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The Manly P. Hall Alchemy Archive

A Brief History of an Occult Collection

Words by Derek Christian Quezada
Public Services Librarian for Special Collections & Archives at University California, Irvine


To live in the world without becoming aware of the meaning of the world is like wandering about in a great library without touching the books.

Manly P. Hall Los Angeles, California October 1, 1975

The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy

Geometric cabbalistic illustrations from [Cabala], ca. 1700, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Archivists and librarians in Los Angeles need little introduction to the Getty Research Institute (GRI), one of the major art research libraries in the world and part of the iconic Getty Center that overlooks the ever-congested 405 freeway. Their holdings contain significant archival collections of notable artists and architects, artist books, prints, photographs, and unique material of every kind. But within those collections are curiosities, things you might not expect to find at an institute dedicated to the arts and art historical research. The Manly Palmer Hall collection of alchemical manuscripts and rare books is one such collection. It is one of the things that drew me, a librarian without a traditional art background but a lover of the occult, to work at the GRI. But like many archival collections, the story behind how this collection came together and why it came to the GRI (a lovely place but not especially mystical) is just as curious.

Acquired in 1995 from Marie Hall, the widow of mystic, author, and lecturer, Manly Palmer Hall (1901-1990), the GRI’s exhaustive treasure trove of all things alchemical, esoteric, and hermetic is actually only a selection of a collection that he had accumulated over the course of his long life. Composed of 243 manuscripts and over 200 rare books covering an expansive overview of the occult “from its golden age in the late 16th and 17th centuries, through the years of Enlightenment and revolution, and into the modern period[1]” and includes such notable items as, “a collection of 30 manuscripts bound in one volume, reputed to have come from the library of Count Cagliostro; two triangular masonic manuscripts; an early 17th century illuminated Neapolitan manuscript charting the search for the philosopher's stone[2]” among many others. The manuscripts are especially unique given that each one is written and illustrated by hand, many unattributed with little provenance, adding to the collection’s overall mystery. But as arcane and unique as the collection is, it is not entirely unknown largely due to the success of what is now the second major exhibit of the collection, The Art of Alchemy, which opened last year to significant acclaim. Even Vice covered it in an article for its ‘Creators’ series, highlighting the free-spirited, counter-cultural veins that flow through the city of Los Angeles.

Manly P. Hall was a quintessential Los Angeles figure. Raised by his grandmother in Canada, he moved to Santa Monica when he was 19 to live with his bohemian mother (a Rosicrucian and chiropractor,[3]) where he quickly found success as a local preacher and a popular and frequent lecturer on spiritualism. He was equal parts showman and guru, but his true passion was all things occult and esoteric, which prompted him to seek out rare material in libraries, bookstores, and auction houses for the answers to the greater mysteries of life. He traveled extensively, and the research he gathered would eventually culminate in the publication of his highly influential The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, an accessible synthesis of the secret doctrine and hidden knowledge of the ancients, ultimately cementing his status as a preeminent occult authority. While The Secret Teachings of All Ages is thought of as his crowning achievement, despite having authored countless other treatises, he left behind another legacy in what a recent LA Weekly article describes as, “the strange-looking, Mayan-style mini compound on Los Feliz Boulevard, across from the southern boundary of Griffith Park, right next to the traffic jam–prone access to the 5 freeway.[4]

The Philosophical Research Society (PRS), is a long-standing institute founded by Hall in 1934 to promote the study of religion, mythology, metaphysics and the occult. It’s here that Hall established himself as a fixture of the occult landscape of Los Angeles and created a gathering place for the intersection of artists, bohemians, celebrities and occultists. Perhaps more importantly to our discussion, it is also where he grew his existing collection of rare books and manuscripts accumulated in the development of The Secret Teachings of All Ages, “book by book, building on the great truths of illuminated thinkers such as Pythagoras, Plato, Buddha, Confucius, Hermes, Aristotle, Jesus and Mohammed; along with other prophets and sages[5]” into the ‘wisdom library’ for the use of students and seekers of ineffable truth. It was an expansive collection that is thankfully outlined in great detail in Alchemy: A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Manly P Hall Collection of Books and Manuscripts Including Related Material on Rosicrucianism and the Writings of Jacob Boehme, Los Angeles 1986. When librarian Bennet Bruce Gilbert was tasked with cataloguing the collection, he said, “From the point of view of the historian of culture, the collection here is important; and from the point of view of the occultists, this collection is singularly valuable.[6]” It still exists at the PRS today but after the GRI’s acquisition of most of the rare and valuable material, it stands now as a dimmed reflection of what had been one of the most fantastic occult and alchemical collections assembled in recent history.[7] As a result, the research utility of the remaining collection has shifted from a more overtly metaphysical or theosophical investigation into the occult to a resource for students of the two degrees now offered by the PRS in Consciousness Studies and Transformational Psychology, perhaps a contrast to the epicenter of occult research it was in its heyday.

