T. Nelson Downs is surely a name everyone in magic has heard of. Even if youre new to magic, you might have heard of the Downs Palm. Or at least the Misers Dream effect. And yet with his popularity, do we really know much about T. Nelson Downs? Probably not, and so, decided to put on the old Detective hat and find out more…
He was born Thomas Nelson Downs, March 16, 1867 in Garwin Iowa, though most references just say Marshalltown where he grew up. According to David Prices fine historical book Thomas was actually a twin, but his fellow twin did not survive, and word was that few believed Thomas would survive being only 2 lbs at birth. He did survive and was the youngest of three children. His father died when he was only 6 months old and the family moved around, eventually ending up in Marshalltown Iowa.
How did Downs become interested in magic? Here is it is his own words, “"I was first inspired by a 'Town Hall' magician when I was about 12 years old, after seeing him turn ink to water and make cards rise magically from the pack, etc. It was all easy and simple to me s o I went home and duplicated t h e perform- ance and immediately commenced to study the art by pur- chasing all the books on the subject I could find."
At least one of the books was likely Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic which came out in 1876. Downs himself also said, “Ed Reno got me started in the business”, but I think this refers to being a professional, NOT how he got started initially. Faucet Ross, in the Feb 1939 issue of The Linking Ring reveals that in Marshalltown Iowa, there lived a man named Frank Taylor. Mr. Taylor was the manager of a business called The Old Bowler which was right next to and actually part of The Chicago & Northern Railroad Station. Mr. Taylor was known to be an above excellent sleight of hand man and manipulator and is even mentioned in the book Leaves of Conjurers Scrap Books by Burlingame.
It turns out that T. Nelson Downs worked as a telegrapher or telephraph operator at the Railroad station, the same time Frank Taylor was working at The Old Bowler. It’s certainly possible that Thomas Downs learned some magic from Taylor, though Downs never revealed this to anyone during his life. If nothing else, Taylor could have served as an inspiration to Downs who was just learning. OR Taylor might have been the magician that Downs saw as a kid? Hard to say.
Young T. Nelson Downs, as I just mentioned took a job as a telegraph operator at the Chicago and Northern Railroad Station when he was 16 years old. He would continue working there until 1895. And numerous sources say that it was during his 12 years at the railroad station that he perfected his skills in manipulation. He was constantly seen with coins or cards while working. He worked the night shift when things were slower so that gave more time to concentrate on manipulation. By the way, I’ll be referring to T. Nelson Downs as Tommy Downs from here on out. That was the name his friends called him.
In 1890, Tommy Downs married Nellie Stone. In October 1894, his son Raymond was born. But only a few months later, on April 8th 1895, his wife Nellie died. Raymond was sent to live with his grandparents and Tommy would go out on his own as a performer.
Now to back track just slightly. When Tommy was 16 he gave his first public performance. The program was a variety show with a number of performers, only one was singled out as probably being professional and that was Tommy. This event was recorded in his local paper, so we know that Tommy was doing shows even while working for the Railroad Station.
Now if we fast forward to 1891, Tommy Downs did not start out as The King of Koins. He worked with a partner who was a mandolinist, Sam Siegal. Tommy presented manipulation, as well as escapes, hypnotism, and even mind reading ala John Randall Brown (which it says in the David Price MAGIC A Pictorial History of Conjurors In The Theatre). BTW, I covered John Randall Brown in Ep 15 of the podcast. I would imagine that either Tommy took gigs on his days off, or during the day, so his shows had to be close enough that he could make it back to the Railroad Station at night. The partnership with Siegal didnt last long.
Now, we are up to 1895, Tommy’s wife Nellie passed away and he decides to go out on his own. Despite consulting with other magicians about the possibility to doing an ALL COIN ACT….he was discouraged to do so by everyone)…..he did it anyway. He took an engagement at the Hopkins Theatre in chicago with his Misers Dream act and it was a huge hit. In a letter to Faucett Ross, Tommy shares a story from that show. “Show business is a funny thing. The first vaudeville house I ever worked was the Hopkins Theatre, in Chicago. While there the manager told me, ‘DOWNS, you have a great act, but you will never be a real success in this country until you first make a success in Europe.’ He was 100% right. After a year in England, France and Germany, I was besieged with offers and contracts in America. And it is a poor rule that won’t work both ways. I have met a lot of European acts that got nowhere in their own country until they first made a hit in America.”
