The Hunt for Erdnase: The Nickname Theory and the Connection to August Roterberg
by Chris Wasshuber(This article is a work in progress. I will add and develop certain parts over the coming months.)
The mystery around the authorship of The Expert at the Card Table and who S. W. Erdnase really was, has lead to many theories and lots of speculation. In this article I am offering a completely new theory. I call it the Nickname theory. I will also try to develop the case for August Roterberg's involvement, either as the author himself, which I think is unlikely, or his participation on some level, which I think is almost certain. (If you are interested in the hunt for Erdnase I highly recommend you start your reading with Hurt McDermott's Artifice, Ruse and Erdnase book. It is the only objectively written book on this subject that does not try to sell one or the other favorite candidate. It therefore is the perfect primer to catch up on all the research and evidence that has been gathered so far.)
The ProfileI believe that Erdnase was a German immigrant who occasionally cheated at gambling using his sleight-of-hand advantage. He saw how well Roterberg did with card magic books and so Erdnase decided to write his own. Not wishing to use his real name he published his book under his German childhood nickname Erdnase. Very likely but not necessarily Erdnase knew Roterberg. Perhaps he was a friend, magician colleague or customer at Roterberg's magic shop. And perhaps Roterberg did help him get his book published. Maybe he connected him with printers and publishers, maybe he even helped writing/editing his book or provided other helpful pointers to Erdnase.
The NicknameAlmost the entire Erdnase research community is wedded to one or another anagramatical theory. Either they think the name is spelled backwards, S.W. Erdnase giving E.S. Andrews, or a more complex anagram like W.E. Sanders. Others allow further variations of the initials. My theory is very different and I think a lot more plausible. I believe the author had German roots, having grown up in Germany and then later he moved to the US. The linguistic analysis by Hurt McDermot suggests this. Since the author wanted to hide his real identity he used a pseudonym. I believe he used his childhood nickname Erdnase. The nickname Erdnase (in German literally 'Earth Nose') is sometimes given to kids in Germany who frequently dig in the soil and in sandboxes, because their faces and noses literally get full of soil or earth. It is also a nickname used in Germany for dogs, horses and pigs and other pets who like to dig up the ground and get their noses all dirty. (Google for 'Erdnasen' and you will find many examples.). Erdnase and particularly the plural form Erdnasen can also mean hills or mountains. (See for example Im fernen Osten. Reisen des Grafen Bela Szechenyi in Indien, Japan, China, Tibet und Birma in den Jahren 1877-1880 by Gustav Kreitner, page 610, third line from the top.) This establishes that the term Erdnase has been in use before The Expert at the Card Table has been published. The name S.W. Erdnase is therefore simply the German childhood nickname of the real author.
Erdnase uses noun phrases which are extremely common in German. As a native German speaker I would go so far as to say that these noun phrases and compound nouns are quintessential German. Wikipedia says on the subject of nouns: "German allows arbitrarily long compounds, as English does to some extent. In German these are quite common." I am therefore convinced that the author's first language was German. He later immigrated to the US and adopted English as his primary language retaining a prevalence for the distinctive German noun phrases. Roterberg himself came to the US from Germany when he was 16.
The initials S. W. may indeed be the real initials of the author, or may be arbitrary. I think both cases are equally likely. I don't have a good argument that one or the other situation would be more plausible. However, if there are German immigrants living in Chicago at that time in the right age group with initials S. W. I would consider these candidates much more interesting than others.
In summary the nickname theory is supported by
- The term 'Erdnase' has been in use at least since the late 19th century in Germany
- There is plenty of evidence for Erdnase being used as nickname for kids and pets in Germany
- A linguistic analysis of the text revealed high occurrence of noun-phrases which suggests the author had German roots and spoke German.
The Roterberg ConnectionThe Roterberg case has been made before [I need to find out who was the first who proposed him and who looked at him more carefully as a potential candidate]. I have not yet reviewed all the work that has been published on this theory, but I will lay out my own independent thinking on this theory.
As a first step you need to read Richard Hatch's article on August Roterberg that has been included in the digital edition of New Era Card Tricks. In this article Hatch makes the interesting observation that it was Roterberg who fathered the magic book as we know it today. Richard Hatch writes:
But perhaps Roterberg’s more significant legacy is that he inaugurated the modern age of magic publishing, for his books are the first substantial ones on conjuring in English written expressly for magicians. Those conjuring books that preceded Roterberg were either exposures rather than teaching texts or were—like the excellent works by Robert-Houdin, Hoffmann and Sachs—issued by mainstream publishers targeting a general (and often juvenile) audience. Roterberg’s books were published by a magic dealer specifically for sale in magical depots, rather than for wide distribution to the general public. When one considers that most serious magic books today are issued by specialty publishers to be distributed primarily through magic dealers, one recognizes in Roterberg the source of this publishing model in the English speaking marketplace.