Given the prestige of such a collection with an existing home in the form of the wisdom library at the PRS, why and how did the GRI manage to acquire such a significant portion of it? The acquisition date by the GRI is only five years after Hall’s death. And while the GRI doesn’t go out of their way to highlight the details of the acquisition, it is common knowledge it was acquired from Manly P Hall’s widow, Marie Hall. However, according to the Vice article, Alchemy in Art History? As Above, So Below the collection was donated by her to the GRI, something which, according to a variety of sources is not true.[8] Indeed, the idea that a literal treasure of unique alchemical manuscripts and books was simply donated to another institution belies the tragedy of Manly P Hall’s twilight years.

According to the biography of Manly P Hall, Master of the Mysteries by Los Angeles Times writer Louis Sahagun, the story goes that Hall in his old age gradually withdrew from friends and family and became isolated and paranoid, shutting out lifelong friends and PRS members in favor of an assistant turned caretaker, Dr. Fritz, who was given power-of-attorney over Hall’s estate just six days before his death. Unsurprisingly, Fritz was investigated for the murder of Hall at the insistence of Marie Hall and their daughter Jo Ann. While the LA Coroner’s office and investigative detectives appeared to support their suspicion that Hall’s death was in fact a homicide, the investigation did not materialize anything concrete over subsequent years of investigation and the case against him was dropped.[9] The infighting that occurred between, Hall’s window, the formerly accused murderer Dr. Fritz, and the PRS board members over Hall’s estate was understandably a very messy affair. Ultimately, the will that Hall had created was invalidated by a judge in 1993 leaving Marie Hall and the PRS board of directors to fight it out in court. In exchange for the rights to Hall’s books the PRS agreed to give her, among other things, “214 rare Rosicrucian and alchemical books” which were “sold to the Getty Museum for about $750,00.[10]” While this sale is indeed significant (about $1.3 million in 2017) Marie Hall didn’t see much of it as the majority went to paying her attorney fees.[11] 

It is understandable that the GRI doesn’t emphasize the conditions of the acquisition when, for all intents and purposes, it is the direct result of a legal snakes nest. But the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the material provides better context to the GRI’s Manly P Hall Alchemy collection by clarifying the schizophrenia with the PRS’s remaining collection and any other pockets of the Manly P Hall collection that occasionally appear on the market having been pillaged from the PRS wisdom library during Hall’s dark, final years. It would be reasonable enough to do so via an entry in the finding aid or an introductory blurb on the GRI website, but by remaining completely mum I can only assume there is still some controversy that is trying to be avoided. And to that point, as recent as 2016, “[Obadiah] Harris [current President of the PRS] is currently attempting to persuade the Getty to return the arcane tomes, including some curious documents related to the mysterious Count of Saint-Germain, so that they can be reunited with the rest of Hall’s collection.[12]

When Marie Hall was looking for a buyer for her share of the alchemy collection, there was all the possibility that it would be broken up and sold individually to private collectors, disappearing into vaults or private libraries to be forgotten and unused. In this regard, the GRI can be applauded for having the vision to see it as a collection and not simply buy from it piece-meal, and even further for making it accessible to a broad audience via their collaboration with the Internet Archive, which saw to the digitization of the entire Manly P Hall Alchemy collection and had put it online to view, download, and use for free. David Brafman, the curator of rare books and of the recent exhibit at the GRI, has done a particularly fantastic job arguing for the importance of the collection to understanding the development of color in the history of art (the principle reason for its acquisition in the first place, and a large portion of the research interest it draws.) As quoted from the Vice article, “Brafman started to see connections between the books' arcane artwork and the composition of matter as creative material for artists. ‘Amid the esoteric imagery there were also recipes for color pigments, inks, metallurgical effects, and ceramic glazes[.][13]’”

And yet, it was my experience as a librarian at the GRI that are many researchers who continue to perceive the collection as a specifically occult resource and feel that the emphasis on its art historical value betrays its real metaphysical value. For them, it could be argued that the need to view the item physically, in person, is necessary to understanding it as a continuum of occult knowledge and revelation, something that by definition is personal, intimate and ‘hidden.’ This is to say, the proximity to aura, in the manner of Walter Benjamin’s articulation of the uniqueness of a work of art being embedded in the context of tradition which is always itself based in ritual is fundamental to understanding any object of the collection as occult.[14] To that point, digital duplication and contextualization of the manuscripts and rare books of the Manly P. Hall collection as profane works (i.e, not sacred) through the lens of art history severs it from that aura. Of course, preserving the occult value of objects through their physical accessibility is not the mission of the GRI. Given the uniqueness and delicate nature of the collection being judicious about access is in fact a priority. Digitization and limited access ensures long term preservation (an explicit goal of the GRI.) However, I believe that there may be a certain responsibility to this vision of the occult reality of the Manly P. Hall collection, though how that could be realized given the very subtle but distinct visions of occult and art historical research is beyond me. I would at the very least look to institutions that have perhaps more successfully married these two visions of research such as at the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica or The Ritman Library which specializes in alchemical and occult works but is well integrated into traditional academia.

