Notorious Crooks: Who Was Erdnase? 

It is Nov. 6, 1905. Police have surrounded a room at 748 McAllister Street. Hiding in the room is Milton F. Andrews, a notorious card shark and probable serial killer. But was he also "Erdnase," author of the greatest book on conjuring ever written? The search for Erdnase is one of the greatest and most controversial mysteries in the history of magic.

Born in Connecticut in 1872, Andrews picked up an early interest in magic and card manipulation and became a professional gambler at 18. By 1900, he was one of the best card sharks in the country.

In 1902 a man calling himself S.W. Erdnase self-published "The Expert at the Card Table." This 143-page book explained and demonstrated the "shuffles," "shifts," and sleight-of-hand techniques used by card sharks and magicians. The first edition sold poorly, and the author reduced the price to $1 per copy.

By 1903, Andrews was at the peak of his career, claiming an annual income of more than $20,000 (worth $600,000 today). But life as a hustler had taken its toll. He had developed serious digestive problems and a raging temper.

He took up with Bessie Boutin, a prostitute with a taste for luxury. They fought frequently over her drinking and his jealousy. In October 1904, Boutin disappeared in Denver, and Andrews left town with her jewelry. When her body was discovered, he was the main suspect in her death. Andrews was later linked to two other unsolved murders.

In November 1904, Andrews met Nulda Olivia, who was to be his lifetime companion. The couple fled to Australia, where they met William Ellis, a crooked jockey who became their gambling partner. When their victims grew suspicious, the trio took their winnings and booked passage back to America. Andrews and Olivia rented a cottage in Berkeley under the name of Brush, and Ellis stayed in a nearby hotel. Andrews' health had worsened and he was living entirely on bread, health food and malted milk.

His jealousy turned deadly when he thought Ellis had designs on Olivia. On October 11, Andrews invited Ellis for lunch at his cottage. During the meal, he crept up behind Ellis and brought a large hammer down on his skull — a blow that would have killed an ordinary man, but Ellis had an unusually thick skull and was able to escape. Milton and Olivia hastily gathered their valuables and fled to San Francisco.

The attack was front-page news, and when police learned Andrews' real identity, a massive manhunt was initiated. Because of Andrews' health, police kept a close watch on all the health food stores. Olivia rented a room at 748 McAllister Street posing as a single woman. A few weeks later, the owner of a local grocery store mentioned to police that a single woman was buying large amounts of bread and malted milk. Police put the room under surveillance and saw the shadow of a tall thin man behind the curtains in her room. Andrews, feeling that the net was closing around him, sent The San Francisco Examiner a rambling letter denying the murder charges against him and justifying his attack on Ellis.

That night, two officers pounded on her door. "You will enter at your peril," she cried. Moments later, two shots rang out from within the apartment. When police entered they found the bodies of Andrews and Olivia. They were buried side by side in unmarked graves.

By 1905, "The Expert at the Card Table" was back in print and rapidly making its way through magic circles. Over time, the book, often called "The Bible" became the most influential book ever published on the art of conjuring. The biblical comparison is appropriate; magicians argue about "The Open Shift" with the same ferocity that Christians disputed the divinity of Christ.

The "Expert at the Card Table" has been published in more than 40 editions, translated into five languages, and has inspired a string quartet, a musical and a play. But the author's identity remains unknown. Investigators believed S.W. Erdnase to be an anagram of the author's real name. Spelled backwards it is E. S. Andrews.

Martin Gardner, who wrote a puzzle column for Scientific American, interviewed the book's illustrator, Marshall Smith, in the 1940s and concluded that Erdnase was Milton F Andrews. Many magicians were horrified by the idea that the magic's "bible" was written by a murderer and sought alternative candidates.

In 2000, a first edition of the book sold for more than $10,000. This spurred additional research and speculation. Today, the leading possibilities include a mining engineer named W.E. Sanders, a railroad agent named Edwin Summers, Andrews and a con artist named E.S. Andrews, whose names are also anagrams of S.W. Erdnase. Chances are, the identity of S.W. Erdnase, like Jack the Ripper and The Zodiac Killer, will never be known.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco,

Correction: This story originally mistated the name of the woman Andrews met in November 1904. She was Nulda Olivia.

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Paul Drexler

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