M. D. Smith: A Key Figure in Finding Erdnase? (Part 2)

Erdnase_MDSmith

(Continued from my last post)

Smith was the only real person mentioned on the frontispiece of TEATCT. This means that there is also a chance that he was “in on it”, a friend or partner of Erdnase, so he may have given false clues in order to protect his anonymity, even all those years later. Who knows, he might might might even have been Erdnase himself, a notion that has not been looked into deeply and seriously yet, as far as I know. S.W.E. = Smith Was Erdnase???

In conclusion, I really would advise not too rely too strongly on Smith‘s “clear and undoubtful recollections” and to not exclude other options or a promising candidate just because “his height or age doesn’t match with Smith‘s description at all.”

To be fair, there are two points to consider: First, unless proven otherwise, it is reasonable to assume that Smith tried his best in remembering and describing his mysterious customer. But then again, a free-lance artist may have met hundreds, if not thousands of clients over the years, maybe with quite a few of them having very “special” assignments. And was drawing hands a totally odd job at the time? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows.

And secondly, yes, maybe a fine artist would pay special attention to the hands of this strange client. But maybe he was so busy getting the finger positions, cards, and angles right that he wouldn’t remember a thing about the man’s real hands…

When it comes to estimating a person’s age and height, this seems very thin ice to me, as there’s a huge subjective factor involved in it. Also, from today’s perspective, a lot of people on photos one hundred or more years ago seem to look so much older then they actually were at the time.

As I’ve learned from Joe Posnanski’s interesting book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini (see my short review here), even the world’s most famous and most publicized artist of his time, who undoubtedly was a short man, had quite a huge range of heights attributed to him.

My biggest point though is the indisputable limits of our senses and our brain when it comes to attention, perception, and memory. Please feel free to take my little online test for you here. If, after 10,000 hours or more of shuffling and toying with playing cards right under our noses, we are unable to tell which Jack looks which way or which Kings do not sport a mustache, what kind of peripheral information are we supposed to remember and report reliably then decades after an insignificant incident?

No wonder that we marvel at the few enviable people with eidetic memories, as this incredible trait is so many light-years away from our own experience in daily life!

That’s why I wouldn’t bet more than a dollar or two on the reliability of Smith’s recollections about Erdnase. Yes, I would consider them for what they are, but I certainly wouldn’t use them as “conclusive evidence” against or in favor of one Erdnase candidate over another.

(End of rant.)


M. D. Smith: A Key Figure in Finding Erdnase? (Part 1)

Erdnase_MDSmith

In discussing Erdnase candidates, sometimes someone objects that this or that guy simply cannot be the man because he doesn’t match in terms of age, looks or body height with the book’s illustrator Marshall D. Smith‘s recollections of meeting the author some 40+ years earlier.

This simplistic view seems rather daring to me, as there are at least six points to consider:

1. In general, people are lousy observers and make horrible witnesses (even though they usually believe otherwise). You can ask any police officer, criminologist or judge about this. Also think of fascinating phenomena such as inattentional blindness and change blindness, which both reveal and debunk our allegedly “super observation powers.”

2. More than one hundred years of research into memory, mind and brain have also detected major flaws and tricky secret mechanisms running in our head. There is recent research that suggests that we are constantly and inadvertently creating false memories over time, and we fully believe them. For a memory bit is not a fixed, tangible asset that is safely stored away on a shelf somewhere in the back of our head and can easily pulled forth once we remember it; on the contrary, it is probably more like a tangled web of loose bits and ends scattered somewhere on our neuronal memory hard disk drive, and as we try to retrieve a file and pass it on (e.g., tell it to someone else), there is a good chance that we are actually rewriting and reediting our own “memory” in that very moment. But we swear that “it happened exactly that way, because we remember it so vividly!” (For a fascinating read on these and other brain-related topics, you may want to check out The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.)

3. Try to remember any single, insignificant event in your life 40+ years ago in detail, and describe the look, height, manner, speech etc. of any person you have met only once or twice back then… Good luck! Except for some major events (like „…and then that shabby magician at the country fair smacked me several times with a big yellow stuffed rabbit!“) you are very likely to fail or misremember. And even if you think you do remember in detail, you may have fallen victim to the mechanism described above in #2.

4. Smith was not under rigorous professional interrogation, but likely prodded and influenced by an enthusiastic and biased Martin Gardner, who may inadvertently have forced many „facts“ on Smith, seeking affirmation.

5. Besides, it’s not that Smith had displayed super memory powers, right? He seemed to remember some details clearly, but he failed miserably, for example, to remember other vital details as to the man’s name (how he introduced himself), even how often he met him and  how many drawings he had actually made, and from which bank the check he received was issued. Duh!

6. The fact that M. D. Smith’s name as the book’s illustrator was given away on the frontispiece is somewhat peculiar. If Erdnase desperately wanted to remain anonymous, he must have known that Smith was a risk to that goal. So why mention his name at all? In this case, it also seems unlikely to me that any anagram or wordplay shifting “S.W. Erdnase” around would directly reveal the author’s true name.

On the other hand, Erdnase might have been so proud of his work that he wanted his (magic) peers to find out and just put some minor obstacles in their way, like in a merry treasure hunt.  In this case, publishing M.D. Smith’s name could have been used as one possible key to finding the author. Using “Erdnase” as a simple anagram of the author’s real name (be it Andrews, Sanders, Anders, …) might have been another key then.

(to be continued in my next post)