Skepchick Book Club: The Last Greatest Magician in the World

Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club. We’re discussing The Last Greatest Magician in the World, a biography about Howard Thurston, a magician who surpassed Houdini in popularity back in the early 20th century but has since been largely forgotten by the general public. He was a quick-witted con artist with a soft spot for children (but not for his wives) and he is what we think of when we picture old-timey magicians (along with Herrmann the Great).

Join us in the thread to talk about the life of Howard Thurston and the history of early 20th century magic. And if you’re interested, this month’s dessert is a Cherry Dump Cake. My fellow Southerners should be familiar with this recipe, but to everyone else I promise it’s not as horrifying as it sounds!

“Psst, hey, nice suit. Do you know where I can find a Small and Tiny Devil’s Clothing store?”

Most of the people who attended the Boston Skeptics’ Book Club meeting liked this book, but what are your thoughts? Did you enjoy reading about the nuance and intricacies of the life of a 1920’s magician? Or did you find the book a little long-winded and too detail-oriented for your taste? Were you more inclined to think of Howard Thurston as a great man or mostly terrible because of how he treated his wives? Did it strike you as funny that Houdini was rarely mentioned in the book and yet he is one of the most well known magicians in today’s world? Also, how cool would it have been to travel the world in the early 20th century? Did it upset you to read about Delhi (the baby elephant) and the other animals mentioned?

Thurston was a complicated man (and nobody understood him–not even his woman). I liked the book because it gave a nice slice of life description of what the golden era of magic, back when people thought spirits were real and psychics were using supernatural powers (oh wait, people still think that). I enjoyed the emphasis on showmanship without–the way that magicians had to speak to a crowd, super-enunciating and yelling every word.

Today’s themed recipe is a Cherry Dump Cake, because it is so easy to make it’s like magic! (Yeah, I know the connection is a stretch, but the dessert is still good.) If you can open a can, you can make this dessert. You basically dump a can of undrained crushed pineapple in an 8×8 baking dish, dump a can of cherry pie filling on top of that, and dump a box of yellow cake mix on top of everything. Then top evenly with 2 sticks of sliced butter and some chopped nuts. Bake for 45 min – 1 hour at 350F, and enjoy! It’s like a rich, dense cobbler and it is fan-fucking-tastic.

Details for Next Book Club:

The next club will be on Sunday, August 26th, posted at 11 am EST. We will be reading The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean (you may recognize him as the author of The Disappearing Spoon). Come and join us then, if you are genetically inclined.

Featured Image: Jill Powell

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Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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  1. I found the book’s subtitle: “Howard Thurston versus Harry Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards” to be extremely misleading. This was a biography of Howard Thurston. Houdini really wasn’t mentioned all that much, and Thurston had a rivalry with almost every magician who was performing then. It almost felt like the author or publisher tacked on the subtitle and Chapter 1 in order to have the better-known Houdini as a hook to get people to read the book.

    It’s interesting that you ask if he was a great man. He was a master of his craft, but he was awful to both his wives and his colleagues. I guess I’d just have to say that he was a human being, with both wonderful and despicable traits. I did think it was neat how he performed matinees for children’s polio wards.

    I actually would have liked a little more detail on some aspects of his relationships, even in a book as packed with other details as this was. Like, why did it take so long to get a divorce from Grace?

    One thing I found very interesting was the concept of ownership of magical illusions. Currently, any magician might have a levitating assistant or saw someone in half, and it never really occurred to me that the originators of these illusions saw them as their intellectual property. And that extended beyond the specific mechanics of how the trick was done to the very concept of the trick. I wonder if modern magicians continue in that vein. Presumably these classic illusions belong to everyone, but does a new illusion belong to the person who came up with it?

  2. Way too many people named “Harry”. Harry Kellar, Harry Thurston, Harry Houdini, Harry Blackstone (Sr. and Jr.), Harry Harris, Harry Potter, Harry Davis, Harry Couzens, Harry Jansen, Harry Leat, Dr. Harry Benjamin and Harry Jolson.

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