The remarkable mind of magician Ricky Jay

The Lilly Library is sorting, organizing, and making an inventory of Ricky Jay’s extensive and fascinating archive.

Written by Rebecca Baumann, Head of Curatorial Services & Curator of Modern Books at the Lilly Library with collaborative publishing support by IU Libraries Communications

The Lilly Library has always been a home for the curious.  We don’t know who first said, “Curiosity is a perfectly good reason to visit us,” but it is a message that today's Lilly Library caretakers express every day. Those who are curious about the past, about how and why books were made, and about the lives captured in letters, diaries, and photographs find a haven here. We are a respite in the center of campus where they can indulge in feeling the silky vellum pages of a medieval manuscript, smell the scent of old leather, and connect with those who made, read, collected, and loved books and manuscripts. 

The Lilly Library has also always been a home for the curious in its other sense: rarities, strange survivals, the unusual, and the marvelous. We pride ourselves on our wide-ranging, eclectic, and curious collections, and we love to attract people just as eclectic and curious to explore, interpret, and wonder at them. 

No one was more curious—in both senses of the word—than Ricky Jay. 

As a magician, he was one of the greatest living sleight-of-hand artists, creating wonder in an age of disillusionment using nothing more than 52 cards, two hands, and a mind with the intelligence, will, and dogged patience to spend thousands of hours perfecting an effect. As a showman and performer, he was equally captivating reciting ribald 15th-century poetry, demonstrating the techniques of the worlds’ greatest card cheats, and piercing the “pachydermatous outer layer” of “that most prodigious of household fruits,” the watermelon, by throwing a playing card at it with deadly accuracy. As a writer and historian of the unusual and anomalous, he introduced his readers to learned pigs, fireproof women, stone eaters, mind readers, poison resisters, daredevils, singing mice, conjurers, cheats, hustlers, hoaxsters, pranksters, jokesters, imposters, pretenders, sideshow performers, armless calligraphers, mechanical marvels, and much more. He reminded us that magic is merely deception, but that deception can also bring joy, amazement, and a connection to others of the past and present who have been anomalous, strange, and curious. 

Those who are not lucky enough to have seen Jay perform as a magician have almost certainly encountered him as one of the many characters he brought to life in film and television: a con man in David Mamet’s House of Games, a cameraman for pornographic films in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, a villainous henchman in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, a card sharp in the American West in HBO’s Deadwood, and many more. 


Ricky Jay’s research and writing were fueled by his collecting of rare books, ephemera, magic posters, and other materials related to outsiders, oddballs, and extraordinary people and phenomena. While the great books and posters of Jay’s collection will be sold in a series of auctions, Jay’s research files are now at the Lilly Library. 

"I am so pleased that my husband’s archives and spirit photography collection will have a home at the Lilly Library. 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," said Chrisann Verges, wife of Ricky Jay and an Emmy Award winning producer.


Persi Diaconis is the Mary V. Sunseri Professor of Statistics and Professor of Mathematics as Stanford University and co-author of Magical Mathematics: The Mathematical Ideas That Animate Great Magic Tricks .  He proclaims, “Scholars of magic, deception, and the allied arts - rejoice: Ricky Jay's research files, manuscripts and correspondence are safe and will be available at the Lilly Library. Ricky was THE major scholar of his subjects and built bulging files with untold treasures. Come one come all, it's all at the Lilly.” 



Background and Beginnings

Born Richard Jay Potash in Brooklyn in 1946, Jay was introduced to magic early in life by his grandfather Max Katz, a certified public accountant and amateur magician.   As “Tricky Ricky,” the young Jay performed magic for his grandfather’s friends as early as age four and made his first television appearance at age seven. Katz also introduced his grandson to a way of learning that would become central to his life: the study of a craft under a master practitioner.

An older person wearing a shirt, tie and jacket looks to a younger person with short hair and a button up shirt.  A poster in view reads, how to do magic

 Although Jay was a brilliant researcher and collector of books and the printed word, he understood that some things are so special that they cannot—must not—be written down. They can only be passed on from a master to an apprentice or, in some cases, never passed down at all. Jay spoke throughout his career about the importance of secrecy in the magic community, and the motto for his consulting firm Deceptive Practices was “Arcane Knowledge on a Need to Know Basis.” 

