Biography of Austrian Con-Artist Johann Nepomuk Maelzel Part 3

About the Austrian inventor, con-artist, and showman Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, his biography and famous Turk chess playing machine.

JOHANN NEPOMUK MAELZEL (1772-1838).

Austrian impresario.

He had good reason to be anxious. Competent chess players were stepping forth by the dozen to challenge the Turk to full games, which they felt were the only real test of his credentials. If Maelzel felt that a full game would not be a profitable drawing card, they said, they would be happy to play the Turk privately. Maelzel eluded them as best he could, offering lame excuses and making himself generally inaccessible while he waited for Schlumberger to bail him out.

Maelzel closed his New York show and moved on to Boston, thrilling the crowds at Concert Hall and deeply impressing master showman P. T. Barnum. But he still felt the Turk's supremacy was shaky at best. Toward the end of his tour, Schlumberger arrived, and Maelzel breathed easily.

On a swing through Baltimore in May, 1827, Maelzel's cover was blown. Two boys, looking in on the concert hall from a rooftop next door, spotted Schlumberger emerging from the chest after the show. Maelzel flatly denied the accusations that ran the following day on the front page of the Baltimore Gazette, but he put the Turk in cold storage temporarily and took the summer off, hoping that the story would blow over by the fall. In the meantime, several competitors appeared. They may have been inferior to the original, but they seriously undermined Maelzel's claim to uniqueness. Some, like the "American Chess Player," promoted by entrepreneur John Scudder, he attempted to buy out. Others he discredited publicly as weak imitations.

In the early 1830s, Maelzel plied the New York-Boston-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Richmond circuit. He still drew audiences, but the critics, including the great logician Edgar Allan Poe, were publicly trying to locate the chinks in the Turk's mechanical facade.

What proved to be the death blow to Maelzel's aspirations came in 1837. A popular French magazine, Pittoresque, broke the story of the Turk's bogus machinery and explained how its moves were engineered by a chess expert artfully concealed inside. Now attendance at performances fell off sharply. Maelzel took his show elsewhere--to the Midwest, to New Orleans, and then to Havana, where he was a sensation. Unfortunately, a return engagement in New York and Philadelphia proved financially ruinous, and the showman returned to Havana on borrowed funds, hoping to mine the enthusiastic audiences there for all they were worth. From his last visit there, he had deduced that the friendly Cubans had not yet read of his hoax, or if they had, they didn't care.

But his 2nd Havana venture failed miserably. For one thing, the audiences were small. For another, Schlumberger contracted yellow fever and died. Depressed and penniless, Maelzel set sail for Philadelphia on July 14, 1838, aboard the Otis. Closeting himself in his stateroom, he drank endless bottles of cheap claret to wash away his grief. He was found dead in his berth a week later.

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