"I have accumulated," wrote Houdini in A Magician Among the Spirits, "one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena, spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits." In a letter to Mrs. M. M. Soule of July 31, 1925, Houdini stated, "I have an extraordinary collection of Spiritualistic works which I managed to obtain from the Collection of Dr. Pease.... You know, I actually live in a library." When Houdini died on October 31, 1926, he left this index of his mind and passions to the Library of Congress. Books held the great secrets of the illusion arts and the history of witchcraft from which western magic had differentiated itself as a performance art. A magician who lived surrounded by the written record of his craft and of human credulity in response to it, Houdini explored the roots of magic and its variant manifestations from ancient times to his own day. With Houdini's bequest to the Library of Congress came correspondence and substantial research files. The files, like the books, document Houdini's deep interest in the art of deception.
Houdini was a masterful performer on a most unconventional world stage and a genius at media manipulation and self-promotion. He reached the public through a variety of means, including the circus; under-water packing crate escapes; prison breakouts; manacled bridge jumps; upside-down straitjacket escapes; newspapers, magazines, and books; radio; silent films; and as a magician at the bedside of hospitalized children. Omnipresent, he transcended the individual venues of his time. Houdini compelled an international audience to enter his performance; as he broke through one barrier after another he liberated their imaginations with his own. He knew he could make many people in an audience think and feel as he chose. He knew the power of his art and he knew its danger.
Houdini was skeptical of claims of the paranormal and was vigilant in alerting the public to psychic fraud. In 1926, he testified at Hearings on Fortune Telling held in the House of Representatives before the Subcommittee on Judiciary of the District of Columbia. Houdini's book, A Magician Among the Spirits, was published two years earlier. In this work he exposed many of the prominent mediums of his time. In these and other ways, Houdini acted forcefully in fulfilling a moral responsibility of the magician first stated in English in the Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, published in 1584. Scot wrote that conjurers are commendable "...so they abuse not the name of God nor make the people attribute onto them his power, but always acknowledge wherein the art consisteth, so as thereby other unlawfull and impious arts may be by them the rather detected and betrayed."
The early twentieth century theoretician of magic, Nevil Maskelyne, wrote that the characteristic of any magic feat is that something or somebody is caused to pass mysteriously from one place or condition to another. This could be done by surprise, repetition, or transition. Whatever the choice, the effect depends upon the strength and will of the performer, who must absorb an audience so deeply in the action that they do not think of previous information. "What we see prevents us from reflecting upon what we know," he wrote. The audience is led by suggestion to adopt an attitude of mind that the magician wishes them to assume. The magician's audience, Maskelyne tells us, "is interested in witnessing events which have no relation to common experience and are engendered by a being who possesses a power far beyond their own." Performance magic as an art requires that the ability and mental attitude of the magician be equal to the expectations of this audience.
Houdini's were. But he always insisted upon the purely human nature of his art. Houdini gleaned ideas for performance tricks from mediums. Through replication, he also exposed as fraudulent the field of seance magic. He emphasized the responsibility of magicians to acknowledge that magic is a purely human skill and to expose mediums who claimed their illusions were the result of contact with the world beyond. This collection is derived from Houdini's legacy: a blazing imagination, driven by curiosity, sustained by determination, and devoted to magic as a performance art.
Joan F. Higbee
Rare Book and Special Collections Division
Library of Congress