Jay left home at a young age and his early adventures included attending Cornell University, working as a carnival barker, appearances on talk shows such as Dinah Shore and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and a performance at New York’s Electric Circus in which his act was sandwiched between a lecture by Timothy Leary on LSD and a performance by Ike and Tina Turner. He found his way to two master practitioners who shaped his life and career, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, both of whom lived in Los Angeles, where Jay eventually relocated. 

Ricky Jay, author 
In the 60s and 70s he also began to develop his own brand of performance, including his use of “cards as weapons,” a concept which became his first published book in 1977. Cards as Weapons was followed by about a dozen more books over the course of his life, including Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (1986), which introduced readers to such curious characters as “Blind Tom” Wiggins, an enslaved boy who became a piano prodigy in 19th-century America, Arthur Lloyd, the “human card index” who could produce any sort of card from his pockets because he carried over fifteen thousand of them, and “Le Pétomane,” the French flatulist who could play “O Sole Mio” or blow out a candle with his farts; The Magic Magic Book (1994), a study of Livres Magique, special books produced to create an illusion; Jay’s Journal of Anomalies (2001), which collected issues of a letterpress periodical Jay published on curious characters both celebrated and ignominious; and Matthias Buchinger: "The Greatest German Living" (2016), about a 74-cm-tall man born in 1674 without arms or legs who was a magician, musician, engraver, calligrapher and practitioner of micrography (tiny writing), and expert bowler.


Research and Archive

Jay’s research and writing were fueled by his collecting of rare books, ephemera, magic posters, and other materials related to outsiders, oddballs, and extraordinary people and phenomena.

While the great books and posters of Jay’s collection are being sold in a series of auctions, Jay’s research files, including a great deal of primary source material, are part of the archive now at the Lilly Library. This part of the collection has already been processed by Lilly Library Head Archivist Ava Dickerson and is open for research.  The finding aid details the range of subjects about which Jay researched and wrote, from automata to zovelloscopes. It is a treasure trove for anyone researching the long history of magic in all its forms, circuses, sideshows, and a dazzling carnival of other topics and unusual people. 

Lilly archivists are still in the process of sorting, organizing, and inventorying the rest of Jay’s extensive archive, which also includes drafts of and notes for all his major works. Dickerson is currently sorting through Jay’s prodigious correspondence, which includes letters from magicians David Blaine, James Randi, 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; actors Steve Martin, Emma Thompson, and Leonard Nimoy, and many others. 

One-man shows, popular cultures and unproduced projects  
There are also materials related to Jay’s famous one-man shows "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants" and "Ricky Jay: On the Stem." Materials  document his curatorial work at various institutions with print and manuscript collections related to magic. A collection of material related to Jay’s grandfather Max Katz provides insight into Jay’s roots and the magic traditions in which he was raised. 

Those interested in popular culture will also find delightful surprises such as a script for the episode of The Simpsons in which Jay appeared (signed by the entire cast),  drafts of an unproduced project about magician Robert-Houdin written in part by Jay, and a guide to “Faro in Deadwood,” written by Jay and drawing on his own research archive. These tantalizing treasures are only the beginning of what researchers will find in over 100 boxes of archival material. 

Additional archive collections  
Two separate and related archival collections have also been purchased from the Jay estate, including a collection of material related to his relationship with playwright and filmmaker David Mamet. Jay and Mamet met through a mutual friend in 1983 and collaborated on many projects. Both were unapologetic polymaths who shared a love of conmen, women of questionable character, games, heists, slang, language, and the art of deception. This archive, which will be processed and open for research in 2024, includes extensive correspondence between Mamet and Jay, many Mamet scripts including a number of unrealized projects, and drawings done by Mamet for Jay.


Spirit Photography

The Lilly Library also acquired Jay’s remarkable collection of historical spirit photography, one of the most significant such collections ever assembled. The Jay mss., 1864-2005, consist of 325 spirit photographs and related materials collected by magician Ricky Jay.


Spirit photography was the deceptive art of photographing ghosts.  The first spirit photographs were created in 1861 by Boston jewelry engraver and amateur photographer William Mumler. He took advantage of newly developed glass-plate negative processes that made it possible to reuse an exposure plate, allowing prior images to remain visible. Mumler was able to create photographs of living people with the “ghost” of a loved one appearing faintly in the picture with them. 

