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Beinecke Top Tens: Magic and Alchemy

The 16th century saw the publication of books on alchemy in almost every European language. Such books were widely consumed — read, annotated, mocked, discussed, and collected by an audience of both skeptics and believers alike. Terms such as the "philosopher’s stone" entered popular vocabulary, as did names of alchemical authorities like Raymond Lull. By the late 18th century, alchemy was ingrained in British and European popular culture.

Yale's collection of alchemical literature began with a donation from Bishop George Berkeley and was supplemented by a gift to Yale in 1965 of Mary Conover Mellon’s collection of alchemical books and manuscripts. Beyond older manuscripts, the Beinecke also contains other, more contemporary books, manuscripts, and documents related to alchemy, magic, the imaginary, and the supernatural.

The compound of alchymy. Or the ancient hidden art of archemie: conteining the right & perfectest meanes to make the philosophers stone, aurum potible

Written in 1591 by George Ripley, this book contains passages on subjects including the philosopher's stone and "the compound of alchemy." Ripley praises his writing as "a most excellent, learned, and worthie [sic] work," and he dedicates several entries to British royalty, prefacing one entry as dedicated "to king Edward the fourth, by Sir George Ripley, chanon of Bridlington, in York-shire." The book also includes a description of a strange vision experienced by the author, in which he sees a "toade" drink the "juice the grapes so fast" and subsequently die. Call number: Mellon Alchemical 48

The art of distillation, or A treatise of the choisest spagyricall preparations performed by way of distillation

"Composed" by John French, "Dr. of Physik," and published in 1651, this "treatise" draws upon "the most select Chymicall Authors of severall Languages," as well as the "Authors manuall Experience," to describe "Spagyricall Preparations performed by way of Distillations." The book outlines "distillation" processes and includes drawings of men carrying out such expeirments, as well as diagrams of experimental equipment. It describes various chemical processes used to obtain metals; for example, it describes "malgamatation" — "Take any metall except iron, beaten into thin leaves, or very small powder, mix it with about 8 parts of quick-silver... evaporate the quick-silver over the fire, and the metall will be left in the bottome as a thin calx." Call number: Z92 13

Advertisement for Professor Anderson's "Spectacle of Magic & Mystery"

Printed by the Royal Lyceum Theater of London, this advertisement promotes "The grand Eleusinian spectacle of MAGIC & MYSTERY, by Professor Anderson the GREAT WIZARD OF THE NORTH," beginning Monday, Oct. 22nd, 1855 and showing every evening during the week. "Professor Anderson" (full name: John Henry Anderson) was a Scottish magician who, orphaned at age 10, took up magic and became famous for his popular theater performances and advertising genius. Known as "The Great Wizard of the North," he is credited with helping bring magic acts from the street to the theater.

In this London advertisement, Professor Anderson's performance is described as having an "ever-chaning Variety of Incidents, continuous Surprises, Novel and Extraordinary Effects." The ad declares that "Magic and Myster is an entirely New Entertainment, possessing distinctive Characteristics and pecular Phases of Amusement. It is a Comedy really performed by the Company; a Melo-drama replete with Startling Positions and Unexpected Denouements; a Magnificant Spectacle, with 2,000 of the Public every night to appear as Auxiliaries: and an Extravaganza, in which all that seems to be is entirely beyond the bounds of probability." Call number: BrSides Folio 2005 49

Scrapbooks relating to magic

These two scrapbooks contain a range of printed material — periodicals, catalogs, advertisements — related to the general theme of magic. The periodicals included in the scrapbooks have titles like "The Secret Clan," "The Ledger of Magic," "Journal of the Institute of Magicians," and "The Truth About Magic" and contain descriptions of magicians and their magic tricks (sometimes with diagrams). The scrapbooks also contain a letter written to Samuel C. Hooker, a magician known for his "Rising Cards" magic trick — a magical act that stumped Hooker's contemporaries in the early 20th century and continues to baffle many modern day magicians. Call number: GEN MSS 537

Optical illusion cards

The 12 cards in this set — which most likely dates from 1880 — are illustrated with optical illusions of faces and figures hidden within scenic pictures. One card, for example, says, "How many faces? Try to count them," while another reads, "Guardian, angel and demon. Can you find them?" A third card asks, "Dragoon and squirrel. Where is the dragoon?" Call number: Shirley 5560