This debate is further complicated if we consider how Manly P Hall was able to begin collecting alchemical and occult material in the first place. As mentioned previously, The Secret Teachings was a monstrous, encyclopedic folio that resonated with the zeitgeist of the times and secured his entrance to the inner circle of early Hollywood celebrity where he was uniquely positioned to become a monumental figure behind the ‘new age. [15]’ It could be said that without the success of The Secret Teachings there would be no Hall and without the access to the books and manuscripts that provided his research there would be no The Secret Teaching. But Manly was not a wealthy man and had only encountered moderate success as a preacher and lecturer. When he began to conceive of his magnum opus in 1922 he knew that he would have to acquire the funds for travel and to purchase the necessary research material. Indeed, as Hall himself mentions in the introduction to Alchemy: A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Manly P Hall Collection of Books and Manuscripts, “research facilities for such a project were not available in Southern California. In those days, alchemy was not a favorite subject with librarians nor of interest to the average reader. The only answer was to contact antiquarian book dealers and elicit their cooperation in the search for the items required.[16]” But, as the adage goes, sometimes it’s not what you know but who you know.

Caroline and Estelle Lloyd were a mother daughter bohemian powerhouse whose family owned the fruitful oil fields in Ventura County, and who enjoyed the finer things in life like traveling, symphonies, stamp collecting and mingling with artists, writers and musicians. They were already funding the career of mystery writer Raymond Chandler when they began to attend some of Hall’s lectures at his church in 1923, and it wasn’t long after that they began financing Hall’s research interests in the occult.[17] Family members of Caroline and Estelle described them as “under the spell of an evil guru” and some suspected that there were romantic entanglements, but no such relations could be confirmed. Their donations essentially freed Hall to pursue his dream of becoming a mystic, and shortly after meeting them he went on his first trip around the world where he studied, “the lives, customs and religions of countries in Asia and Europe” and found the inspiration and research material for the publication of The Secret Teachings. [18] Indeed, their generosity did not stop there, they continued on to provide him with the income and means to purchase choice volumes on a wide range of esoteric and occult topics from the necessary (read: expensive and European) book dealers, auctioneers, and antiquarians. It is worth quoting at length from the Master of the Mysteries to further this point:

During the early 1930s, using money from the Lloyds, "Hall traveled to France and England, where he acquired his most extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts in alchemy and esoteric fields from London auctioneer, Sotheby & Company." Through an agent, due to the depressed economic conditions of the era, Hall could buy a substantial number of rare books and manuscripts at reasonable prices. When Caroline Lloyd died in 1946, she bequeathed Hall a home, $15,000 in cash, and "a roughly $10,000 portion of her estate's annual income from shares in the world's largest oil companies for 38 years.


It seems then that not only did Caroline and Estelle Lloyd provide Hall with the resources he needed to transform from preacher/lecturer to full-fledged mystic, but also the funds and connections to develop the wisdom library at Philosophical Research Society and through it the Manly P Hall Alchemy archive at the Getty Research Institute. To that end, at what point does the benefactor become the curator? How can we reinterpret ownership and intent of the collection with this knowledge? For me the Manly P Hall Alchemy opens-up so many questions when we consider how to interpret and understand the needs of a collection, the needs of the researcher, and the intent and vision of the collector and in this case, benefactors. Should there be multiple ontological modes of curation and handling for the occult much in the way there are or should be for indigenous cultural artifacts in archives? Should the GRI make exceptions to view the physical holding over the digital when it’s considered a ritualistic act to commune with the aura of the object? What claim does the ‘repatriation’ of occult materials merit when viewed as religious artifacts, especially when they are so closely tied to a cultural center such as the PRS? Should the Manly P Hall Alchemy Archive be changed to the Caroline and Estelle Lloyd Archive? These are questions that we may need to ask ourselves as professionals when new frameworks of ownership, religion, curation, and audience emerge on the horizon. Nevertheless, the Manly P Hall Alchemy archive remains one of the most uniquely occult collections in Los Angeles and worthy of further study in whatever capacity.

Alchemical allegory from Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln., ca. 1700Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

[6] Sahagun, Louis (2008). Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall. Port Townsend, Washington: Process Media, 264

[7] Alchemy: A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Manly P Hall Collection of Books and Manuscripts Including Related Material on Rosicrucianism and the Writings of Jacob Boehme, Los Angeles, 1986.

[9] Sahagun, Louis (2008). Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall. Port Townsend, Washington: Process Media, 332

[10] Sahagun, Louis (2008). Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall. Port Townsend, Washington: Process Media, 340

[11] Sahagun, Louis (2008). Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall. Port Townsend, Washington: Process Media, 340

[16] Alchemy: A Comprehensive Bibliography of the Manly P Hall Collection of Books and Manuscripts Including Related Material on Rosicrucianism and the Writings of Jacob Boehme, Los Angeles, 1986.

[17] Sahagun, Louis (2008). Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall. Port Townsend, Washington: Process Media, 41

[18] Sahagun, Louis (2008). Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall. Port Townsend, Washington: Process Media, 41

[19] Sahagun, Louis (2008). Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall. Port Townsend, Washington: Process Media.

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