A reappearing act Harry Houdini started it. Bureaucrats misplaced it. But thanks to an unlikely scholar, the Library of Congress' amazing magic archive is back in its rightful place.

Ideas: History

May 10, 1998|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

In the 16th century, a British country gentleman named Reginold Scot published a book on magic tricks, hoping it would stem the tide of witch-hangings, a popular pastime just then in the English countryside. Scot believed that if people understood that magic performances were the result of skillful - but purely human - manipulations, they would be less likely to see the hand of the Devil in every innocent event.

Alas, Scot proved an innocent when it came to his own appreciation for the tenacity of ignorance. Still, his courageous book was not an empty historical gesture. "Discoverie of Witchcraft" is believed to be the first book written in English to describe conjuring tricks. Four centuries after its publication, "Discoverie" is a treasured tome among the ranks of serious magicians. And any number of them have visited the Library of Congress to do exactly what New York magician Jamy Ian Swiss did one day a few years back - hold a copy of Scot's pioneering work in his own two hands.

"I sat in the Rare Reading Room, and I can't tell you how exciting it was for me," said Swiss, who was delighted to find in "Discoverie" a description of magic tricks that are still performed to this day.

Swiss made the trip to the hallowed halls of the Library of Congress because in addition to housing the papers of Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman and the Marquis de Lafayette, it also maintains perhaps the largest magic archive in the world. The library's magic collection contains more than 25,000 items and by one estimate is worth more than $2.5 million. It contains artifacts - writings, posters, photographs or correspondence - concerning virtually every significant performing magician.

The reason the library has this material at all is owing to one particular magician, the one who happened to be the most illustrious practitioner of his craft in history.

Upon his death at age 52 in 1926, Harry Houdini bequeathed his holdings to the Library of Congress. It was a significant gift. In addition to being a master illusionist and incomparable escape artist, Houdini was probably the foremost magic scholar of his time. "Nobody knew as much about magic in his time as Houdini," said Kenneth Silverman, a New York University English professor and author of a recent, definitive biography of Houdini.

As a magic scholar, Houdini had amassed an enormous magic archive, with books and pamphlets dating back through the centuries. He willed the entire archive to the Library of Congress, along with correspondence, clippings, posters and promotional materials from his own career. Houdini's legacy to the library was followed 30 years later by an even bigger gift. It came from two friends, John J. McManus, a wealthy American representative of Rolls-Royce, and a New York ophthalmologist named Morris Young, who had been captivated by Houdini since childhood. Together, McManus and Young were the most important magic collectors in the United States, and in 1955, they decided to follow Houdini's lead by donating 20,000 items to the library.

Silverman describes the library's holdings as "fabulous."

Some of the highlights include:

* "Hocus Pocus," a how-to written by English magic dealer Henry Dean and first published in 1722. The American edition, published three years later, is believed to be the first conjuring text published here.

* "The Expositor," written in 1805 by William Frederick Pinchbeck, revealed how he had taught a pig to perform a card trick. Pinchbeck decided to come clean after word spread that his animals were satanically possessed.

* Conjurer's Magazine, published in 1791-92, is believed to be the first serial publication devoted to magic.

* Works by or about magicians Harry Kellar, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, Howard Thurston, Hermann the Great and the Davenport Brothers.

The library is particularly rich in what is called Houdiniana, including the Bible used by Houdini's father, Rabbi M.S. Weiss (containing a rare signature of Houdini using his given name: Ehrich Weiss), and the earliest known piece of handwriting from Houdini: a postcard to his mother after he had run away from home at age 12.

"Dear Ma, I am going to Galvaston [sic] Texas and will be home in a year. Your truant son, Ehrich Weiss."

For Houdini scholars, the Library of Congress is an imperative. "For anyone interested in Houdini, this stuff is absolutely irreplaceable," said Silverman.

It was, however, displaceable, as he discovered to his great dismay when he first visited the library in 1992. Silverman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, was told that the library was unable to find much of its Houdini material.

"My reaction was, 'How can you allow 40 boxes of material to disappear?' " Silverman recalls. He thought that he would have to give up on his book.

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