'Harrison Morton is the Devil'

 

I, like everyone else who knew him, can tell you the first time I became aware of Harrison Morton. Anthony Blake, a friend of mine who had recently begun a job at the Department of Defense, and his coworker Michael Tapley had been at a bar when a man walked up to them through the crowd. The man, they said, was pale, reedy, and dressed in a threadbare black suit with a grey vest. Despite his archaic clothes and funereal visage, the man had apparently been quite lively in affect, and had at various points in his discourse with them made mention of being a magician. Jokes about his attire aside, neither man had chosen to challenge Harrison on this claim, and after a single beer the supposed magician had simply handed each a business card with his name on it—nothing else—and walked away. Fairly tame and unremarkable, if not for the fact that each man swore that what happened next actually did occur.

Needing to pay for their drinks and also wanting to put away the business cards, each man went to take from his pocket his wallet. Anthony reached for his front left pocket, Michael for his right rear pocket. Neither found their wallet there and had a brief moment of panic before realizing that Anthony’s wallet was now in his right rear pocket, and Michael’s was in his front left. Except Anthony now had Michael’s wallet, and Michael now had Anthony’s. Assuming this to be the result of some earlier confusion, they exchanged wallets back, before opening them to discover that their photos, credit cards, driver’s licenses, and even receipts had been swapped, leaving each of them now, essentially, still holding the other’s wallet.

Harrison Morton, ladies and gentlemen.


 
edited.jpg
 

The second time I heard his name was from Marisol Rodrigues, with whom I had a brief, interesting, but ultimately fruitless Tinder date. Despite our lack of romantic chemistry, we kept up a casual acquaintanceship that consisted mainly of sharing funny photos and memes, and from time to time texting one another charming anecdotes. One night, as I was settling into bed with a book, my phone buzzed. Then again. And again. By the time I gave into the insistent vibrations, Marisol had written out, over the course of seven texts, a bizarre anecdote, which she promised was not a fabrication.

Apparently, a “Tim Burton character” walked up to her and some friends as they were smoking cigarettes outside of a movie theater and asked them what they had seen. After asking a few perfunctory questions about the film, which he professed to be interested in seeing himself, he mentioned that he was a magician, and asked if they wanted to see a trick. Amenable to a light diversion, the women all said yes, and were delighted by a simple but elegantly performed card trick. After a light round of applause, the man handed out “a business card minus the business” and then slipped off, puffing a cigarette that no one had seen him produce or light.

One of Marisol’s friends—she gave me no names—realized that the man had “nicked” her cigarette from her, and she was now left holding a McDonald’s straw cut to the length of the cigarette she had half-way smoked. Marisol laughed, took a drag of her cigarette, and was taken aback to discover that suddenly she was holding a menthol. Another of her friends likewise pulled on her cigarette to discover that hers was now a full-flavor. A fourth friend suddenly had a light. When they compared cigarettes, it became clear, through recollection and a lipstick stain, that Harrison Morton had switched who was holding which cigarette without any of them having realized the shuffle.

“Harrison Morton is a devil,” she ended, with a purple devil face emoji to top off the story.

 

 
 
edited.jpg
 

Immediately I decided I had to find out about this man, this magician, who had made such an impression upon three people from my life. Maybe it was curiosity, or maybe it was a sense that he was following me or circling me; that my friends and I were adrift in an ocean, and three of them had reported feeling something bump into them below the surface, and I must ready myself. So, of course, I goggled the name, which returned primarily results for a Pennsylvania middle school, and little else. Facebook likewise yielded no results that seemed relevant. Having reached the extent of the research I was willing to do on my phone, I set the phone back on my nightstand and decided to try again the next day on my laptop.

Twitter, it turned out, was the best source for more stories about Harrison Morton, a man in a “suit he pulled off a dead Earl” and who “totally fucked with my sense of existential security,” to quote a few of the sources. I expected a repertoire to reveal itself, for more stories of swapped wallets and cigarettes, along with a few other random tricks, deployed depending on the situation and perhaps the proximity of the last performance. Instead, I found a full menagerie of tricks and illusions, no two of which repeated close enough to be considered the same. Swapped items were a theme, of course, mainly used as a means of redressing a lack of interest, though sometimes used as the finale to an actual card trick. The card tricks seemed never to be the actual focus of his art, unless you were the man who bit into a sandwich following a failed “is this your card” trick only to find his card between the tomato and the cheese. Each person reported having been handed a card with no contact information of any kind.