No one had ever seen an act like Tommy’s. He was the first of the speciality acts and likely the first of the all manipulation acts. His success in the midwest caused his salary to rise and he went to New York City and then off to England.
Tommy claimed to have invented the Misers Dream…though the trick itself goes back many years having been presented by 19th Century conjurers as The Shower of Money, Aerial Treasury and other names. Rather it would be better served to say that Downs created THE ACT Known as The Misers Dream, as he did greatly expand upon the trick, adding unique sleights and clever moments and bits of business to the routine. A point not often mentioned, Tommy spoke throughout the act, it was not presented silent to music. So he had witty patter to go along with his amazing sleight of hand.
His book, Modern Coin Manipulation does a great job capturing the various parts of the act. Though the book contains sleights that I can’t help but wonder are not things he used in his act, but put in to create the illusion of great difficulty to anyone reading it.
In Oct 1895, Mahatma Magazine said of Downs, “All his work is absolutely new, original and puzzling, even to magicians. We are frank to say that we believe him to be the cleverest man living with coins, and justly entitled to the name, “King of Koins”.
In 1895, the inventor of the handcuff act. Mr. B.B. Keyes, sold his act through the magic dealer W. D. Leroy of Boston. It was sold as, “Escape From Sing Sing, OR The Great Handcuff Act”. The first person to purchase it was Tommy Downs. But it doesn’t appear that he ever used them. In the November 1930 issue of The Sphinx, T. Nelson Downs relates a story of meeting up with Houdini at their hotel while Houdini was working the London Alhambra. Downs took from his trunk a ring of 52 keys and said to Houdini, "Here are the tools you do your act with." Houdini replied, "Tom, I don't use keys. You know I did not have the money to buy the keys" etc. Then Downs said, "Well you can't open them with hot air!"
From Leroy's Catalog, the price of the Great Handcuff Act was $75.00. I went through the catalog and most everything was under $10. A few items reached $20 and $30 and a Sub-trunk reached $50. But here was the act that put Houdini on the map, and it's price much much higher than everything else. Perhaps Houdini, didnt have the money, lol. Or maybe he did.
There is a great story that is related in numerous sources about Downs first visit to New York City. Downs stopped into Otto Maurer's Magic shop and told him that he was in town performing, not only that, he was making $100 a week. Maurer said to Downs, "No magician has ever been paid that kind of money, GET OUT of my shop!" At least one source claims the amount was $150.
Otto Mauer was known to have taught the Front and Back Palm to a number of magicians. But Tommy claimed he first did the trick at the Opera House in Boone Iowa around 1891. By 1898 he had turned it into an act of it’s own, by making multiple cards vanish, showing his hands empty and then reproducing the cards one at a time. He would use this as an encore to his Misers Dream Act.
In April of 1899, Tommy Downs secured a booking to play England, specifically the Palace Theatre in London. It’s safe to say he took London by storm as no one had seen an act like his. He was constantly being interviewed in the paper for his unique act. Soon, other American acts would find their way to London, folks like Thurston, Houdini, Lafayette, William Robinson and more. David Price’s book even says Robinson confided in Downs that he was going to challenge the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo. So Downs suggested to Robinson to use the name ‘Chung Ling Soo’.
Will Golston wrote this of Tommy Downs “ T. Nelson Downs, the King of Koins—and truly he deserves the title, is "one of the best," both as Magician and Gentleman, and as talent is sure to come to the top, and he has an abundance of it, he has certainly got there. His manipulation of coins is marvellous, his audiences are often to be seen open mouthed, and amazed at his wonderful dexterity. “
Downs tells this story about his days of working in the train station. Sometimes when things were slow he would go out into the waiting room and show tricks to the travelers, farmers, or whoever was there. There was one incident when he showed some coin magic to Fred Stone and his brother, they were working with the Taylor Circus at the time doing a high wire act. Well, fast forward 14 years and Fred Stone was in London performing. On this particular day he was visiting with some fellow performers. One of the entertainers was bragging about the incredible coin manipulations presented by T. Nelson Downs at the London Palace Theatre. Fred spoke up and said, “I’m sorry but the best coin man on the planet works at a little train station in Marshalltown Iowa.” Well it turned out they were both correct because that little telegraph operator was now headlining the Palace!