Rising interest in Spiritualism, grief over the loss of lives during the American Civil War, and the relative novelty of photography itself made the practice of photographing ghosts especially appealing throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the early 20th. Eventually, skeptics like Harry Houdini and psychical researcher Harry Price exposed this practice as fraud, and the practice dwindled. 

Jay’s collection includes 325 images in the form of albumen prints, cartes de visite, cabinet cards, and post cards, many from the earliest known spirit photographers of America, England, France, and Russia such as Mumler, Alexander Aksakov, Édouard Buguet, Richard Boursnell, Frederick Hudson, John Beattie, and Charles Lacey. Some were featured in the exhibition "‘Twixt Two Worlds, or The Uninvited Guest: A Magician at the Séance," compiled from Ricky Jay’s Sad Museum of Specimens of Misdirected Ingenuity at the Christine Burgin Gallery in New York in 2005. Highlights include Mumler’s portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln behind her, a photo of “Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,” one of the most famous hauntings in England, and photographs of Eusapia Palladino, one of the most successful spirit mediums of all time, conducting seances. 

The collection also contains correspondence discussing spirit photography and spiritualism in general, Lacey’s two pocket diaries documenting his “experiments” with the medium R. Rita, and printed materials such as playbills, programs, and clippings for mentalist and anti-Spiritualist Washington Irving Bishop and magician and paranormal investigator John Nevil Maskelyne. The collection of spirit photographs has been processed by Lilly Assistant Archivist Kyra Triebold and is open for research. A finding aid can be accessed online and materials can be viewed in the Reading Room by appointment.

Collection Connections

The wildly wide-ranging Jay archives connect to many other collections held by the Lilly Library, and exploration of the collections will no doubt lead researchers down rabbit holes and through portals that span the globe and connect centuries. Significant holdings at the Lilly that may be put into fruitful conversation with the Jay collection include:

  •  The Jerry Slocum Collection of Mechanical Puzzles: The world of puzzles and the world of magic are closely related, with many overlapping principles and practitioners. Some of the most intriguing puzzles in the collection are essentially magic tricks. 
  • The Madeline Kripke Collection of Dictionaries: The recently acquired Kripke collection is still being processed by Lilly librarians for use. Kripke’s special interest in slang overlaps with Jay’s interest in the cant of conmen, thieves, and rogues throughout history, as well as the specialized languages of the carnival and other shadow worlds he researched. The Lilly Library acquired Ricky Jay’s own copy of a rare 16th-century German dictionary of the vocabulary of vagabonds and rogues. 
  • The London Lowlife Collection: Compiled by Michael Sadleir, 1888–1957, this collection consists of broadsheets, ephemera, “fast literature,” magazines, and newspapers related to crime, cons, sex works, and other marginalized denizens of the streets late 19th-century London. Its subjects intersect with many of Jay’s research interests. 
  • Collections related to the history of magic in all its forms: In 2014, the Lilly Library mounted an exhibition called  "Spiritualists, Sorcerers, and Stage Magicians: Magic and the Supernatural at the Lilly Library," which showcased many highlights of the collections similar to the type of material that Jay collected. The Lilly continues to acquire in this area, including an early edition of the most rare and important early work on conjuring, Hocus Pocus Junior.

Explore the life, research, and remarkable mind of Ricky Jay with the Lilly Library

In a tribute published in the New York Times shortly after Jay’s death in 2018, his friend and collaborator David Mamet wrote that Jay never had a protégé but hoped that “some ne’er-do-well, perhaps yet unborn, will one day discover his writings and films and, through them, be admitted next in the chain of devotion to which Ricky dedicated his life.”

The Lilly Library is proud to be the home of Jay’s archive, and we welcome ne’er-do-wells, magicians, historians, and all who are curious to explore the life, research, and remarkable mind of Ricky Jay.


Magician Ricky Jay is shown in a posed photo holding a piece of fruit. The image was promotional for his one-man show, On the Stem.

A promotional image from the Jay mss. at the Lilly Library depicts magician RickyJay holding a piece of fruit in a scene from Ricky Jay: On the Stem, his famous one-man show.