Thomas Nelson Downs

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Thomas Nelson Downs
Thomas Nelson Downs magician.png
Born(1867-03-16)March 16, 1867
DiedSeptember 11, 1938(1938-09-11) (aged 71)
  • Nellie Stone (?-1895)
  • Harriett Rocky (1905-1938)

Thomas Nelson Downs, also T. Nelson Downs, (March 16, 1867 – September 11, 1938) was one of the most famous manipulative magicians renowned for his coin tricks. Downs was also known as "The King of Koins".[1][2]

Magic historian David Price has written that Downs "was the first of the great manipulative magicians and probably the greatest of them all."[3]


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.[4]

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 theatre, and to London's Palace Theatre soon after that.

At the peak of his career, Downs travelled 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 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 South 3rd Avenue. 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) and Dai Vernon.

Downs was a friend with the magician Harry Houdini, however, both were involved in an intense rivalry in private. Houdini had stated that Downs had operated a "fake magic shop" and was in trouble with the federal government for a "swindle."[5] By 1896, Downs had campaigned against spiritualism, this was before Houdini's crusade against fraudulent spiritualists. In his letters, Downs claimed to have performed a stage escape from handcuffs several years before Houdini. He also took issue with Houdini's self-advertisement.[6]

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 Tricks with Coins (1902) and The Art of Magic (1909).

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.[1]


Downs died on September 11, 1938 in Marshalltown, Iowa.[1] 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.


  • Modern Coin Manipulation (1900)
  • Tricks with Coins (1902)
  • The Art of Magic (1909)


  1. ^ a b c "T. Nelson Downs". New York Times. September 12, 1938. Retrieved 2007-08-21. T. Nelson Downs, known thirty years ago in Europe and America as the "King of Koins," died today at his home here. He retired more than ten years ago. ...
  2. ^ Gill, Robert. (1976). Magic as a Performing Art: A Bibliography of Conjuring. Bowker. p. 51. ISBN 978-0859350389 "T. Nelson Downs was one of the greatest exponents of sleightof-hand and manipulation. Known professionally as the 'King of Koins', he was one of the first performers to specialize in coin manipulation for stage work; he was undoubtedly as accomplished a manipulator with other objects as he was with coins."
  3. ^ Price, David. (1985). Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater. Cornwell Books. p. 177. ISBN 978-0845347386
  4. ^ Christopher, Milbourne. (1996). The Illustrated History of Magic. Greentrwood Publishing Group. p. 275. ISBN 978-0-435-07016-8
  5. ^ Silverman, Kenneth. (1996). Houdini!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss. HarperCollins Publishers. p. 75. ISBN 978-0060928629 "Houdini talked magic hours on end with his friend T. Nelson Downs (1867-1938), renowned for his palming — "one of the Historical lights of magic," Houdini called him. It was Downs who pioneered the magic specialty act, snatching silver from thin air as King of Koins. A midwesterner by birth, Downs like several other magicians had matured on the shady side of the law. According to Houdini, he had run a "fake Magic Shop," worked for a "fake spiritualist," and been wanted by the federal government for a "swindle." Houdini stayed friendly with these and many other magicians. But except in Downs 's case, a globe-covering sense of rivalry usually led him to belittle them in private."
  6. ^ Rosheim, Mark. Introduction. In Thomas Nelson Downs. (1999, reprint). Classic Coin Tricks: An Unabridged Reprint of Modern Coin Manipulation. Dover Publications. p. 18. ISBN 0-486-40616-4

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