Fortune teller manual and dream book

This 110-page illustrated book, published in 1905 by Frederick J. Drake & Company of Chicago, is titled "The original gypsy fortune teller and dream book." It is billed as a "complete revelation of the art of fortune telling by cards, palmistry and signs of the zodiac, as practiced by the wandering gypsies for centuries past." The book also contains a "complete dictionary of dreams, the art of palmistry" and "a full collection of charms, spells and incitations." Call number: 2005 891

Black Herman's Secrets of Magic book

This book, titled Black Herman's Secret of Magic - Mystery and Legerdermain, claims to contain "some of the lastest and best pocket tricks and secrets of the occult uncovered by Black Herman the magician." Black Herman was the stage name of Benjamin Rucker, a Virginian who became one of the most prominent African American magicians of the early 20th century. Rucker began his magic career as a teenager, studying under another performer named Prince Herman; the two, known for their prestidigtation or "sleight of hand" skills, performed illusions and magic tricks in stage shows. After Prince's death, Rucker performed independently, both in the North — near his home in Harlem — and the South — where Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation, and his audiences tended to be primarily African American. Rucker was best known for his "Asrah levitation" and "buried alive" acts, as well as for his tricks in which he made rabbits appear seemingly from thin air.

Rucker's book, published in 1925, was meant as a sort of autobiography and includes instructions for performing simple magic tricks and illusions, as well as commentary on astrology and lucky numbers. Some have suggested that the book was not actually written by Rucker, and that many parts are innacurate or fictionalized. Call number: JWJ Zan B562 938bf

Presentation inscription from Harry Houdini

In a copy of his book, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, Harry Houdini wrote the following inscription to George Watson Cole: "To Mr. Cole with compliments of the author, who is proud of his book which is the first authentic history of magic and magicians published. Harry Houdini July 14/1916." A photograph of Houdini is inserted into the book, while an envelope containing clippings and a Christmas card are inserted at the end. Call number: NLt48 R72 908H

"Alexander, the Man Who Knows" poster

This theatrical poster depicts the turbaned head of Alexander, rendered in black in white on a red background. Alexander — also known as Alexander the Crystal Seer, Alexander C., or Alexander the Man Who, and whose full name was Claude Alexander Conlin — was a vaudeville magician who performed both publically on stage, putting on mentalism and psychic reading shows, and privately for clients, offering psychic readings. He also wrote books for stage performers. Call number: BrSides Folio 2004 3

Fetaque Sanders broadsides, posters, and flyers 

African American magician Fetaque Sanders (1915-1992) began his career in 1933, when he moved from his hometown of Nashville, Tennesse to Chicago to join a magic stage show, performed as part of the 1933 World's Fair. Fetaque returned to Tenneesse for college; after graduating, he developed a comedic puppet act, which included Punch and Judy puppets and impressions of well-known figures. He later toured with the United Service Organizations (USO) during World War II, performing for African-American troops of the segregated U.S. Armed Forces. Sanders continued performing his magic act after the war, until 1962. A small archive of materials documenting Sanders' career can be found at the Beinecke. It includes 17 illustrated promotional broadsides and flyers (ca. 1940-1950) for "The Fetaque Sanders Magic Show," "The Fetaque Sanders Spook Show," and "Fetaque Sanders' Magic Book." Call number: 2014 Folio 109

Magic circles

This article, by Kurt Seligmann, was published in the February-March 1942 issue of View magazine, a literary and art magazine published in the 1940s by Charles Henri Ford and perhaps best known for its coverage of the avant-guarde and Surrealist scenes in America. The article discusses the "World Soul," which Seligmann describes as "that occult force which the hermetic philosophers discuss, a central generating power, a morphological principle. It is the counterpart of the human soul because everything that exists in man exists also in the universe." Seligmann goes on to discuss the "symbolic image of Lambspring," which refers "to an alchemic process...mainly of a psychic nature." The article references Carl Jung and includes a chart of magic signs for "good" and "evil spirits," to be "employed for conjuring the forces of the invisible world." Call number: Za +Zv67

Compiled by Olivia Pollak (DC '16).

This Top Ten List topic was suggested by Gloria Loya (JE '05).

Beinecke Top Tens gather (approximately) ten related items to give an at-a-glance look at some of the Library's interesting, important, strange, compelling, beautiful holdings. To see more lists, click here: Beinecke Top Tens. To suggest a list subject, contact us: Top Ten Ideas.

by Olivia Pollak
March 7, 2014

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