Ear­li­er this week, Ger­ald Kol­pan shared the sto­ry behind Eli Ger­shon­son and a pho­to gallery of some of the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures in his nov­el Mag­ic Words. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

When you do any­thing cre­ative – from writ­ing sto­ries to hook­ing rugs – peo­ple are like­ly to ask you where you get your ideas.

A lot of times I haven’t had a good answer; but in the case of my new nov­el, Mag­ic Words, the light­ning bolt of cre­ativ­i­ty hit me in the midst of pur­su­ing one of the most Amer­i­can of all activities.

I was watch­ing TV.

The pro­gram was a PBS doc­u­men­tary The Jew­ish Amer­i­cans;” and a nice lit­tle show it was, too. All of the Yid­dishe lumi­nar­ies were includ­ed: Abra­ham Cahan and Irv­ing Berlin; Emma Lazarus and Jer­ry Sein­feld; Jacob Adler and Hank Green­berg and I guess, a cou­pla doc­tors and scientists.

Then there was the young man in buck­skins. He only appeared for about 10 sec­onds in the show: short, with curly hair and a droopy mous­tache, he stood proud­ly behind four Indi­an chiefs in a posed stu­dio pho­to­graph tak­en some­time in the 1880’s.

The pho­to that inspired the author

The voiceover said that the kid was one Julius Mey­er, a Jew­ish immi­grant who became a famed trans­la­tor for many Native Amer­i­can tribes: or words to that effect.

I was amazed: a boy­chik from Europe who some­how gained the con­fi­dence of a group of peo­ple right­ly sus­pi­cious of the white man? An Israelite adven­tur­er who once con­versed with the free-liv­ing mas­ters of the moun­tains and plains?

As the pho­to­graph fad­ed from the screen, I knew I had found the sub­ject of my next nov­el. All I need­ed now was a lit­tle research.

Not that Julius was easy to track down. He was, to say the least, obscure. There wasn’t very much about him on the Inter­net (he still has no Wikipedia page); so I had to search for him in more tra­di­tion­al ways. I wrote to Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal soci­eties; I haunt­ed libraries and perused pho­to collections.

And the more I dis­cov­ered about Julius, the more fas­ci­nat­ing he became.

Born in Bromberg in what is now Poland; immi­grat­ed to Amer­i­ca after the Civ­il War to join his broth­ers who were mer­chant princes in Nebras­ka; cap­tured by the Pon­ca and even­tu­al­ly made their inter­preter; named Box-ka-re-sha-hash-ta-ka (“Curly-head­ed white chief with one tongue”), by the great­est chief­tain who ever lived; Indi­an agent and trad­er; speak­er of sev­en Sioux­an dialects.

But two facts real­ly sold me on Julius. First, there were the cir­cum­stances of his death. He was found dead around noon in Hanscom Park in Oma­ha in the Spring of 1909 – with one bul­let in his breast and anoth­er in his head — and declared a sui­cide. The pos­si­bil­i­ties around that almost wrote themselves.

Then, in an arti­cle in the Sep­tem­ber 10, 1926 issue of The Amer­i­can Hebrew, I read that Julius brought a magi­cian named Her­man the Great” to a Pon­ca camp to per­form for the great Stand­ing Bear and his peo­ple – and about how that night as Alexan­der slept, a young brave attempt­ed to kill him for his hat, believ­ing it to be the source of his mys­tic power.

For me, this was like that one good gift at Chanukkah. A magi­cian? I’m there!

And it got even bet­ter. Fur­ther research revealed that Her­man” was in fact, Alexan­der Her­rmann, the most famous magi­cian in the world before Hou­di­ni and the cre­ator of many of the famous stage illu­sions still amaz­ing audi­ences today; the inven­tor of the Cake From A Hat” and the Float­ing Boy”; the wiz­ard who sold out the Egypt­ian The­atre in Lon­don for 1000 straight nights.

I knew I had found my sec­ond lead­ing man; and when I dis­cov­ered that Alexander’s mother’s maid­en name was Mey­er, I used my author’s pre­rog­a­tive to declare them cousins. Besides…how else would a hum­ble man of the plains like Julius know a pres­tidig­i­ta­tor of such distinction?

A year and a half lat­er, I had a book. All because of 10 sec­onds of TV that pro­vid­ed a tan­ta­liz­ing glimpse of a man who was a mem­ber of the tribe…in more ways than one.

Vis­it Ger­ald Kol­pan’s web­site for more about Mag­ic Words and his first nov­el, Etta.