In another letter Tommy wrote, “One of the first magicians I met in London was Charles Bertram and he told me, ‘DOWNS, you are really not a magician but a manipulator and juggler. Why don’t you do tricks?’ I answered, The reason I don’t do tricks is because everyone else does tricks. If I did tricks I probably would not be playing the Palace!”
Another of Tommy Down’s first contacts in London was William Hilliar who saw Tommy at the Place Theatre. He soon became his agent. Tommy continued on at the Palace for 6 months. They actually wanted him to stay longer but he had other engagements to attend to. It was during this time that Tommy wrote the book, Modern Coin Manipulation, which would explain his entire act, plus many of the unique sleights he had developed over the years. William Hilliar edited the book.
Speaking of William Hillar, this incident involved him and takes place in the early 1900s. He says, “I visited the Theatre de Robert Houdin in Paris. They had a replica of Houdin’s stage settings large center and two side tables with traps running through to the wings. The performance was given by a French conjurer named Carmenelli. One of his features was the Rapping Hand. A few years later, I again visited Houdin’s theatre accompanied by Nelson Downs. Carmenilli did the aerial treasury, borrowing Down’s hat for the purpose. I wonder if he ever knew that he was using the masters hat!”
Here is more from Hilliar via Mahatma Magazine. “I have been in Paris the last month, but have not seen much conjuring. According to what I am told Magic does not seem to take on here at all. There is, however, one exception i.e. T. Nelson Downs (King of Coins) whose wonderfully clever coin act goes great here and he has, I understand, been re-engaged for the next three years at the Folies Marigny, the most fashionable theatre in Paris. This notwith- standing the fact that one ot his best imitators preceeded him in Paris, but when Downs appeared the public could tell at once that there was only one King of Coins. I wonder what Robert Houdin would say could he but witness Down's show ? If I remember rightly Robert
Houdin said that with practice it was possible to palm 2 coins. Downs palms 45 ! But in addition to his digital cleverness, he has that gen- tlemanly appearance and pleasing manner which makes his show go. He is booked for three solid years in the finest theatres in the world at an enormous salary and he carries his apparatus in his waistcoat pocket ! Now I'll give you the secret of Downs' success—ORIGINALITY. He originated the "King" idea, and although he has been copied by hundreds, the others are not in it. There you are my mag- ical brothers, work out some new idea and you will suddenly become famous. “
Here is Down’s talking about an incident in Paris. “I have often wondered just how much an audience sees when a magician does a trick. In 1900 I was playing a long engagement at The Marigny Casino in Paris. One night I walked out on the stage, started to do the act and then suddenly discovered that I have forgotten to load up with coins. I had a top hat but no coins—-they were on a table in the wings. What could I do? Well, I started the act without the coins—just pantomiming catching them from the air for about 3 minutes. Then I took a bow and received terrific applause. During the applause, I stepped offstage, loaded up and continued the act but, honestly, I don’t think that audience ever knew the difference.”
And here is a story from a letter to Faucett Ross from Tommy Downs, “As you know I played 26 consecutive weeks at the Palace Theatre in London. After my first show there Mr. Morton, the Manager, came backstage and complimented the act. He said, Mr. Downs, I am particularly impressed by the slow and deliberate manner in which you walk off and on the stage. It is very impressive.’ Well, I did not have the nerve to tell him the truth. You see, when I first arrived in London I did a lot of walking in order to see the sights. The result was I developed sore feet and there was no choice- I HAD to walk slowly. So I’ve been doing it ever since. Another interesting thing happened during my Palace engagement. After a few weeks I decided to build up the act a bit by using the coin wand which I always liked. Well, after the first show using the wand, Mr. Morton came to the dressing room and said, “Mr. Downs, my patrons are utterly intrigued with your great digital dexterity, but tonight you disillusioned them by using that mechanical stick which has no place in your fine act.’ Well, I saw that he was right and I never used it again from that day to this. It’s a good trick, but not for me."
