I needed a couple of extra archival boxes a few weeks ago, so I went over to a building where the Library keeps materials that do not fit in the main storage areas. While I was there, the reference archivist, Annemarie van Roessel, showed me a collection that made me feel like I had taken a wrong turn on 64th Street and wandered down Diagon Alley. It was a set of 25 boxes of “Magic Scrapbooks” that had belonged to stage magicians between 1832 and 1959. The first scrapbook I looked in was similar to a lot of performers’ scrapbooks: newspaper clippings of articles featuring the performer and his shows. This sort of thing can be incredibly valuable to researchers, but it’s not exactly, well... magical.
The second scrapbook, though, all but emitted light as I carefully untied the string and removed the wrapping paper that kept the book intact, despite the disintegrating binding. The title, “Stories of the Wands,” was written on the cover in a scrawling, mystical script that suggested the knowledge contained therein was not intended for the eyes of a simple digital curator such as myself. On the first page, I found a photograph of a collection of wands that had come into the possession of the owner of the book, a Dr. Saram R. Ellison, a Freemason and collector of magical paraphernalia. In “Stories of the Wands,” he cataloged and described his collection of wands with evident pride.
The entry for a wand belonging to a Bartolomeo Bosco was particularly interesting. The wand is described as “A piece of STONE 3 inches long, one end rounded” and was given to Ellison by Harry Houdini, whose “story of the wand” is recorded below the entry as follows:
“I visited the grave of Bosco and found that the stone had at the bottom, his coat of arms, which were the 3 cups trick, a ball, and a wand. I found the head of the wand broken off and in looking in the tall grass I actually found the tip of the wand, which I will make you a present of.”
Below this story is written in pen, “The above is the truth. Harry Houndini.”
Of course, I immediately began poking around for the wands. Unfortunately, although the wands were apparently received by the Library in the early 20th century, they are no longer extant in the collection. The scrapbooks, though, are truly fascinating themselves and represent just a fraction of the collection that makes this Library such a magical place. Happy National Magic Week, everyone!