Magician of the Week #38: T. Nelson Downs, the Mystic Wonder

This week’s star magician is T. Nelson Downs, who was both a Mystic Wonder and a Celebrated Prestidigitateur.


The image above is an advertisement from the back pages of Will Goldston’s Secrets of Magic (London: A. W. Gamage, 1903).

Downs was a highly successful self-taught magician, performing in well-known venues across the United States and Europe and prestidigitating (is that a verb?) for royalty. Because of his many well-known and elaborate coin tricks–illustrated by the spooky disembodied hands above–he was known as “The King of Koins”, an epithet that is engraved on his tombstone.

Also, and this seems too good to be true: T. Nelson Downs had two wives over the course of his 71 years, one named Nellie Stone and one named Harriett Rocky.

The internet archive has a digitized version of Downs’s The Art of Magicand Brown University’s Library houses the T. Nelson Downs Collection, which includes correspondence, documentation of tricks, photos, programs, and advertisements.

Art//Archives Sneak Peek: Books That Are Small

Tomorrow’s Tuesday open hours will feature small books– we’re defining that as books smaller than 32mo (i.e. “books that fit in Angela’s hand”).


Don’t worry, we have a magnifying glass. Stop by between 10 and 1 to see some of these little wonders!

Valerie Lester discusses Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World

Remember this guy?:


It’s been a year and a half since we celebrated Giambattista Bodoni and the 200th anniversary of his death. In all those years, no one has written a full-length English biography of the great printer and type designer – until now.

Join us at 6:00pm on Wednesday, October 7th for a lecture by Valerie Lester, whose biography of Bodoni is being published this month. Copies of the book will be available for purchase, and refreshments will be served. We’ll also have a selection of items from our collections of Bodoniana on display.

Bad Children of History #18: Jack Hall, Masked Bandit

Today’s brief update highlights wayward youth from Robert Grant’s 1888 book Jack Hall, or the School Days of an American Boy.

The book’s illustrator, F. G. Attwood, created the below likeness of some school boys, including the eponymous Jack Hall, who are obviously, blatantly up to no good:


Cigarettes! A variety of casual yet dashing hats! Big mugs! Knives stuck in the table!

These masked marauders are members of “Big Four”, a secret society of fourth-class boys who expressed their “vitality” through hijinks such as “the pilfering of neighborhood hen-roosts, the sealing up of the lock of the schoolroom door, [and] the firing of a tar-barrel in front of the Doctor’s very window”. A later illustration also shows them executing a daring, late-night escape involving a basket and a rope. Dreadful!

Extended Open Hours Start This Week!

Fall and winter are great seasons for settling in to a comfy chair with a good crossword, a compelling book, or a warm quilt– and they’re also great seasons for settling in to a less-comfy wooden chair in our reading room with a compelling whaling logbook, an 18th-century scientific treatise, or a folio of beautiful architectural plates.

To celebrate the arrival of these studious seasons, we’ve extended our weekly open hours. You now have your choice of seven different hours during the week when you can stop by Special Collections unannounced and appointment-free.

The new open hours are:

Tuesdays: 10:00 – 1:00
Wednesdays 3:00 – 7:00

Of course, we’re still open by appointment during other times when the library is open, and you’re welcome to call ahead if you plan to come to open hours and would like to see specific materials during your visit.

Exhibits, Current and Upcoming

If you haven’t gotten a chance to see our current exhibit, Iterations: From Paris to Providence, be sure to stop by the library soon!


The exhibit is in place until September 30th, and showcases early 20th-century pochoir prints alongside derivative contemporary works from local artists.


(If you’ve already seen the exhibit and it’s gotten you all abuzz about pochoir, you may be interested to know that RISD’s Continuing Education program is offering a class in pochoir printmaking this fall. You can see details about the class here.)

Stay tuned for our upcoming guest-curated exhibit, Stages of Freedom, which opens on October 19th!

Bad Children of History #17: The Web of Lies

Today’s Bad Child of History gets himself into a fine mess due to a nest of blackbird chicks. His name is Henry, and he hails from a tiny 1812 volume published in Philadelphia.

(That second photo isn’t blurry; the printing is slightly off and the text itself is fuzzy.)

As for Henry’s troubles: he and his closest friend, George, discover a nest of blackbirds, which they check on frequently. One day, overcome by a sudden terrible urge, Henry picks up the nest for himself and carries it out of the woods, a move which elicits a dire warning from the author:

Evil thoughts insinuate themselves so easily into the hearts of men, that they have need to be always on their guard against their approaches. Children, especially, should be watchful of the first impulse to do wrong, as from their weakness they are prone to error. This attention to themselves is an easy task, because they have their parents, or teachers, at hand, to assist them with their advice. Neither are they sufficiently aware, that a small fault in the beginning, may increase to an odious vice, which will corrupt their hearts, and debase their characters as long as they live.

I’m not certain that Henry’s theft increased to an odious vice, but it did escalate into a fine mess.

Uncertain what to do with the nest, and afraid that his friend George will find out that he took it for himself, Henry hastily trades the nest for a bag of marbles carried by a passing boy. Phew! He meets up with George and tells him that he found the bag of marbles.

While they’re playing marbles, another passing boy says, “Hey, you found my lost marbles!” Henry insists that he bought them. Whoops! As the author warns, “however cautious you may be, you will betray yourselves, for you will not be able to invent so many falsehoods as will be requisite to hide your dissimulation from your companions.

In an effort to defend his dissimulation, Henry refuses to turn over the marbles, resulting in a melee between some Bad Children of History and an unfortunate bloodied nose:


The following twists and turns are too complex to relate here, but the book ends with Henry burning up with fever, sobbing on his knees and begging for forgiveness from George and from his father, the latter of whom is now in possession of the nest of birds. How dramatic!

In a slight deviation from most moral tales, Henry doesn’t die of fever; instead, his big-hearted companions forgive him, and he learns an important lesson about telling the truth. He also grows into a man of “noble and generous sentiments”, which is really the best future scenario we could ask for.