Nature and Scope - Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic

This module explores the relationship between the popularity of Victorian magic shows and conjuring tricks and the emergence of séances and psychic phenomena in Britain and America. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an explosion of interest in the occult, and the foundation of a new religious movement, Spiritualism. We cover all aspects of these subjects, from spiritualist pamphlets to the show-business empires of leading magicians such as John Henry Anderson. The role of magic within variety performances is also well represented. The resource is designed for both teaching and study, from undergraduate to research students and beyond.Poster of The Great Krieger, a magician pulling a rabbit out of a dish. Image © The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin

Primary sources provide information on subjects including:

  • Stage magic and conjuring
  • Levitation, escapology and illusion
  • Card tricks and parlour magic
  • Animal magnetism, mesmerism and hypnosis
  • Psychic phenomena and parapsychology
  • Séances, spirit writing and ghost hunting

A wide variety of material types are included, ranging from:

  • Printed books
  • Periodicals
  • Photographs
  • Scrapbooks
  • Posters
  • Ephemera

The two main contributing archives to this module are:

The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature at Senate House, University of London

The Harry Price Library is one of the world’s great collections on magic. Harry Price (1888-1948) devoted much of his life to exploring (and often debunking) ‘supernatural’ phenomena and his unique library contains the works of the foremost magicians, mediums, debunkers and psychical researchers, as well as biographies, reports, pamphlets and rare journals such as The Sphinx, Light, Borderland and The Zoist.

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin

The Harry Ransom Center has contributed the Harry Houdini Collection. Like Harry Price, Harry Houdini (1874-1926) also spent much of his life exploring spiritual phenomena and exposing fraudsters. From his archive we include a number of his scrapbooks with items relating to this history of magic, illusions, Spiritualism and other aspects of conjuring, as well as specific performers such as Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin and J. N. Maskelyne.


Supplementing the primary source material is a wealth of secondary resources, including a glossary of key terms, biographies of significant figures from this period, a dictionary of important venues, a visual gallery which allows users to create their own slideshows of images, and an interactive chronology.

* Please note: If you have purchased Module 1 only, you will not have access to Modules 2, 3 and 4 documents and primary source links within the secondary contextual material.