This story started for me when I was six years old. It resumed six years ago, after slumbering for nearly half a century, and then took a startling turn tonight, just hours ago as I write these words. Indeed, as the evening wore on toward midnight the story seemed to be writing itself, as if it were emanating from a Ouija board rather than a keyboard.
I recall coming home from a trip to the corner store on Lebanon Avenue in the Bronx, sometime in the summer of 1953, with less change than might have been expected from buying a quart of milk and a loaf of bread with a dollar. I was flustered but the shortfall seemed to amuse rather than consternate my parents, who chalked it up to “the magician’s blood” in my veins. You see, my father’s grandfather had been Ernest Thorn, an internationally renowned illusionist who had performed before royalty and packed houses the world over. But the conjurer’s presence in my life was so faint, so remote, that the only reference to him, repeated whenever comment was called for my spendthrift ways, came in the form of a joke: I had trumped the great magician because I knew how to make money disappear.
When my family talked about family, it was always about present company or those who had been extinguished. The records and mementos of earlier generations had blown away in the winds of war, as had so much of the family itself, and the stories, without artifacts to ground them or old people to tell them, just evaporated. Ernest Thorn had died in 1928, when my father was twelve, and while he thought he might have met him once, he could not be sure; certainly he had never met his paternal grandmother, Ernest’s wife Julia. My father had lost his own father, Ernest’s son John, when he was four, so the death of a distant grandpa scarcely registered. Anyway, he was nearly seventy-five, had suffered from diabetes for years, and had ceased to perform sometime in the early 1920s — so The Great One had seemed vastly diminished in my father’s eyes.
Six years ago, when my late father was in his eighty-third year and suffering from diabetes (among a myriad of other afflictions), he proudly showed me a book he had just acquired: David Price’s Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater. He had photocopied for me the several pages in it devoted to Chevalier Ernest Thorn, as he was known for most of his career after his early knighthood by King Norodon I of Cambodia, following a performance that must have been especially dazzling. (Price: “One of Thorn’s most unusual effects was an illusion wherein he made a sudden appearance on a bare stage carrying a satchel. From the satchel, he removed several outfits of clothing and stuffed them with straw. The straw people suddenly came to life and acted as Thorn’s assistants for the remainder of the performance.”)
Furthermore, my father revealed, some years earlier he had written to Ricky Jay — today celebrated for his books, his one-man shows on Broadway, and his quirky roles in David Mamet films, but then a working magician and archivist — and had acquired from him a photostat of an American poster advertising the appearance of “Thorn & Darvin: Startling Phenomena.” This drab copy my dad had colored garishly with magic markers. Though showing no flair for art, he displayed a previously unimagined excitement and pride in his grandfather.
I caught the bug. I read what little I could lay my hands on — who the heck was Darvin, anyway? — and soon found on Ebay the following bonanza:
Description: THE SPHINX MAGIC MAGAZINE - ALL TWELVE ISSUES FOR 1910. "PHOTO"COVERS INCLUDE....CHEVALIER ERNEST THORN...T. ROY BARNES...MR. HAROLD WEBBE...MRS. EVA L. KELLAR...HAL MERTON...MADAME JULIA THORN, CHEVALIER ERNEST THORN'S WIFE..."JOE DUNNINGER"...JOSEFFY...CLYDE W. POWERS...SALVAIL AND LONG TOM...BURLING GALT HULL..."RAMESES".....Plus inside more wonderful photographs, tricks, news of the day. THIS IS MAGIC HISTORY!
Paying little more than $10 apiece, I acquired the twelve copies, and then a Magician’s Monthly, and then a few more items. I began a correspondence with magic historian Gary Hunt, who led me to several collectors, archivists, and historians. And then I dropped off the hunt, just as suddenly as I had commenced it, until some idle websurfing last week produced a full-color Ernest Thorn poster I had not seen before, and then another, and then another ... and as information new to me cascaded onto my screen, I determined to get the story straight and write about it.
Where to begin? My friend Ken Burns likes to remind his colleagues, when they wax conceptual, that “chronology is God’s way of telling a story.”