On Instagram I only found pictures of his card, none of the man himself. A few scattered videos of reactions to having been “pranked” by him, all of which were taken long after the “conductor for an orchestra of skeletons” had taken his leave. Not seeing him, and only having the amusing descriptions posted on social media, made my curiosity grow. I imagined a paper-white man with sticks in his unruly black hair and black eyeliner. Then in my head he turned into a frail, tubercular orphan in his deceased father’s coachman’s outfit. A disgraced duke ingratiating himself to elites for a room for the night and whatever silver he could carry.

Stumbling in this way upon Harrison Morton was like stumbling onto a new cryptid, some sea serpent or were-beast that had yet to reach a point of cultural saturation. Each new clue or story made me feel as though I were the first to truly grasp its meaning. Was I, in fact, the first person to ever put together all these disparate parts of Harrison Morton into a single, multifaceted whole? Was I, in essence, the discoverer of a brand new species? How many tales and glimpses were gathered and cataloged before the panda or gorilla was finally seen in the flesh and made real? If I was, truly, the first person to recognize the reality of Harrison Morton, what was I to do with that information? How did I prove him to be real?

At the time I was a freelance writer working for a number of outlets all over the city. A film or book or museum exhibit review here, a personal essay there. I would attend openings and press conferences and local city council meetings and whip up a narrative or a story and shop it around. I had a few editors who thought of me as theirs, though I was beholden to no one. Having tried my hand at college for one semester before dropping out I had no debts to pay off, and thus I found myself one of the few members of my much-economically-maligned generation who had only to worry about rent. Friends who had gone to school for journalism or English or even engineering and economics found themselves taking high-paying jobs in call centers or as executive assistants to cover their loan payments, while I was free to, with ample poetic irony, hoover up the low-paying jobs in their fields of study that cared more for personality and a willingness to work without the expectation of insurance or high pay than formal education.

So, I began writing, compiling screenshots of tweets and quotes from Instagram stories and videos to create a portrait. Of course there was no “peg” for this story—no present or immediate concern or interest to make it worthwhile—but I assumed that on a slow enough news day I might be able to slip it into a local interest column. Maybe a web site would find it amusing and plop it on their front page as a Friday evening diversion for week-weary commuters. I asked to quote my friends as well, and reached out to the authors of the tweets and owners of the Instagram posts for expansions on their social media dispatches. I wanted more than just the rote facts of the moment; I wanted to know how the tricks, illusions, had made them feel. Strangely, despite the obvious overtones of invasiveness and theft, no one seemed overtly put off by Harrison Morton’s trickery. There was a level of impish charm to the young man that put everyone at ease, and the fact that the sleight of hand manipulations were so easily discovered once the moment had come for the reveal made the incidents seem more playful than sinister.

When I asked what had been done with the cards the mountebank—as I had taken to calling him, believing “magician” or “prankster” would be less likely to conjure the right amount of awe—had given out, everyone said the card now held a place of prominence in their lives. Shoe boxes of tokens and tickets; in the wallet, next to the credit card; snuggly fastened in a scrap book. Not a single person had thrown out the card, and two of them even spoke about how they kept the card on them like a talisman, seemingly believing that it might keep them safe from another intrusion from Harrison Morton’s talents.

 

 
 
edited.jpg
 

After two weeks—during which Harrison Morton was the most amusing but not most pressing or time-consuming of my works—my article was ready. It was the type of piece you might expect to present itself on the front page of a Gotham newspaper in a fresh reboot of the Batman franchise; a light inquiry into rumor and myth that was more of an aggregation and call to arms than an actual investigation with hope of an answer. Like a police blotter article about a rash of break-ins mixed with a lighthearted local interest story about a neighborhood myth. Is This the Ghost Cat Stealing People’s Lawn Gnomes?

There was no picture, which was a knock against the piece. I thought about calling up a police or FBI sketch artist to do a mock-up, but that idea struck me as eminently uninspired. I had a graphic design friend mock up a comic-style panel with a shrouded figure walking along a sidewalk made of wallets and cigarettes, but one editor told me that the cigarettes wouldn’t play in an article not specifically about them. Finally, I decided to take a photo of my own; on my reclaimed-wood desk I laid out a handmade leather wallet with a slight fan of cards coming out of it, as though a poker hand served as the contents in the place of credit cards. A queen, a king, a jack, an ace—all of the same suit—and, at the top of the fan, a smiling joker to top the whole thing off. The picture was simple, but it spoke to the aesthetics of the time. It was clever, earth tone, and felt newly vintage.

