If you’ve ever explored around the Hay, you might have noticed a seemingly average door on the second floor. A little plaque marks: “Smith Magic Room.” But upon reaching for the handle, you realize it’s locked.
Recently, I took a tour of the Smith Magic room, a collection of books and paraphernalia donated by alumnus H. Adrian Smith ’30. Smith was an engineering student who paid his way through school by performing as a magician. By 1948, he was elected national president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and had already starting collecting all things magicana. His collection, what amounts to possibly the second largest magic collection in the world, was left to Brown.
The room itself isn’t that spellbinding. Ideally, I was hoping for those boxes that, along with the assistant, get sawed in half, or maybe the ol’ Aztec tomb illusion. Instead, it’s four walls covered in books. Don’t get me wrong, those books are pretty preternatural all the same. All were owned by magicians–some are annotated with hand written tips added in, others have crossed out tricks that didn’t work out so well.
The collection is extremely expansive and spans much of the history of recorded magic, starting from witchcraft, to Victorian Parlor tricks, all the way to 1980s pop culture magic magazines. Some of the items are more notable, such as signed books from Harry Houdini’s personal library. The oldest in the collection is a book from the 16th century attempting to debunk witchcraft, so if you want to recite five- century-old spells, the Hay has you covered.
The collection isn’t just books, of course. There are wands, cards, and several other boxes of things so mysterious that not even the librarians can figure out what they were used for. Brown’s resident magician, Jonah Cader, recognized a few pieces of equipment, including nesting bottles and a “black art table,” used when stages were lit by gas lighting, rendering the black fabric of the table indistinguishable from the black background of the stage. The Hay has since asked Cader to return to identify more of the paraphernalia.
As if that weren’t enough magic, the Hay also houses the Damon Collection of Occult and Visionary Literature, dealing with all things pertaining to alchemy, demonology, sorcery, dream interpretation, and black magic.
Less mystical but equally enchanting, the Hay also has everything from hand written notes by Thoreau, to original Audubon drawings, to a dried flower arrangement from Lincoln’s funeral. If you’re interested in learning about any of the Hay’s many collections, don’t be afraid to reach out to out to a librarian. The collections are here for students to learn from, which is in a word–magical.
Images via Andrew Linder ’17 and Julia Elia ’17.