The Magic of the MRC

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…

MSS.15B-8-37 magic_001I 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.

MSS.15B-8-37 magic_005

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.

MSS.15B-8-37 magic_009

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’?

MSS.15B-8-37 magic_017

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’.

MSS.15B-8-37 magic_006

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’.

MSS.15B-8-37 magic_021A 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!

If you would like to discover more, please come into the MRC and order MSS.15B.8.37.


6 thoughts on “The Magic of the MRC”

  1. What’s a year old?!? Magic?!? The Photo?!? The archives?!? My crusty magic carpet which I thought was REALLY magic and could enable me to fly to and from work when I bought it from a back street Coventry antiques dealer?!?
    …Please be more specific!

  2. Dear Professor Clark,

    Many thanks for your intrepid input as always. I did not realize that the photograph of the legendary Mister Houdini was only a year old. Given his youthful exuberance, what is the secret for his youthful looks?

    As for the magic carpet, no, it is actually an antique and certainly not a year old. How so very dare you!

    To ensure that you can fully understand the historic merit of this unique specimen of a rug, I am providing for you and your sceptical audience, a link to old, rare footage of several courageous Coventry fellows “road testing” it a considerable time ago. You can quite clearly see that in the background is Hearsall Common, as it used to be – the very same scrub of land where the visionary engineer, Frank Wittle “discovered flight” during the mid 20th century.

    It must be stated, that in his heyday, Mister Houdini would have obviously attempted to prove that the footage was in some way doctored but I can assure you, Hearsall Common is a Special Effects free zone and always has been. Hence the reason why Hollywood was never allowed to relocate there in the early 20th century despite the insistence of several Hollywood moguls at that time.

    Finally, with regards to your comment of CARpet-pooling to work, this would simply not be a feasible method of co-operative transport, I’m afraid. Using this Magic Carpet to transport more than one individual would be a considerable stRUGgle due to its small dimensions. ​

    It really is a MATter of making do with burning fossilized fuels until a more effective method of transport is conceived, don’t you think?

  3. Dear Sir,

    It is, of course, understandable that you assumed the photo was over one hundred years old. This ignorance is common amongst less educated Librarians and so you should not feel foolish or stupid. While I can also admit ignorance to Houdini’s magical secrets, I might also venture to hazard a feeble theory. After 10 years of archival research, I have fumbled upon a some-what sturdy conclusion: magic. For how else can you explain his youthful disposition? Prosthetics are most certainly to be dismissed – it appears the man in question is handcuffed. Who could apply prosthetics to their face in such attire? Not to mention that with his age, arthritis would certainly be a factor to consider! And as this photograph was taken in Hearshall Common, photo-editing is indeed out of the question. These are just some of my arguments. I do recommend that you read my full essay, which can be found in this publication:

    I am very disappointed in your response to my carpet-pooling suggestion. I was wheely looking forward to no longer using a car. I would be far less exhausted if I could relax on a carpet on the way to work. After experiencing a hand-break, when falling out of my car, I was gearing myself up for a better life. Oh well.


    Professor Clarke

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