Is this the Wellcome Library’s most striking catalogue description?
MS.1074: Message stated to have been given at a séance at Bristol on Sunday, November 1st, 1874…
For the perspective of the librarian or archivist this immediately raises a cataloguing conundrum – who do we say is the author of the manuscript? The person whose hand it is in? The clairvoyant at the séance? Or even who the spirit is claiming to be?
It’s perhaps not too surprising that such a manuscript should be in the collections of the Wellcome Library. After all, spiritualism at a basic level challenged understandings of the human condition and it was of major interest to a wide range of Victorians. Proponents and denouncers alike filled journals and newspapers with what did – or did not – occur at séances and meetings in drawing rooms and lecture halls.
However, the more we investigate this small manuscript – only 6 pages of neat handwriting in total – the more it reveals about the spirit it allegedly records the thoughts of and the man claiming to be in contact with it.
The spirit in question was no ordinary voice from the past but one of the most fascinating men of the 18th Century, the occultist, traveller, adventurer, forger and all round man of mystery: Guiseppe Balsamo, the self-styled Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (1743-1795).
Cagliostro flits around Europe in the late 18th century, almost as much of a myth in his lifetime than he was a real person. He was said to have dabbled in alchemy and practised magic and it’s unsurprising that this romantic figure inspired many an author, featuring as he does in the works of – amongst others – Goethe, Tolstoy, Schiller and E T A Hoffmann.
What to ask him at a séance? Well, amongst other topics this manuscript records his thoughts on Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) – a renowned magician of the Renaissance period and one of the most exalted names in esoteric circles.
The questions being asked of Cagliostro leads us to the person allegedly contacting him. Here’s the full description on our catalogue:
Message stated to have been given at a séance at Bristol on Sunday, November 1st, 1874 to Frederick Hockley, and written down by him. Contemporary copy. Produced in Bristol.
Recent research – particularly by Marc Demarest – has shown Frederick Hockley (1808-1885) to be a key figure in British occult circles in the 19th century.
An admirer of Francis Barrett, an early 19th century magician, Hockley also worked in the noted bookshop of John Denley. By the mid-19th century, he was one of a growing band of educated individuals practically exploring older forms of magic. Hockley was both an eager collector of books and manuscripts and also a scryer – believing that he could channel spirits through magical crystals. With this practical belief in magic, no wonder then he was interested in contacting someone like Cagliostro – and asking his opinion of an earlier magician like Agrippa.
Hockley was closely involved with spiritualism and with other practitioners of ritual magic. He was a key figure in the the ‘Rosicrucian Society of England’ (Societa Rosicruciana in Anglia) an order derived by esoteric Freemasons and he was almost certainly an inspiration for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – the group of practicing magicians that would feature both W B Yeats and Aleister Crowley amongst their number.
Hockley’s vast collection was broken up after his death. However, some of it – including some of the manuscripts and books once in his hands – have made their way into collections of the Wellcome Library.
And the answer to the cataloguing conundrum? Well, it turns out out that the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2) that the Wellcome Library uses for personal names had already encountered this problem, with regards to manuscripts from other séances. As such, it prescribed that we enter in the name authority file as:
“Cagliostro, Count Alessandro di, 1743-1795, spirit.”
Librarians, it seems, have an answer for most things – and whilst we don’t know what truly happened in a room in Bristol on 1st November 1874, we do have a way of cataloguing the manuscript.
Cataloguing standards do matter, after all, even beyond the grave.
With thanks to Chris Hilton.