February 03, 2007

True Crime > Saturday Morning Mystery: Who Was S. W. Erdnase?

Published in 1902, The Expert at the Card Table is apparently the classic text on card manipulation, also known as cheating. The author wrote under the pseudonym of S.W. Erdnase. A hundred years later people are still searching for his true identity.

Erdnase is such as awkward false name that it seems reasonable to guess that it's a reversal or some other anagram of the author's true name. The Wikipedia entry names Franklin Andrews and Wilbur Edgerton Sanders as candidates for being Erdnase, and ends with this teaser:

Research for an upcoming documentary has uncovered correspondence between noted physicists and authors Stanley Wesley Stratton and Robert Andrews Millikan on the subject of conjuring and crooked gambling. In 1896 Stratton suggested a textbook on the subject. Further evidence suggests that Millikan and Stratton hired Professor Hoffman to write the book based (partly) on notes they provided.

An August 16, 2000 Wall Street Journal article by Rachel Emma Silverman, "Into Thin Air: Writer Reveals Magic Tricks, Then He Disappears" gave popular coverage to Erdnase. I don't have access to the article, but summaries say it mentions Erdnase candidate Wilbur Edgerton Sanders, as well as a James Andrews and an Edwin Sumner Andrews.

Todd Karr has much more information about what is known and what is supposed about Erdnase. He offers his own best guess as to the author's true identity:

On November 23, 1901, shortly before the publication of The Expert at the Card Table, the Fort Wayne News reported on a scam perpetrated in Kokomo by “A stranger giving his name as E. S. Andrews of the Brandon Commercial Company, Chicago.” The news report stated that the con man had a clever collections-agency scheme that succeeded in bilking forty local merchants and physicians.

Andrews had come to Kokomo three weeks prior and convinced the businessmen and doctors to hire him to collect their debts. Each participant paid Andrews a “membership fee” of $15 (or about $900 total). The newspaper reported that “Before leaving, Andrews collected several accounts from debtors, all of which he took with him, the merchants or physicians receiving nothing.”

We thus have a candidate whose name is a precise reversal of the pseudonym S. W. Erdnase, a con man based in Chicago who was clever enough to swindle businessmen and doctors, and someone who appears to have had over $900 in his pocket just before The Expert at the Card Table was published.

Another article lists several candidates, and claims that "erdnase" would translate to "earth nose" in German. That could be a clue pointing towards mining engineer Wilbur Edgerton Sanders, though it seems like a bit of a stretch.

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