It has only been five years since we lost the great Ricky Jay. He was incredibly well-regarded for his boisterous performance style and made a grand impact on the magic community. Jay can even be found in supporting roles of some blockbuster movies, including the magic masterpiece The Prestige or Boogie Nights, an intoxicating look at the adult film industry.
What many don’t know is behind the scenes Jay was an avid historian of magic and spiritualism. His collection was grand and covered both artifacts from his personal career and research spanning many topics within performance history. Indiana University recently acquired his entire archive and is making it available to the public for the first time ever.
In 2022, the collection was acquired by the Lilly Library at Indiana University, and since then, librarians have been culling through everything to organize it properly. There are about 103 boxes of material to be sorted through from Jay’s archive, so this was no easy task.
Currently, you can browse his collection of spiritual photography online which can also be seen firsthand at the university. This collection of magic-adjacent pictures show the first pictures of ghosts that became famous in the 19th century. The prized possession of the bunch is a photo taken of Mary Todd Lincoln with Abraham Lincoln’s ghost hovering over her shoulder. The photo is credited to William H. Mumler, the first ever spiritual photographer.
As the months go by, more and more of the documents will be readily available online for anyone to view as they are processed. Still to be posted are research files and 18th century news clippings relating to vaudeville. There are also correspondences in the collection between Jay and a number of magic famous faces including David Blaine, David Copperfield, and Teller along with letters from Steve Martin, Leonard Nimroy, Stephen Sondheim, and Gene Siskel just to name a few.
The collection still doesn’t stop there, still to be processed are drafts of his show and novels, a series of magic posters and collectibles, and photographs of Jay’s early career amongst other documents.
Two archivists have been working hard to tell the story of Ricky Jay’s life through all of these documents and they plan to leave no stone left unturned. This includes both grouping items together based on relevance and further researching how an artifact or document fits into magic history.
Jay’s spouse Chrisann Verges has gushed about how happy she is for Jay’s work to be on display at Lilly Library. Jay frequently studied there for his own work and saw the dedication the workers had to scholarly endeavors. The Lilly Library also holds a unique collection of mechanical puzzles, a sprawling collection of dictionaries that Jay was able to add to, and detailed research on spiritualism.
We salute both Lilly Library and Ricky Jay for their dedication to the preservation of the art of magic. The more these documents are readily available, the more people will look at magic as a serious art form that can be explored in a multitude of ways.