In 1901, John Northern Hilliard was the dramatic critic and editorial writer for The Rochester Post Express. He wrote a glowing review of Downs act. Here is a little of what he said, “There is a real magician in Rochester. His name is T. Nelson Downs and he is working his wonders at the Cook Operah House this week. Mr Downs is billed as The King of Koins and there is no magician on any stage in any country today who can compete with Mr. Downs as a manipulator of either coins or cards. This is much conceded even by members of Mr. Downs own profession. He stands absolutely alone in his chosen field.”
While in London, Downs became a sensation. He not only worked the Palace Theatre, but he appeared before The Prince of Wales who would go on to become King of England, at a private event. The Prince loved Tommy’s magic so much that after the performance was over, he was requested to stay and teach some magic to the Prince, which he gladly did.
Shortly after his performance for the Prince of Wales, he was appearing before Queen Victoria. In fact, his standing with the Royals of Europe was quite high. He performed before Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Abdul Hamid the Sultan of Turkey, and The Czar of Russia.
As he toured throughout Europe he appeared in Paris at the Marigny Casino and the Follies Bergere, The Wintergarten in Berlin, and when he returned to London he appeared at the Empire Theatre for forty weeks at twice the money he made at the Palace Theatre.
Now here is something that came as a big surprise. Tommy Downs was interested in illusions, as in Grand Illusion. As early as 1900 he had purchased an illusion, where a woman, is tossed into the air, away from any furniture or stage settings and vanishes in a flash of flame. He purchased this from William Hilliar. In 1905 he worked with illusionist Ernest Thorn (ep 41 of the podcast), and created and patented an effect for making a person or object vanish while suspended under table. He also worked with Will Golston and created and illusion where a person could appear inside a glass bottle which was also suspended in the air. The effect is in the book, LATEST CONJURING by Goldston, came out in 1905, the illusion is called, The Goldstone-Downs Bottle Illusion.”
In 1905 Tommy Married Harriet Rockey on June 3rd. She already had a son who was born in 1896. I don’t know if this son was his, or if he later adopted the boy. In 1908 John Northern Hilliard edited Downs book The Art of Magic. Years later John Northern Hilliard would go on to become Howard Thurston’s publicity agent.
In 1910, this illusion idea comes back up, this time he teams up with a fellow from California, who was fairly unknown at the time, his name was Guy Jarrett.
Together they created a new act, which would start with Down’s Misers Dream Act, and then they would present 4 unique illusions. All of these were creations of Jarrett’s. The act was called ‘In Mid-Air Illusions’. He clearly has something for this concept. The first illusion was Guy’s Boy, Girl and Sack. It was a transformation effect where a rather large woman was placed inside a sack which was suspended in mid-air. She would vanish from there and appear in the audience, while a skinny man came out of the sack.
Another effect was The Table Coat Dissappearance. A small undraped table that has been standing in plain view is now placed in center of stage. The assistant puts on a long coat and hat, climbs up on the table, the magician pulls the coat and hat up in mid-air by aid of a rope and pulley attached, when the coat collapses the man is GONE!
The final illusion was called The Mystery of Mysteries. This was Jarrett’s Bangkok Bungalow Illusion, which was an incredible mystery, which later became a feature of Howard Thurston’s show. But Down’s was the first to get these illusions. The coin manipulator who always traveled light, was now hauling 2400 lbs of baggage and two additional assistants. For whatever reason, the act did not play well. Perhaps Downs was not cut out to be an illusionist.
In another letter to Faucett Ross, Tommy writes, “I have never claimed to have invented all the tricks in magic. I did take the old coin catching trick, elaborated it, added a few new sleights, a new manner of presentation and made an act out of it. I do claim to be the originator of the famous Dime and Penny trick. I got the idea in 1909 and in 1910 a jeweler friend of mine made up the first outfit for me. After a few months, I showed it to a friend of mine who was a traveling man. He showed it, without my permission, to Carl Brema, the Philadelphia Magic dealer, who, not knowning it was mine, put it on the market. During the past 20 years, thousands of them have been sold, but as for me, I’ve never received any cash or credit. The moral of this is—if you have something really good, either keep it to yourself or make sure you will be reimbursed if it is placed on the market.”
