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.

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!

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.

Art//Archives Sneak Peek: Clever Canines

Did you know that September is National Guide Dog Month? Neither did we!

In honor of guide dogs across this fine land, we’ll be featuring historical canines during tomorrow’s September 1st Art//Archives open hours.

Stop by Special Collections between 10:30 and 1:00 for a look at these sweet pooches.

Bad Children of History #16: The Recalcitrant Tomboy

I’ve been trudging my way through Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, a book about which I can’t articulate anything positive or negative that hasn’t already been said more thoroughly and eloquently than one could manage in an introductory paragraph to a blog post. However, in light of discussions around the book, I’ve been thinking about girls and women who defy society’s rigid expectations, those truly wonderful spinsters of fiction and their tomboyish counterparts— including, of course, “Romping Polly”, the free-spirited star of this week’s Bad Children of History.

Romping Polly is another of the ill-fated children from the classic Struwwelpeter, a book last featured in our first-ever Bad Children of History post. The illustrations of Polly below are again taken from the 1890 English translation of the book, published in Philadelphia by Porter & Coates.


At the very beginning of “The Story of Romping Polly”, we see her receiving a stern warning about her inappropriately-feminine styles of play:

I know that you will often see
Rude boys push, drive, and hurry;
But little girls should never be
All in a heat and flurry.

Nodding her tomboy-ish head, Polly acknowledges her aunt’s lecture, and then promptly scurries down some sort of decorative border and leaps toward her jumping and running playmates. Looks like fun, right?


WRONG! There’s nothing fun about falling down such that your leg detaches like a lizard’s tail. (Mind you, the text simply says that “her poor leg was broken”, but the illustration leads me to believe that it was something infinitely more drastic.)

Polly is carried away on a makeshift stretcher, while her detached leg (or should I say “the limb all wet and gory”) is carried away by her tearful brother.


Let’s choose to ignore the butcher’s knives in the lower left of that illustration, shall we?

What happened to poor, rough-playing, enthusiastically-frolicking Polly? How did her life turn out, in the wake of her inattention to compulsory 19th century feminine behavior?


Full many a week, screwed up in bed,
She lingered sad and weary;
And went on crutches, it is said,
Ev’n to the grave so dreary.

Yep. Little ladies, don’t try to play with the boys, or else you may end up a hunched woman in an unflattering bonnet walking with crutches toward your own gravesite. You wouldn’t want that, would you?

Art//Archives Sneak Peek: Storms!

The weather outside is borderline-frightful, but look how delightful these weather and storm books are!

We have books and manuscripts on meteorology, storm-related shipwrecks, the 1938 Rhode Island “tidal wave”, and urban flooding, as well as a book with a superb etching of “Lightning above a Volcano”.

Stop by Special Collections today, Tuesday, between 10:30 and 1:00 to hang out with these weather-related items!