The Master of Illusion – Harry Houdini’s Museum Shows off his Amazing Stunts in the History Museum at the Castle
By Jackie Sheckler Finch
With a grand wave of his arms and a quick bow to a make-believe audience, the youngster climbs into an oversized milk can where he is “locked” inside with no visible means of escape.
But – tada– the boy magically appears, taking another bow and proudly proclaiming, “I’m Houdini. I’m the greatest magician of all time.”
Visiting The History Museum at The Castle in Appleton, Wisconsin, 8-year-old Andrew Martin says he is excited to learn about the famed magician who died almost 100 years ago.
“I didn’t know he was born in Wisconsin, the same as I was,” the boy from Milwaukee says.
Houdini Was Born in Hungary
Well, actually, Houdini was not born in Wisconsin. He was born March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, and named Ehrich Weiss.
His family moved to Appleton when he was four years old. His father became the first rabbi in Appleton.
“But Houdini always claimed Appleton as his hometown,” said Matthew Carpenter, executive director for The History Museum at The Castle.
“If it was beneficial for his audience to think he was American, he did tell fans he was born in Appleton.”
Discovering the interesting History Museum with its permanent Houdini exhibit – most of which came from Houdini’s family – was a surprise and a treat.
Not only is the museum filled with Houdini displays, photos, news clippings, and other artifacts, it also dispels popular myths that grew up around the magician and goes behind the scenes to explain how many of the magic tricks were done.
After all, Houdini himself loved to give away magic secrets – especially when he was ready to move on to even more sensational tricks and didn’t mind exposing what some of his competitors were doing. At one time, Houdini even wrote a newspaper series called Red Magic that gave directions on how to perform tricks.
Birth of a Magician
When he was in Appleton, Ehrich Weiss was just a poor child in a large family who loved when the circus came to town. The story goes that young Ehrich was a master at picking locks. Houdini later said he first performed as a tight rope walker called “The Prince of the Air” for a neighborhood children’s circus.
After four years, Houdini’s father lost his job as a rabbi – some say because he could not speak English well – and the family moved to Milwaukee and then to New York City in search of work.
The Poor Houdinis
“The family lived in poverty,” Carpenter said. “After his father was dismissed from the congregation, he never had sustained gainful employment. The children were forced to take jobs in factories and delivering newspapers.”
When their father died in 1892 of cancer, the teenager vowed to take care of his family.
Dabbling in magic tricks, Houdini and a teenage friend worked up an act, calling themselves the Houdini Brothers after their idol, French magician Jean Robert-Houdin.
When his friend dropped out, Houdini continued by himself and with his brother. He legally changed his name to Harry Houdini in 1913.
Married a Coney Island Dancer
While working at Coney Island in June 1894, Houdini met an 18-year-old woman who was singing and dancing as part of the Floral Sisters. Two weeks later, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner and Houdini were married.
With his career going nowhere, Houdini told his wife he was about ready to throw up his hands as an entertainer and become a locksmith.
However, a top vaudeville booking agent named Martin Beck saw Houdini performing handcuff escapes in a beer hall and suggested that the magician concentrate more on escape and less on little tricks.
The result was magic.
Houdini the World Famous Superstar
By the age of 35, he was a superstar, one of the most sought-after entertainers of his time. “He was an expert at promotion, at getting publicity,” Carpenter said. “Other people could perform magic tricks but not the way he did, not getting the attention that Houdini did.”
Billing himself up as a “superman,” Houdini created escapes that were increasingly more dangerous and shocking. His publicity stunts evolved from jail cell escapes to manacled bridge jumps to suspended straitjacket melodramas. The public loved it. And they swarmed to his evening performances where he promised even more challenging feats.
“He would dare police to lock him up in their most secure handcuffs and jail cells,’’ Carpenter said. “Then he would escape, sometimes within minutes, to their surprise and embarrassment.”
The escape would almost always make local news and sell seats at his evening show. Other well-publicized exploits included being riveted into a large hot water boiler in Toledo on March 15, 1907, and escaping without leaving any traces of his exit.
On Aug 26, 1907, Houdini leaped into San Francisco Bay handcuffed with hands behind his back and more than 75 pounds of ball and chain locked to his body. He made it out alive. More and more harrowing feats followed – escaping from padded cells, coffins, a plate glass box, a death cell chamber, and others.
“In his famous Chinese Water Torture, Houdini would be locked hanging upside down by his feet in water,” Carpenter said.
In another, he was suspended dangling from a rope attached to a high building while wearing a straightjacket. A huge crowd always gathered to watch him escape.
When his mother died in 1913, Houdini fell into a deep depression. Some say he never escaped from that.
Death of ‘Superman’
Ironically, it wasn’t any of Houdini’s truly dangerous exploits that eventually caused his death. It was his reputation as a “superman.”
As a child, he excelled in cross-country running and kept in shape during his adult life. After all, his escapes were quite physical and called for considerable strength.
Burst Stomach after a Punch
During an October 1926 performance in Montreal, Houdini invited some university students to his dressing room. One of the young men asked if it was true that the magician could withstand punches to his stomach.
When Houdini said that was indeed accurate, the young man asked if he could try. Before Houdini could tense his stomach muscles, the student delivered several full-strength punches. Houdini didn’t know but his appendix had burst. He collapsed on stage.
Houdini Died at 52
Nine days later, the trickster died of peritonitis. Doctors said he was probably already suffering from appendicitis when the fists hit his stomach. He was 52 years old. He died on Halloween.
The showman’s family buried him in a stage prop, his “buried-alive” casket. For 10 years after his death, Bess Houdini held a yearly séance on Halloween to try and contact her dead husband, using a secret password the two had devised to attempt to reach from beyond the grave.
To this day, Houdini enthusiasts still hold Halloween séances in an effort to reach him. None has succeeded.