A small sampling of books from the Jackie Gleason Collection.
The first time I opened a book from the Jackie Gleason Collection, a single long, wiry strand of white hair plunged forward from its pages. The book was Confessions of a Spiritualist (1921) by Arthur Conan Doyle, the wizardly creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle dabbled in mediums and other worlds, so I figured it was as good a place to start as any, but that wiry white hair jutted out uncomfortably right in my face. It took half a minute for me to decide it was a witch hair.
I assume most people that find a witch hair ignore it. Maybe others have a potion for it? What you do with witch hair is, quite frankly, entirely up to you. It’s just like any other hair and in fact finding it was just like finding any other hair.
It was probably just any other hair.
But here in the Jackie Gleason Collection you’re allowed to scour the extraterrestrial walls of imagination. Here werewolves prowl next to books containing very official looking military transcripts from the Bermuda Triangle. Hovering above are the misty-brained but painfully recounted memories of Martian abduction by surprisingly elegant green men. Here Abraham Lincoln can speak from the afterlife, but since Abraham Lincoln Returns was written in 1957, Honest Abe has a lot to say about Communism. Plus, there are Nazi UFOs, Atlantis narratives, cryptids, loads of spirit photography, and a particularly handsome first edition of The Book of Thoth, signed and numbered by the Master of Magick Aleister Crowley himself.
Aliens, vampires, magic, and the mafia? There is a great variety of subjects in the Gleason Collection.
Special Collections holds the legendary library of a man celebrated on the American silver screen who many people don’t know had an obsessive urge for books on the paranormal, the unidentified, and the otherworldly. Throughout his life, Jackie Gleason amassed approximately 1,700 books on a wide range of mystical subjects. While he was beaming over millions of American television sets, on famed shows like The Honeymooners, the other side of Gleason “would spend small fortunes on everything from financing psychic research to buying a sealed box said to contain actual ectoplasm, the spirit matter of life itself,” according to biographer William Henry III. It’s clear that he was searching and privately grasping at something different, something unknown.
The Gleason Collection was donated to Special Collections by the actor’s widow in 1988 following his death. Since then the department’s parapsychology holdings have expanded with even more oddities, such as overlapping books, ephemera, and zines focusing on the supernatural, which are categorized at Special Collections as Gleason-adjacent. Perhaps Gleason would be proud that in his own afterlife, his occult library has strengthened its many tentacles and grown after death. We encourage you to come visit. We’ll spread out the magical tomes any way you think they will help you see. But remember, sometimes tentacles take hold. And some books are dangerous.
Oh, and as for that witch hair, I folded it up in a call slip request form and stuffed it into my notebook. Never know when it may come in handy. It’s a shame Gleason’s famed box of ectoplasm wasn’t included with the Gleason Collection. Then we could really make a witch’s brew.
Join us on October 29, 2014, when we will transform Special Collections into a spectral wonderland as a group of ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and spirit creatures perform readings taken straight from the strange stories hidden within the mysterious and otherworldly texts of the Jackie Gleason Collection.
Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections