer who introduced himself as Reddy Cadger. Cadger was a fearless and seemingly invincible companion, 'the shiftiest youngster on his feet I have ever known,' Thurston later recalled, 'a wonder at jumping freight [trains]. I have seen him swing on passenger trains under circumstances that would make the most expert hobo think twice before risking his bones.' They were both fourteen. Cadger taught him the finer points of 'beating the rattlers,' which suddenly made every midwestern city available for adventure, free of charge. They jumped 'blind baggage,' the space between the engine and baggage car, sometimes rode the cowcatcher, just beneath the sight of the engineer, or 'hit the decks,' clinging to the top of the passenger cars. The most dangerous procedure was to ride the 'ticket,' a long board under the car, where they could lie just above the track. Climbing beneath the train, the boys endured the roar of the rails and the squeal of the trucks; they were pelted with dust, pebbles, ashes, and cinders; they clung perilously to the boards until their knuckles became numb, because with a sudden lurch they could be thrown beneath the wheels. 'Boring through the night on a teetering, racketing, plunging locomotive is very much, what I imagine riding a cannon ball might be like,' Thurston wrote.

"The boys bounced from Chicago, to Cleveland, and then back to Cincinnati. Howard thought about returning home, feared that his father would confine him to a house of corrections, and instead followed Cadger to St. Louis for the summer. They effortlessly earned money by selling papers, slept with the hoboes, stole food when necessary, or took advantage of the big-city newsboy charities. Reddy bought a copy of Modern Magic for his friend, who carried it with him everywhere as the pages became dog-eared.

"One night the two boys jumped 'blind baggage' on a train out of Chicago, but the brakeman chased them off. They dashed back as the train lurched from the train yard. Thurston scrambled up to the second baggage car. He thought he saw Cadger swinging onto the 'ticket' underneath, but he couldn't find him when the train reached Kansas City, Missouri. It was nearly a year later, in St. Louis, when Thurston heard from their friends that Reddy Cadger had been thrown to the tracks that night and killed."


Jim Steinmeyer


The Last Greatest Magician in the World


Penguin Group


Copyright 2011 by Jim Steinmeyer


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