Thomas Nelson Downs
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Born in Marshalltown, Iowa, he was the youngest of six children in the family of Thomas and Cordelia Downs. His family moved to Iowa from the New York state. Downs' father, the Marshall county superintendent, died when his son was not even a year old.
Downs never took any training in magic; all his tricks were self-taught. By the age of 12, he became an expert in card and coin manipulation. He further mastered his skills by the age of 17, when he took a job as a railway telegrapher and had plenty of time to practice with coins.
In September 1895, Downs decided to quit his telegraphy job and launch a career in magic. At first, he toured Iowa with his partner, Sam Spiegel, a mandolinist. By 1897, Downs concentrated only on the coin tricks—a rare specialization at that time, and established himself in vaudeville, which was a popular avenue for magicians.
The success of Downs career allowed him to get booked into Tony Pastor's New York theater, and to London's Palace Theater soon after that.
At the peak of his career, Downs traveled frequently, and performed at royal courts. While performing his tricks, he could palm up to 60 coins at a time. One of his most famous tricks was "The Miser's Dream", in which he seemed to pull countless coins out of the thin air.
In 1912, at the young age of 42, Downs decided to retire in Iowa. After moving back to Marshalltown, he rarely left the area. Not quite comfortable with idle retirement, Downs kept busy by opening a vaudeville house on Main Street, a few blocks from his own home at 7 S. 3rd Ave. He also sold a line of magic equipment. Many visitors, other magicians, streamed to his home to share gossip and the latest tricks as well as to brush elbows with the famous sleight of hand artist. The most famous of these visitors included Chung Ling Soo (William Robinson), Mrs. Harry Houdini, and Dai Vernon.
Downs wrote several books on magic before and after his retirement. His first book, Modern Coin Manipulation, was published in 1900 and is still issued in reprints today. His other books include The Art of Magic and Tricks with Coins.
Downs was married twice. He had a son in his first marriage with Nellie Stone, who died in childbirth in 1895. He subsequently married Harriett Rocky on June 3, 1905.
He retired around 1928. In 1935 he was honored with a testimonial dinner.
Downs died on September 11, 1938 in Marshalltown, Iowa. He had suffered a stroke, which paralyzed his left side. He was buried at Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown. His gravestone reads "King of Koins".
The Historical Society of Marshall County features a display about Downs in its museum.
- "T. Nelson Downs", New York Times, September 12, 1938