The Harry Houdini Collection in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division contains many strange and intriguing materials. Houdini himself admitted to collecting one of the largest libraries in the world focused on psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits, and the history of the occult over many centuries — some of the books in the collection were printed as early as 1489. An astute collector as well as an accomplished performer, Houdini studied these occult movements, practices, and theories in an effort to find the truth about the afterlife.
Within this unusual collection is a mystifying, multi-volume set of works containing manuscript notes on experiments in the art of crystal-gazing, also known as scrying. The books themselves reveal little about their origin or use. Their author, the British Spiritualist, accountant, and Freemason, Frederick Hockley (1808-1885) is an enigmatic figure despite being known as a key contributor to the Occult Revival of the late 19th century.
Frederick Hockley: Spiritualist
Frederick Hockley’s early life is shrouded in mystery, as there are no official records of his birth, his family, or his education. Scholars have been able to piece together some information about Hockley by tracing his name through UK census records and using clues left in Hockley’s own books to determine his origin and follow the course of his life. We do know that in his early years, Hockley began working for a dealer in occult books and manuscripts named John Denley. Hockley produced and copied occult manuscripts for Denley to sell, and he would continue to collect and copy these kinds of books for the rest of his life.
Hockley’s early work with Denley birthed a lifelong interest in the occult and spiritual phenomena. He was interested in the variety of spiritual practices that emerged at the time including mesmerism (also called animal magnetism) and astrology, as well as various forms of psychic communication including séances and mediums, Ouija boards, crystals, and mirrors. In 1869, Hockley explained to the London Dialectical Society’s Special Committee on Spiritualism that he began his experiments with crystals and mirrors as early as 1824 (around the age of 16), and that he had become convinced that this was the only true way to communicate with the spirit world.
Hockley’s Library: Lost and Found
Throughout his life, Hockley shared materials from his library with those interested in learning from them. As a result, much of what is known of his personal collection comes from notes taken by those who had access to the material during Hockley’s lifetime. However, upon Hockley’s passing, the fate of his library becomes something of a mystery, and a puzzle emerges when attempting to trace the path along which these materials have been dispersed.
Aside from about £3,000 and an assortment of household goods, Hockley’s will stated that his collection of books and manuscripts, crystals, and mirrors should be sold. The crystals and mirrors were purchased by James Burns and Co. who published an advertisement for the sale of these materials in 1886, but their ultimate fate is unknown. Even more mysterious is the fate of his library of books and manuscripts, which leading spiritualists of the time had hoped would be preserved intact after his death for future students of the occult and psychology to consult.
In addition to printed books and articles on the occult and the transcribed manuscripts he copied while working for Denley, Hockley claimed to have 30 volumes of notes from scrying experiments, “containing upwards of 12,000 answers…which I keep carefully under lock and key.” These volumes are by far the most difficult to trace. While auction catalogs and institutional archives such as the Library and Museum of Freemasonry and the Library of the Wellcome Institute provide some insight into the whereabouts of the books and manuscript transcriptions, even less is known about these mysterious scrying notebooks.
Tucked away in Houdini’s unusual library at the Library of Congress are 12 books that are unlike any others in his collection: a set of 11 volumes titled, The Crystal: A Record of Visions and Conferences with the In-Dwellers of the Spirit World, and a single volume titled, A Work of Angels & Spirits Which Have Appeared in My Mirror & Cristals [sic] 1857. These volumes are rather puzzling; they contain handwritten notes and strange diagrams with little or no explanation. The strange jottings inside are in fact the notes Hockley kept during his crystal-gazing experiments, including descriptions of spirits he came into contact with, the questions asked of and information received from those spirits, and astrological and astronomical readings and diagrams. Looking at these volumes, we can deduce that these are likely 12 of the 30 untraceable volumes noted by Hockley scholars.
This exciting conclusion leads to additional questions. For instance, Houdini’s collection contains only volumes 4, 5, and 7-15 of this set. What happened to the others? How did Harry Houdini end up with these books in his personal library? Hockley and Houdini may at first seem at odds; after all, clearly Hockley was a believer, and Houdini set much of his latter career on proving spiritualists fraudulent. However, though their approach was vastly different, their goals were largely the same: they wanted to find out the truth behind spiritual communication.
Links to resources the for original Hockley notebooks in the Rare Book Division:
- The crystal: a record of visions and conferences with the in-dwellers of the spirit world / Fred. Hockley, Croydon, 1853-1862.
- By the People transcription project: Seers, Spiritualists, and the Spirit World: The experiments of Frederick Hockley
Links to online catalog records for works about Hockley:
- Rosicrucian Seer: the magical writings of Frederick Hockley / edited with an introduction by John Hamill; with a note on Hockley’s manuscripts by R.A. Gilbert. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: Aquarian Press, 1986.
- Samuel Scarborough. “Frederick Hockley: A Hidden Force behind the 19th Century English Occult Revival” in the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition, No. 14, Vol. 2. Vernal Equinox 2008. http://www.jwmt.org/v2n14/hockley_article.html
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