When I first started working at the MRC, I was told of some of the unexpected treasures that it held. Amongst these is a signed photograph of Harry Houdini, dated 4/4/13. This was the first item that I came across which massively impacted on how I viewed archives…
I began to see how the archives held hidden gems, truly special and unique items that would appeal to all kinds of people, rather than just historians. When I told my friends about where I was working, I mentioned this photograph to give them an idea of the what MRC has in its collections. This photograph sparked the idea of a #hiddengems showcase, which aimed to broaden people’s ideas about the sort of material they could find in the MRC.
When we went to find the Houdini photograph in our archives, we found that it was kept in a folder that also contained more unusual material. This is one of the benefits of using archives; material is sorted and kept together with other related items, which allows you to enlighten an item through its context.
The folder containing the Houdini photograph also holds a variety of newspaper clippings, leaflets and programmes (dated between 1913 and 1953) all on magic and magicians or spiritualists. However, what is most unusual about this find is the collection that it comes from; it belongs to ‘The Papers of Henry Sara (1886-1953), Trotskyist; and Frank Maitland (1909-2001), friend and executor of Sara’ collection. This collection contains mainly historical, economical and political material. Thus, the presence of a folder entitled ‘magic’ is rather unexpected. It leads us to question why someone went to such effort to cut out many articles from newspapers and collect such items when their key interests lay elsewhere. For me, this folder is exemplary in demonstrating the personal connection that you find in archives. From this folder we get a sense of this man and his personality beyond current affairs and the politics of the day.
Moreover, this folder also tells the stories of many individuals, as well as how magic or spiritualism was viewed at the time. From the amount of articles collected that painted magicians in a negative light we get the idea that the collector did not wholesomely approve of magic.
This is one of a few articles on a specific magician – Chung Ling Soo. It tells of the tragic death of the magician when his bullet-catching trick went wrong in 1918. I favour this particular article for its speculation. It is revealed that the rifle used had been tampered with. Did the ‘dark-haired American beauty who watched his show night after night’ have anything to do with his death? Was this actually the ‘most ingenious and cold-blooded suicide ever planned’?
This is a rather amusing cutting which tells of a magician who gave up magic because ‘it was thought he had psychic powers, and was constantly pestered by people wanting to get in touch with dead relatives’.
This article also relates to spiritualism. It echoes the idea that people were obsessed with contacting the dead, a phenomena which was growing with the world crisis of the time. In 1941 large amounts of money were given to Psychic Research. It was hoped that this money would ‘drive to expose a growing trade in ghostly fakery’. It talks of one magician who openly admits that his communication with the dead is just trickery – he ‘relies only on his 25 years of practice in prestidigitation and his knowledge of science’.
A more comical article, this piece tells of the magician who was challenged to perform his tricks in the nude. He was successful and ended up winning his £5 bet, proving that he didn’t have anything up his sleeve!