Tommy’s mother passed away on February 19th 1910 in Marshalltown. But along with that a rather strange occurrence. The very same day Mrs. Down’s died, her sister who lived quite a distance away in New York City, also died. Both of them were 78 years old. Another strange connection that twins have I guess.
In March of 1911, another tragedy struck, this time Tommy’s house caught fire. The odd thing was he had just sold the house but had not yet moved out. He lost all of his belongings, all his furniture, clothing, and his magic equipment. The loss was reported to be around $2500 worth of items, but his insurance policy only covered $500. What did Tommy Downs do about it? He quickly got back on the road and started working.
Tommy Downs was a man with a plan. And that plan was to make $50,000. The equivalent of a little over a million dollars today. He reached that goal in 1912 and set out to retire. I apparently purchased some rental property in Marshalltown and moved back to his hometown. He was 42 when he left the stage. He would occasionally come out of retirement for private gigs and charity events. In fact, he created a full evening show, which is quite fascinating. Here again, in Tommy’s own words…”My full evening show runs about like this. I usually open with the torn and restored paper ribbon (his own version). Then a simple cigarette routine concluding with vanish of lighted cigarette at fingertips. I follow this with about 5 minutes of billiard ball manipulations. next the Misers Dream, my speciality. I then go into card work—-Ladies Looking Glass, General Card, Mental Spelling, Two Card Stabbing, a few fancy shuffles, and conclude with my BackPalm routine. Next a borrowed bill in lemon which amazes them. I think vanish a handkerchief and reproduce it from a spectators coat collar, followed by a showing of about thirty more handkerchiefs. I always finish with a patriotic number. I produce a red, white and blue handkerchief and blend the into a 36 inch silk American Flag and then when the spectators think it is all over, BINGO, I produce two big six foot flags on staffs. Thats about all there is to it. Just a small three ring circus in one suitcase and no fuss or bother.”
T. Nelson Downs remained close to magic world, attending conferences, corresponding with and meeting with magicians when he could. He and Houdini were good friends spending many hours together talking magic. They originally met many years before at The Chicagos Worlds Fair.
In the July 1901 Mahatma, this appears, “Travelers returning from Europe report the existence of a powerful mutual admirations society composed entirely of magicians, whose acts are features. The passwords are, “HOUDINI, I’ve seen all kinds of magical acts, but without exception, your is really the acme of perfection.” OR “DOWNS, I don’t often praise a man, but whenever I see your act I can’t help thinking that there can never be another act conceived that will be so really marvelous” It is rumored that there are only two members of this society.
|In Houdini's Backyard, Downs on far Right. (CarnegieCollection)|
One year later both Houdini and Downs would be early members of the newly formed Society of American Magicians. There are many pictures of Downs and Houdini together. One taken very early in both their careers, probably in London. One of the last was taken in Houdini’s backyard.
In 1935, Downs started suffering from an illness that lasted 3 years. He died on September 11th, 1938 and is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown Iowa.
I thought I’d end this podcast slightly differently than usual. Faucett Ross had exchanged many letters with Downs during his life. The GEN Magazine in Jan 1958 featured an issue with many of those letters. I’ve included several of them in the podcast, but Id like to leave you with some advice from T. Nelson Downs himself.
“If I had an constructive advice to offer a young person starting out in magic, it would be this—At the outset he should do as many different tricks and routines as possible before the public. By so doing he will soon discover the things he can do the best and the ones that register most strongly.”
“I turned down a lot of chances to do my act for fifteen or twenty dollars. I could use the money but I can’t afford to lower my reputation by working cheap. The more they pay you the more they will respect and enjoy you. A fellow called me the other night and said, “Mr. Downs, we would like to book your act but we do not have much money right now.” I answered, “Well, I’m a patient guy, so I’ll be willing to wait until you get enough.”