The Great One was born not as Ernest Thorn but as Moses Abraham Thorn in Jaroslau, in the polyglot province of Galicia, on September 23, 1853 (also reported as 1855 or 1856, but 1853 is the year on his tombstone). At that time the province was under Austrian sovereignty, though with considerable cultural freedom for Poles; today it is divided between Poland and the Ukraine. He saw a performance by the magician Simonelli at age ten and was hooked. By age sixteen he was touring the Austrian empire on foot, with his bag of tricks on his back. He apprenticed with senior magicians along the way and added his younger brother Heinrich (Henry) to his act, though as second banana and for many years uncredited. According to Ottokar Fischer, writing in the American Magician of January 1911, after two years in Constantinople Thorn went on to Egypt, where he spent one year, and India, performing before eighteen maharajas.
In Batavia he linked up again with Henry and there they formed the partnership of Thorn and Darvin, proceeding with shows at Java, Sumatra, the Philippines, “Kambodja, and others.” At the last mentioned King Norodon I enriched and honored both brothers, knighting Ernest as a Chevalier of the French Empire. The pair went on to Burma, appearing before the King of Mandalay.
On and on the glittering tales run, some with the hard glint of reality, others the spin of whole cloth. Fischer wrote, “Leaving Singapore for Hong Kong aboard the S.S. Flintchire, it ran aground during a typhoon on the Scarborough Shoal, a 14-mile-long coral reef outside Hong Kong. In that dreadful situation 21 of the passengers were willing to go on a boat and to row to the coast and look out for any help for the ship and its passengers. Thorn and his brother were amongst the volunteers. The sea getting very rough again the boat was not able to ply to the coast, on the contrary, by the hurricane it was driven in the open sea, where it strayed for seven days and seven nights. By penetrating water the boat got overloaded and sunk to the brim, and had to be perpetually scooped and emptied by all possible means. To increase the horror on the second day a big shark appeared behind the boat and followed it by day and by night. By a broken oar the beast had to be kept in distance without interruption to avert its continuous attacks. On the sixth day one of the passengers succeeded in striking it in the jaw so heavily that it bled to death and sunk. After a week of hopeless floating the boat reached the coast of Manila on the Philippine Islands.”
I’m not buying it, but we are in the realm of illusion, are we not? Ernest Thorn once wrote, “All life is illusion. The most pleasant illusion, however, is magic.”
Thorn, Darvin, and a fellow named Burton performed in Sydney, Australia in 1879. After a performance for King Kalakaua in the Hawaiian Islands in 1880, they headed for San Francisco, where they played the Standard Theater, infamous for hosting cancan dancers. Chronicle journalist Charles Warren Stoddard reported a Ms. Santley's "immodest and indecent" terpsichordean exercise to the police. She was arrested, tried, convicted, and fined two hundred dollars. The cancan continued to be performed at the Standard, however, a tough act for Thorn & Darvin to follow.
But follow they did, appearing succesfully in Oregon and British Columbia before repairing to St. Louis, Chicago, and New York. Darvin liked America so much that when Ernest was ready to leave, Brother Henry stayed — until 1923, according to one source. Although he never became a U.S. citizen, according to the 1900 census (where he is listed as a working magician named “Henny”), he married in 1893 or 1894 an Illinois lass named Laura, some twenty years his junior, and as of 1900 they had a three-year-old son named Harry, born on the road in Pennsylvania, and another child who had died. Henry Darvin was not present in the 1910 or 1920 censuses.
On a whim I checked Henry Thorn in the 1920 census ... and there he was, still living in Manhattan with wife Laura and now an unmarried son Isidor (age 31 and a traveling salesman) and unmarried daughter Sylvia (age 26 and a bookkeeper). Confusing, no? In this 1920 census Henry and Laura are now both listed with a mother tongue of Polish and a birthplace of Austria. (If they were born in Jaroslau or another Galician town, prior to 1920 they would indeed have been Polish-speaking Austrians.) Henry is listed as 62 (yielding a birth year of 1857 or 1858, consistent with the date of 1857 given for "Henny" Darvin in 1900) and Laura is listed as age 56 (yielding a birth year of 1863 or 1864, very different from her listing in 1900). Henry is listed as retired.
Ernest and Julia, who acted as his manager and assistant, enjoyed continued success in Vienna, where they played a record 209 consecutive dates. Thorn performed either “An Hour in Dreamland” or a vaudeville turn described as “Six Sensational Illusions in Under 20 Minutes.” The finale and piece de resistance of the latter was the “Illusion: Das Mahatma-Wunder von Benares der Madame Blawatzka,” echoing the era’s famous spiritualist and founder of Theosophy.