With this visual included, The Express quickly snatched up the story, running it with the photograph taking up a fair portion of the first page of the article. Minimal edits to the content itself, and those mainly paring back some of my more flowery linguistic tics. That morning, which was cold despite the steady encroachment of spring, I left my apartment and wandered to the nearest metro stop, taking a copy of The Express from one of the vest-wearing men who handed it out to passing commuters on their way into the warm subterranean of the metro. I took it into the Starbucks next to the stop, confounded the barista by ordering a black coffee, and then sat to read over my work.

Often, when I read my words post-publication, I would be overcome by both a distaste for my own writing and a healthy amount of rage directed at the editor for not doing better with my raw materials. This time, though, I found myself rather amused. I put myself in the mind of someone on their way to work, reading about this bizarre little flicker of benign deviousness that existed alongside racist incidents, sex scandals, and violent crimes. How charming it must be to look up from this article and see a train car full of people, any of whom could be victim or perpetrator of some seemingly magical trickery.

And that was that. With the publication of my article I had exorcised Harrison Morton from my soul, drawn him from my bloodstream. Despite the open-endedness of my piece, I had done enough work to unshackle myself from my curiosity over him. I had done my part, and now the Internet or the Post or some greater force would do the rest of it for me. As the day went on I charted the spread of my article, which was picked up by The AV Club after it went viral on Reddit. As I expected, the story was a perfect Friday trifle for the world to take up and consume with performative joy. Reddit and Twitter piled on more supposed sightings, people claiming that their grandparents had mentioned Harrison Morton to them when talking about their lives in their countries of origin. I sighed at the sight of this, shaking my head as I sipped a glass of whiskey at Jack Rose. Soon enough my mountebank would become the next Slenderman or Chupacabra. Turned from a gallant trickster hipster into a larger-than-life specter.

I felt a little guilty, actually. Here I had taken a perfectly ground-level scamp and had robbed him of his agency and identity. At first, I had thought that perhaps Harrison Morton would read my article and feel accomplished. Now I imagined him growing more disdainful of me as more people sought to carve up and embellish his life for their own benefit. By the time fake photographs of old London newspapers began circulating claiming that Harrison Morton had been a pickpocket in the streets of Whitechapel alongside Jack the Ripper, my fifth whiskey was beginning to sit poorly with me. What had I done to Harrison Morton?

The next morning, I woke up feeling an acidic vortex in the pit of my stomach. I made a large breakfast and skipped the gym, watching old TV shows on Netflix as my sense of criminal complicity in the murder of the idea of Harrison Morton ebbed and flowed. My Twitter follower count climbed upward, and my DMs began to clog with people claiming to have more information about Harrison Morton. I blessed myself for not having included a picture of his calling card in my story, but of course the Internet would find them soon enough. Soon there would be a thousand Harrison Mortons all over the country. I had exorcised my demon and the rest of the country had taken it up as a new faith. I knew, academically, that the craze would be over in a less than a week, or the real Harrison Morton would turn out to be a murderer or white nationalist, scuttling the whole mystique; but in the moment it hurt to feel as though my discovery was being stolen and abused.

The feeling faded, though, and soon enough equilibrium re-established itself. The only real lasting change was that now I was considered a sort of Monster Hunter for the DC metro area, an investigator of legends and whispered myths. The title hung easily on me, and soon enough I was reporting on all manner of strange urban legends and rumors of a fanciful—or at least harmless—nature. The man who named and fed all the squirrels on the University of Maryland campus. The violinist who serenaded random metro stops with no seeming pattern and no hat set out for change. Things like this kept me steeped in the weird world of District marginalia.

 

 
 
edited.jpg
 

Four months after Harrison Morton hit the pages of The Express and after I became a minor celebrity who no longer had to hunt for stories but rather had them lobbed at me, Harrison Morton reemerged. In Adams Morgan he slipped someone’s whole chain of car keys into a beer bottle they had been drinking so that the bottle had to be smashed to retrieve them. In Chinatown he switched two people’s shoelaces. In Rosslyn he slipped a playing card into every pocket on the person of a tourist. Coming so long after Harrison Morton fever had died down, I took each of these offered reports with hopeful skepticism, listening to every detail and pushing for more information. Could he really be back? And back with such minor and playful antics? I found myself almost proud of him for not having been pushed to be bolder, stranger.

I remained skeptical until I saw the cards that the victims of his illusory practice showed me. They were identical to the cards produced previously, but with small line of text added beneath his name. A theatrical and jesting flourish that proved, to me, that this was the one and only Harrison Morton. It read:

As Profiled in The Washington Post Express by Connor McLeod, A Real Son of a Bitch.


[This snippet of fiction was written after reading a number of bits of reporting about and watching videos featuring the great Ricky Jay. It may one day serve as the opening chapter of a book that presently has no real plot or theme of which to speak.]