“Magicians nowadays are always complaining that there is nothing new but the trouble is that they can’t see the forest on account of the trees. There are dozens of good tricks described in books that most magicians have never bothered to read and that one of them have ever tried out in public. Take my own book, The Art of Magic for example. Turn to page 107 and read the description of my own version of The Flying Cards. For nearly 30 years I have been doing the trick on stage and off exactly as described. The turn to page 71 and read details of The General Card. This is my favorite card trick and almost an act in itself. Let me have this one and you can keep all the rest of them.”
And finally a few words from Tommy Downs that should be eye opening to every magician.
This is from the Feb 1923 MUM Magazine.
"Allow me to state that our late beloved Harry Kellar was not only my personal friend, but I was one of his most ar- dent admirers. However, Alexan- der Herrmann has always been to my mind the "Ideal Magician." Herrmann looked, lived and acted the part. He had three or four small tricks, brought to a state of, near, perfection. These tricks were a part of his personality, and he never lost an opportunity to exploit them.
Now, I claim, the great trouble with most magicians is: They want to look and act like Herrmann, and what is more, and worse, they want to do the same tricks he did and in exactly the same style. "It can't be did.”" By the way, you could take out the Name Herrmann here, and insert, Copperfield, Blaine, ShinLim, Darren Brown, I think you get my point.
He further goes on…
"The late Charles Bertram of, "Isn't it Wonderful" fame was playing at the Grand Theatre in Chicago. The late William Robinson (Chung Ling Soo) took me down into Ber- tram's dressing room, where I did my full act for him. When I had finished
Mr. Bertram said: "Very clever, young man, but—Why don't you do "tricks." I then replied, "the reason I don't do tricks is because other magicians do tricks." I believe neither Mr. Bertram nor I realized the full significance of the remark until several years later, when I was creating quite a sensation at the Pal- ace Theatre, London, where I re- mained a feature for twenty-six con- secutive weeks. Y our reference to the Winter Garden, Berlin, reminds me that I was warned by profession- al friends and theatrical agents not to sign a contract for that establish- ment, I was assured my act would be a complete failure there, and and would ruin me for Germany. The predictions, as you are aware, were all wrong, as I played there, eight weeks in 1900, and a month's return engagement about a year later. No doubt, the fact that I pos- sessed a very strong and penetrating voice, and knew how to use it to fairly good advantage, had consider- able to do with my success there and elsewhere. I have always con- tended that a magician, to meet with any marked degree of success, must be an actor—hundreds of people do tricks—but they cannot all CONVINCE, — yes, that's the word, CONVINCE an audience. My point is that it is not the particular trick that makes the magician, but it is the magician who makes the particular trick. I claim the public did not go to see Kellar's and Herrmann's tricks, but, on the contrary, they went to see the individuals, — great men's personalities in particu- lar. Their tricks were simply incidental. I will further elucidate: A few days ago I made a long voyage to see a celebrated mystifier—getting myself up at six A. M. with the thermometer at 20 below zero and traveling some seventy miles to see this miracle worker. Can anyone imagine me going seventy miles to see a mere magician do tricks! Not on your life!”" The man Downs was going to see was HOUDINI. I just found that line so incredible, “Hundreds of people do tricks but they can’t CONVINCE.” To do that takes a very special performer, part actor, part magician, a person who LIVES his or her material. That is incredible wisdom from Tommy Downs.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the podcast. I do want to mention one other thing in regards to Down’s famous act The Misers Dream. Back in 2008 Levent, the great comedy magician and excellent manipulator, put out a DVD set on the Misers Dream. It has 5 hours worth of sleights and tricks, including the routines of Al Flosso, Charlie Miller, Roy Benson, Paul Potassy, Robert Houdin and of course, T. Nelson Downs. It’s well worth checking out. IT is extensive. And yes, it’s a teaching DVD. I honestly do not know if they’re available anymore, but you could contact Levent through his website LeventMagic.com to find out.
All of the references are in Bold Letters within the article, so they are easy to find.
This was Episode 23 of the podcast and was one of the most popular of the entire run.
AFTER I put the podcast up, I wrote a companion article about Downs & Houdini which can be found here: https://www.themagicdetective.com/2019/05/the-king-of-koins-king-of-escape.html