Erdnase and His Illustrator

In the chilly days of December 1901, a mysterious man made his way to Chicago from the East. Opting for a modest commercial hotel on State Street near Congress intersection, he chose to stay incognito, avoiding his usual hotel to keep his identity private.

Under a pseudonym, the man opened a bank account and began searching for a specific type of printer. Among the numerous print shops in Chicago, he required one that offered typesetting, printing, and binding services, with an added element of discretion – a printer who wouldn't pry. By December 15th, he discovered the J. McKinney Company at 78 Plymouth Court, conveniently close to his hotel.

Illustration 101 from Erdnase

The mysterious author commissioned McKinney to typeset and print a book he had been writing during his extensive travels. The book was a serious manual on cheating at cards; a subject that would be impossible to teach without visual aids. He soon realized that the multitude of photographs he had taken to illustrate the book would not reproduce well on the affordable pulp paper he had initially chosen. To resolve the issue, the man sought an artist who could convert the photographs into illustrations.

He contacted, Marshall D. Smith, a struggling commercial artist in his late twenties and requested that he come over to the hotel to present his work. How he found Smith, we'll never know, but he was certainly capable of the job. Wanting to keep his identity hidden, the author arranged a meeting in an unoccupied room through the hotel management – a common occurrence for a hotel of this nature. Since the room hadn't been rented previously, it was extremely cold, forcing the artist to keep his overcoat on.

Illustration 1 from Erdnase

The author captivated Smith by claiming to be related to the renowned editorial cartoonist of the time, Louis Dalrymple. Louis Dalrymple was a prominent American cartoonist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was born in Chicago in Cambridge, Illinois.

Despite the cold affecting his hands, the man demonstrated a few card tricks. Smith made some preliminary sketches and the author was pleased with his work. The author handed over the photographs and Smith went away, and used a light table to transform the photographs into line drawings. In total he drew 101 line drawings of the authors hands. They were submitted them to the printer within a day or two. The author approved the work, and Smith received payment via a check. Previous reports have stated that this was the first check from that account, but actually, the artist remembers that the check had the number "one" on it, but not that it was necessarily the first.

Erdnase executing a pass

The typesetting process took longer than anticipated. While a proficient linotype operator could manage 15-20 pages a day, this book was an extensive 205 pages. With Christmas approaching, the author couldn't proofread all the pages as he needed to return home. Lingering in Chicago would raise suspicions. However, before leaving, he ensured the inside title page met his exact specifications.

The book, titled Expert at the Card Table was copyrighted in late February 1902, with the author/publisher identified as "S.W. Erdnase" in the copyright paperwork. While Erdnase kept is identity secret, we are left only with the real name of the illustrator Marshall D. Smith.

In December of 1946, Martin found and met Marshall D. Smith and arranged a guest appearance at the 1947 SAM Convention, where he met Erdnase enthusiasts and autographed their copies. Smith did not reveal the true identity of the author.