Houdini and the Spirit Realm? Transcribe Hockley’s World of “The Beyond”

Poster of Houdini performance

Stephanie Stillo and Amanda Zimmerman, both in the the Rare Book & Special Collections Division, contributed to this story.

You can have a lot of Halloween fun without COVID-19 worries, and one of the most original is to help out with the Library’s brand new crowdsourcing transcription campaign, “Seers, Spiritualists, and the Spirit World: The Experiments of Frederick Hockley.” Weird, strange and maybe a little bit creepy? Why, sure! Check out his sketch of the spiritual realm:

Kind of a drag that Hades is next door to Earth, but, really, are you that surprised?

Hockley was a 19th-century British Spiritualist, Freemason and member of the Rosicrucian Society, a secret worldwide brotherhood whose members believed they had access to ancient, mystical knowledge. He spent over 60 years researching Spiritualism and experimenting with ways of communicating with “the beyond.” Through a medium — someone thought to have a special ability to reach across death’s locked door — Hockley attempted to connect with those inhabiting this other realm. The 11 bound volumes of his notebooks, each about 400 pages, are mostly in question/answer format, with Hockley posing questions to the spirit(s) and writing the answers that come through the crystal or mirror. There is also some automatic writing and astrological readings and charts.

Houdini, who researched magic and Spiritualism relentlessly, added the notebooks to his extensive collection on the subjects. They were included in his donations to the Library.

A title page from “The Crystal,” Hockley’s notes from this conversations with the dead. Rare Books and Special Collections Division. 

The Hockley campaign is one of many crowdsourcing efforts the Library and an army of volunteers have taken up recently, ranging from the papers of poet Walt Whitman to those of baseball icon Branch Rickey. Trying your hand is free, of course, and you can sign up on the above link.

To help kick things off with this mystical campaign, Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book & Special Collections Division, will present “Harry Houdini: Life, Library, and Legacy,” on Oct. 29 (Thursday) at 3 p.m. EST.  Dimunation will tell the story of Houdini’s remarkable life and his premature end on October 31, 1926. Dimunation also will discuss Houdini’s massive book collection and papers at the Library. It’s nearly four thousand volumes on psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology and evil spirits.

That’s not all, though! A couple of weeks later, join the always charming Amanda Zimmerman, Reference Librarian in the same division, for “Through a Glass Darkly: Frederick Hockley, Harry Houdini, and the Quest for Knowledge.” This talk explores the life of Hockley who, though a firm believer in Spiritualism (Houdini was the ultimate skeptic), shared Houdini’s unrelenting desire to pursue knowledge that would lead to the truth about Spiritualism. Details on both presentations are listed below.

That’s a “spirit Indian” floating just below a monument at the spiritualist Camp Chesterfield, Indiana. 1944. Photo: Robert Chaney. Prints and Photographs Division.

Despite Houdini’s best efforts, the idea of a ghostly spirit world in the shadows of our own continued long after his death. His wife, Bess, tried to contact his spirit via seances for a decade after he died, to no avail. In another example, Spiritualists in Chesterfield, Indiana, set up a camp in 1890. In 1944, during the midst of World War II, it was still going strong and mystical things seemed to happen all the time. Ghosts didn’t mind showing up for photographs. “Psychic photographer” Robert Chaney took a picture of a stone carving of a Native American that year. When he developed the film — (creepy organ music here) — the print revealed a “spirit Indian,” in full feathered regalia, lurking in the shadows. Amazing.

Camp Chesterfield is still there, by the way, a peaceful 44-acre realm that is on the National Register of Historic Places and operates, per its website, as a “religion, philosophy and science.” Hockley would, no doubt, be proud of this legacy.

Event Details:
Harry Houdini: Life, Library, and Legacy
Thursday October 29, 2020 @ 3:00pm
Meeting number (access code): 199 302 8752
Meeting password: [email protected]
Join by phone @ +1-510-210-8882
WebEx Virtual Room will open 15 minutes prior to start time

Event Details:
Through a Glass Darkly: Frederick Hockley, Harry Houdini, and the Quest for Knowledge”
Thursday November 12, 2020 @3:00pm
Meeting number (access code): 199 974 0579
Meeting password: [email protected]
Join by phone @ +1-510-210-8882
WebEx Virtual Room will open 15 minutes prior to start time

Request ADA accommodations five days in advance at (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

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