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Harry Houdini’s Rare Magic Books

Harry Houdini's personal bookplate which is on each book in his library held by the Library of Congress.

Harry Houdini’s personal bookplate which is on each book in his library held by the Library of Congress.

The following is a guest post authored by Elizabeth Gettins, a Digital Conversion Specialist for the Library’s  Rare Book and Special Collections (RBSC). She has worked on multiple RBSC digital collections through the years such as the Kraus Collection of Sir Francis Drake, the Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks and the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana .

Harry, are you here?

I whispered under my breath as the vault door closed behind me. There I stood deep in the stacks that house Harry Houdini’s library at the Library of Congress. How can I be so irreverent, I thought to myself, but just the same it seemed an appropriate question to ask of the straight jacket escape artist. If anyone could communicate from the dead it would be Harry Houdini.

I have been working on the digitization of the Library’s magic tomes and had the pleasure of visiting the contents of Harry Houdini’s Library quite often.  Houdini amassed one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena, spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology and the like, with material dating as early as 1489. In 1927, through Houdini’s bequest, the Library received 3,988 volumes from his collection. His collection is strongest in 19th and 20th century publications on spiritualism, as one of Houdini’s main interests was to debunk the mediums of his day.  

Title page of "Revelations of a spirit medium," with illustration of a seance, published in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1891

Title page of “Revelations of a spirit medium,” with illustration of a seance, published in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1891

While Houdini was hot on the trail of exposing mediums during his lifetime, following his death his widow Beatrice (Bess)  conducted séances. For many years she would attempt to channel the ghost of Houdini on the eve of his death which eerily falls on October 31st.  Houdini remained silent during these yearly séances and I myself never saw or heard anything while in the Library’s book stacks which goes to support  Mr. Houdini’s claims that mediums and the like are nonsense.

But just maybe, perhaps this Halloween, on the 88th anniversary of his death, Mr. Houdini will make a visit to his Library deep in the cold, dark vaults of the Library of Congress.

To view even more items on magic and the like, see: Materials on Science, Magic and Mathematics which is a multi-collection compilation of seminal books on these topics.

Although it does not represent the true location of the vault that contains Houdini’s library, you might find this lighthearted video of  Penn & Teller with Houdini at the Library of Congress amusing. This  video is taken from the 1990 Memory and Imagination: New Pathways to the Library of Congress documentary (Michael Lawrence Films/Krainin Productions).

Need more Houdini? 

 Mark Dimunation, chief of Rare Books and Special Collections, talks to the History Channel about Houdini’s scrapbook in Magical Momentos . There is also a Harry Houdini, Master Magician guide that will lead you to historic newspapers articles about Houdini that can be found in the Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers digital collection.

Happy Halloween to one and all!

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