DISCUSSED: Campaign Buttons, The Boxer Rebellion, Theodore Roosevelt, Prophetic Ventriloquism, Ninja Warriors, The Greatest Window Attraction Ever Invented, Heraclitus, The Word That Gets Shorter When You Add a Syllable, Four-Thousand-Year-Old Chinese Books, Borges, Kafka, Siegfried, Roy, Gertrude Stein, Vanishing McDonald’s Hamburgers

In 1896 the Republican Party was in trouble. Its presidential candidate, William McKinley, was outmatched by his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, a legendary orator. Bryan would make eighteen thousand miles’ worth of whistle-stop speeches during the campaign. McKinley refused to travel. His wife, Ida, was a near-invalid suffering from epilepsy and depression. McKinley remained by her side, stolidly conducting his campaign from the porch of his Canton, Ohio, home. Out of necessity, the McKinley campaign became the first to make wide use of campaign buttons and memorabilia. For one of their giveaways, the Republicans went to the best, Sam Loyd.

“Mr. Loyd has a very ingenious brain, which is all the time thinking up peculiar things,” claimed the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Loyd was America’s foremost inventor of puzzles, then an important form of advertising. The McKinley campaign licensed the puzzle that Loyd considered to be his masterpiece: the “Get Off the Earth Puzzle Mystery.”

“It was developed under rather odd conditions,” as Loyd later recalled. Percy Williams, a vaudevillian-turned–real estate developer, had offered $250 for the best means of advertising the new resort community of Bergen Beach, near Canarsie in Brooklyn. “I said I would take a chance at it,” Loyd said, “and a few days later I had worked out the Chinaman puzzle.”

The puzzle was a cardboard disk affixed to a cardboard rectangle with a pivot. The disk represented a globe. Printed on and around the globe were pigtailed Chinese warriors fighting with swords. A button in a slot restricted the rotation of the disk. When the disk was in one position, there were thirteen warriors. When the disk was rotated to another position, there were only twelve warriors. How can a man, or even a mechanically reproduced picture of a man, disappear? “Study their faces, postures, swords and pig-tails,” advised the puzzle’s caption. “Can you tell which one has vanished? Where does he go?”

It was that simple—or maybe it wasn’t simple at all. American anti-Chinese prejudice was near its peak. Making the Chinese disappear was virtually the platform of Ireland-born Denis Kearney’s Workingman’s Party, which played off fears that Asian immigrants were taking jobs from whites. The name and premise of Loyd’s puzzle was disconcertingly evocative of the Workingman’s Party’s slogan, “The Chinese Must Go.”

The only explicit political message was that printed on the back of the puzzles that McKinley’s supporters distributed. It quoted from McKinley on the hotly contested issue of unlimited silver coinage. To most, the politicking must have been incidental. Loyd’s creation became a national sensation of a kind that is scarcely possible to conceive in our fragmented age of TiVo and iPods. Reportedly over ten million copies of “Get Off the Earth” were distributed. Loyd offered bicycles as prizes for the best explanations of the vanishing man, and people earnestly tried to win them. “Scientists have tried to solve it without success,” Loyd claimed. Among the puzzle’s addicts was New York mayor William Strong, who declared he would “solve the puzzle or break something.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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William Poundstone is the author of ten books, most recently Fortune’s Formula (Hill and Wang). He lives in Los Angeles and is interested in outsider literature.

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