New Era Card Tricks was first published in 1897. Frederick J. Drake and Company of Chicago published an abbreviated version of it under the title of Card Tricks, How to do them in 1902. The Expert at the Card Table was first self-published in 1902, printed by James McKinney & Company in Chicago, and in 1903 the publisher Drake starts to sell copies, too. Drake reprints Expert at the Card Table in 1904/1905. As John Hostler noted: "The proximity of copyright dates for Expert at the Card Table (2/17/1902) and Drake's Roterberg reprint entitled Card Tricks, How to Do Them... (2/15/1902) is no coincidence." This proximity in time is the first hint that suggests Roterberg should be considered a hot candidate. Roterberg essentially 'invents' the modern magic book, is financially very successful with it and then The Expert at the Card Table is self-published essentially at the same time, Drake sells copies only a year later, and it mentions a financial motive in the preface.
From this I conclude that Erdnase must have known Roterberg quite well or at least be on friendly terms with him - maybe a regular customer, because the fact that Roterberg was financially successful with his books would not have been public news in 1902. Yet, Erdnase chose to write a book at least in part to raise money.
Some have argued that the book was written by multiple authors, or that it was a 'cut and paste' job by the printer James McKinney. Some of the reasons for this line of thinking are that the book has two distinct sections, one about gambling and the other about magic. The text uses often the word 'we' instead of 'I' (which of course could also be simply a polite or royal 'we'). My own explanation for these observations are somewhat different. It is clear that Erdnase read and knew pretty much all the card gambling and magic literature available at that time. Since I believe Erdnase had German roots, he was also familiar with the German magic literature which was quite a bit more substantial during that period. I think that Erdnase borrowed sections from other books. I don't think he simply cut and pasted them, but he either literally (from the German) or figuratively translated effects and moves to be used in his own book. And this caused the text to appear as being from different authors. I also think that Roterberg was probably the editor/adviser of Erdnase's book project. He helped a fellow magician and German immigrant to get his book published. Getting a book published back then was no small feat. Having the help of somebody who has done it before makes it that much easier.
Most other candidates for Erdnasehood require sometimes grotesque ways to link the author to magic or gambling and 'put a deck of cards into their hands'. Also placing them in Chicago at the right time requires big leaps of faith with some candidates. Roterberg lived in Chicago and was an established magic dealer and author. He meets these requirements 100% with more hard evidence than anybody could require. The same applies to a magic colleague or customer of Roterberg.
As I have mentioned above, I personally do not think Roterberg is Erdnase. However, there is one additional argument that would support the case for Roterberg. Roterberg means in German 'red mountain'. Erdnase as I explained above can also mean in German mountain. Could the nickname of Roterberg be therefore Erdnase? Yes, it could. It would make sense. It would also make sense that Roterberg looked for a different word, a synonym, for his own name.
The SearchFinding somebody with a particular nickname is hard, because nicknames are usually not mentioned in official records. It is much easier to dream up an anagram and then search for candidates that roughly meet the age, occupation and lifestyle of what we imagine Erdnase must have been. That is why I think almost the entire body of research has been devoted to anagram candidates - it was easier to find candidates that way.
So how can we find somebody nicknamed Erdnase with German roots living in Chicago in Roterberg's circle of friends or a customer? Maybe the initials are his real initials. S. perhaps for Siegfried, Sebastian or Stefan, and W. perhaps Werner, Wolfgang or Walter. I don't know if there are records of German immigrants that could be searched for the initials S. W. At the same time if Erdnase was his nickname then S. W. could also be purely arbitrary. Perhaps a more fruitful approach is to see if we can find any German friends or colleagues of Roterberg, or perhaps we can locate a customer list.
Things to do:
- Have a professional linguist analyse the text and determine if one can say that the author spoke a different language in childhood and if this language was German. If this could be determined then Erdnase was a German immigrant, which would narrow the search.
- Find as much info on Roterberg as possible, particularly information on his friends, colleagues and customers. Maybe there is correspondence or customer lists, etc.
- See if one can create a list of all German immigrants living in Chicago in 1902. The initials S. W. could be used as an additional filter to narrow down the list.
In any case, that is where I am at. While most of my argumentation above is speculation, I consider all the other anagram theories a lot more speculative than the candidate I have outlined above. I think the key to unlocking the Erdnase mystery is Roterberg. Finding out more about August Roterberg his friends, colleagues and customers will lead us to Erdnase. Criticism, feedback and additional information particularly on Roterberg and his customers or colleagues are very welcome. I am welcoming anybody who would like to help in researching this theory. Please email me at email@example.com.
Paul Gordon (11/21/2014)
Dear Chris. I've been saying the following for thirty years and no one yet has listened. But, imho August Roterberg and Erdnase are one and the same. Why? Well, simply due to similarities in writing style. Your German Earth-Nose connection has nearly convinced me that I was/am right. Fascinating. Yours, Paul Gordon