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Lilly Library works its magic on newly acquired Ricky Jay archive of magical history

The late magician and actor was an avid collector and historian of magic, from sleight of hand to spiritualism

Dec 6, 2023

Indiana University is the steward to an array of rare archival collections, including the Moving Image Archive, the Sage Collection and the Kinsey Institute Library & Special Collections. Thanks to IU’s reputation as a custodian of history and preservation, the Lilly Library recently acquired the archive of late magician and actor Ricky Jay.

In addition to his stage shows and roles in films like “The Prestige” and the hit TV show “Deadwood,” Jay was a historian of magic in all aspects, from stage magic and sleight of hand to spiritualism.

“Ricky Jay was an extraordinary magician, historian and researcher of the history of magic and of other extraordinary performers and people,” said Joel Silver, director of the Lilly Library. “It’s a privilege for us to preserve his archive at the Lilly Library, where new researchers can discover and build upon his remarkable work.”

The archive was purchased by Lilly Library from Chrisann Verges, an award-winning producer, and Ricky Jay’s spouse.

“I am so pleased that my husband’s archives and spirit photography collection will have a home at the Lilly Library,” Verges said. “Ricky often researched at the Lilly and always spoke highly of the scholarship, enthusiasm and dedication of the Lilly team. I am so happy that his papers will be accessible to the public and under the stewardship of the Lilly.”

Ricky Jay Archival Collection at Lilly Library

Archivists at the Lilly Library have been working for nearly a year to document, research, organize and describe the archive, which consists of 80 to 90 boxes of materials. A portion of the archive is currently accessible online through a finding aid, and more will be added as it is processed. One piece of the archive — the spirit photographs — is available now for visitors to view in person. More on that later.

Manuscripts archivist Ava Dickerson and archivist assistant Kyra Triebold at the Lilly Library walked us through the strategies they implement as they process the archive, and they share a sneak peek of several treasures they have found.

“No two archivists are going to process a collection the same way,” Dickerson said. “We are essentially trying to tell the story of someone’s life through organizing their physical materials.”

The primary steps an archivist takes include researching specific materials, surveying what is included within a collection, removing any extraneous items that don’t belong and sending materials to library conservators for repairs. Dickerson and Triebold said these steps are not necessarily linear.

“The research is continual, especially in a collection like this where it’s such a menagerie of different subjects,” Dickerson said. “Part of it, for me, has been doing a lot of research on the history of magic, because I knew nothing about it. That is one of the exciting things about this job, because I get the opportunity to really deep dive on subjects that I’ve never even thought about.”

A photograph of young Ricky Jay performing onstage alongside his grandfather, Max Katz, is included among the items in the Ricky Jay arch... A photograph of young Ricky Jay performing onstage alongside his grandfather, Max Katz, is included among the items in the Ricky Jay archive at Lilly Library. Photo courtesy of Lilly Library

Dickerson said the more she has researched the history of magic, the more she understands how it intersects with many seemingly unrelated subjects, such as politics, science and medicine.

“A lot of the court physicians in France in the 18th century were also magicians because there was an overlap of surgery and dentistry with magic,” Dickerson said. “A number of scientific discoveries were from magicians who were trying to figure out how to do their next trick.”

Once archivists have a grasp on what is included in a collection, they begin the next phase, which includes “level of arrangement,” or intellectually arranging items and imposing order. That step is followed by the “series” process, where they group items into categories.

While the team is still organizing and deciphering the Ricky Jay archive, they have developed several series that will help researchers locate items of interest once the archive is accessible. Series thus far include:

  • Research Files: This series features materials collected by Jay on various subjects for his writings and research, as well as notes and items like magicians’ stationery, programs, news clippings and publications from the 18th through early 20th century. Topics include conjuring, vaudeville, the circus, ventriloquism, juggling, gambling, daredevils, occultism, spiritualism and spirit photography.
  • Correspondence: A series featuring letters written to and by Jay, communicating with magicians David Blaine, David Copperfield and Teller; filmmakers Terry Gilliam, Caleb Deschanel and Werner Herzog; writers Nora Ephron, Michael Chabon and Gene Siskel; songwriters Tom Waits, Stephen Sondheim and Tracy Newman; artist Ed Ruscha; and actors Steve Martin, Emma Thompson and Leonard Nimoy.
  • Writings, Performances and Consultations: Drafts and materials relating to Jay’s nonfiction writings and lectures on the history of magic and his stage performances. This series also includes screenplays and scripts from Jay’s acting and consulting career, which include movies like “The Illusionist,” “Tomorrow Never Dies” and “The Prestige.”
  • Collecting and Curatorship: This series includes materials related to Jay’s collection of magic posters, books and collectibles, and materials related to exhibitions of his collection. 
  • Max Katz: Materials collected by and relating to Jay’s grandfather, Max Katz, including items connected to Jay’s childhood and early magic career as well as scrapbooks of magic events and magicians in the first half of the 20th century.
  • Photographs: Photos of Jay spanning his career, including the early years.

The spirit photographs, which are on display at Lilly Library now, are a particularly intriguing category from the Ricky Jay archive. According to the archivists, spirit photography became prevalent during the late 19th century. The photos were meant to capture images of ghosts or spirits, and spirit photographers often made a living by charging individuals for a photo, claiming to capture the ghost of a loved one who had passed away.

A portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln taken by photographer William Mumler in 1872 is among the spirit photo... A portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln taken by photographer William Mumler in 1872 is among the spirit photographs on display from the archive collection of Ricky Jay in the Lilly Library. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

“One of the showstoppers is the famous photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, who’s resting his hands on her shoulders,” Triebold said. “This was taken by William H. Mumler, who is regarded as the first spirit photographer.”

The post-Civil War spiritualist movement began to rise at the same time as photography and, according to Triebold, so did skepticism surrounding mediums and spirit photographers.

“There was a famous trial because people thought that Mumler’s photos were fraudulent, and it was kind of putting spiritualism on trial,” Triebold said.

Dickerson said many stage magicians viewed spiritualists and mediums as a dishonest version of a magician, using the same sleight of hand, illusion methods and performance as a magician but convincing people that they were legitimate.

“Several magicians, including Houdini, were dedicated to debunking spiritualists and mediums, so there is a lot of overlap of spiritualism and magic and how those interplay,” Dickerson said.

Once archivists have completed the series process, they begin to place the collection into physical order in archivally safe boxes and folders. There are five floors of stacks at the Lilly Library where materials are housed, with further offsite storage at the Auxiliary Library Facility in Bloomington.

Archivists then use the research they have gathered to communicate what individual items are and place those descriptions into a finding aid for researchers. The finding aid is a resource tool, searchable online through the Archives Online database.

“The goal is for us as the institution to know what we have, so that we can also let researchers know what we have and create a guide so that they can find things,” Triebold said. “It’s not enough for us to know that we have a collection just sitting in a box forever without it to be used.”

Read more details about the archive in a piece written by Rebecca Baumann, head of curatorial services and curator of modern books at Lilly Library.


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Julia Hodson


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