In the year 1896, according to Fischer, E.T. went to Budapest, “where the Millennium Exhibition, a kind of World Fair, was arranged. Here he took all entertaining Halls and Theaters in his hand, becoming Chief Manager of all of them. However, that undertaking was a failure and Thorn lost nearly the whole of his fortune. [Evidently he was not the only Thorn who could make money disappear.] The rest of his money he invested in the foundation of a big Music Hall in Lemberg [also known as Lvov], Galizia. As it did not succeed according to his expectations he gave the hall up after three years and he returned again to the performing business.” The Lemberg hall was known as the Colosseum, and it was next door to the famous Gimpel’s Jewish Theatre on ulica Sloneczna. Moses Abraham Thorn might append Chevalier to his stage name, but his Judaic roots were undeniable, as they would be for other Jewish magicians who adopted improbably exotic names, from Harry Houdini (born in Hungary as Erik Weisz) to Max Malini (born in Poland as Max Katz Breit). Oddly, Ernest turned his back on the name of Judaism’s greatest magician, Moses.
Forced by finances to return to the tour, he performed in London in 1904 to great acclaim and then played four weeks at the Scala Theatre in Copenhagen and four weeks at the Svea Theatre in Stockholm. In 1908-10 he and Julia, along with six assistants, toured South America (one wonders whether their son, my grandfather, accompanied his parents on this trip). The Sphinx of June 15, 1910 features a portrait of “Madame Julia Thorn” on the cover. The editor wrote: “Unfortunately for the readers of the Sphinx I can do no more than present the likeness of Madame Thorn because the modesty of her celebrated husband, Chevalier Ernest Thorn, prevented him from giving me even the briefest biographical sketch of his beautiful and talented wife.” However, David Price wrote that Ernest was not modest but morbidly jealous.
Julia died in 1919, at the age of fifty, in Leipzig. Ernest slid into decline and was almost wiped out in the German currency panic of 1922. Price writes that Henry joined his brother for his final years. As to Ernest, he wrote: “He had gathered antiques all over the world in his travels and he began to live on the antiques which were sold one by one. His last years were spent in poverty and he died penniless in Leipzig on May 20 [corrected to conform with date on headstone, which bears a heading of "Rest Here in Dreamland"], 1928. After his death, Julia’s jewels were found sewed up in a cushion. They were valuable enough to have permitted him to live in dignity in his final years, but the jewels were the last remaining possession of his beloved Julia and he refused to part with them.”
I’m not buying the pathos, but this is where I had expected the trail and the story to end. Then by chance, mere hours ago, I Googled my way to a defunct family forum on a genealogical site, where I spied this 1999 query:
Chevalier Ernest Thorn
Posted by Edmond Thorn on Monday, 8 November 1999, at 5:32 p.m.
Dear Sir or Madame,
I am inquiring about my ancestor, actually my great paternal uncle, born in 1855 who was a renowned stage magician. He began his career in partnership with his brother, Henry (stage name, Henry Darvin). I would appreciate any information about either or both of them.
Thank you. Sincerely, E.Thorn
I immediately wrote to him:
My name is John Thorn and I just this minute stumbled upon your six-year-old note to the Thorn Family Forum. Ernest Thorn, about whom I know a great deal indeed, and possess something of an archive, is my great-grandfather. I presume that Henry is your great-grandfather, and that we are cousins, unknown to each other.
Please send an email back and we'll connect further. Best regards, John.
Minutes later, he replied:
It is indeed a pleasure to hear from someone in the Family, since my family was rather decimated in Europe. It would be very nice to hear where you live. More about how we are related.
I own some things from Ernest, posters and such and am interested in Magic memorabilia. I visited his grave in Leipzig. As you know his brother Darvin did not follow him back to Europe. Are you related directly to him??
My great grand father was Ernest’s brother so Ernest would have been my great grand uncle. But besides Ernest there are other illustrious and fascinating members of our family. I hope to hear from you again in less than 6 years as I am already 66. Cordially, Edmond Thorn.
I had pursued Ernest Thorn in white-hot fashion believing the trail had gone cold for Henry. Now I learned that Henry had a surviving line of descent unknown to any of my kin. I now had a great grand cousin, and maybe an entirely new family. Magic.