Everything you read about Harry Houdini, it seems, is qualified, hedged, comes in different versions: He was born Ehrich Weiss in Appleton, Wisconsin, or in the Jewish ghetto in Pest, across the river from Buda; he met his wife Bess when he performed at her Brooklyn high school or else when they were both playing a Coney Island theater (she was a song and dance artiste); he died on Halloween 1926 from a ruptured appendix or else by drowning during an unsuccessful underwater escape, as Tony Curtis did in the 1953 movie Houdini. So after you drive the four hours to Appleton, which Houdini himself always said was his hometown, you can find some comfort in walking up the solid stairs of the former Masonic Temple and seeing behind glass some physical objects Houdini actually touched--handcuffs, for instance. In one of the display cases, mounted on faded red velvet, are rows of old handcuffs he would set up in lobbies of theaters where he performed. There's the Egyptian leg iron, the circa 1600 Spanish handcuffs, the oldest adjustable American handcuffs, and the famous Guiteau cuffs, which once held Charles G. Guiteau, President Garfield's assassin, and for a short time, at least, Houdini, before, as a challenge, he escaped from the cuffs and moved prisoners from cell to cell in a jail in Washington, D.C.
In another display there's the can he squeezed himself into; usually such cans were filled with water and padlocked, but this one was filled with 60 gallons of milk. He escaped, of course.
On a TV monitor you can glimpse him making the first sustained airplane flight in Australia. The monitor also shows clips from his silent movies and from his funeral.
The Houdini Historical Center, part of the Outagamie (County) Museum, came into being five years ago and prides itself on being educational, historical, and evenhanded. "To encourage publicity," as one of the placards puts it, "[Houdini] spread stories about himself which were almost beyond belief. He was a man who did what seemed impossible and claimed to have seen and done things even greater." Which sums it up well--accurately, diplomatically, without denying him status as a native son. After all, Houdini did sleep here in Appleton--for nine years, at least--not far from the plaza that bears his name, not far from the museum, where you can buy books and posters and postcards and mugs and T-shirts of the Handcuff King.
His father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, aka Samuel Mayer, did come from Hungary, and did leave Budapest in 1874, several sources agree. According to one story, he left after a nobleman slandered him and they dueled. Weiss won, killing the nobleman, but ultimately lost because he had to flee to escape retribution. He sought shelter with friends in London and then with others in Appleton.
Or not. "We can't confirm that the duel story happened," says Nancy Broeren, spokesperson for the center. She says the Jews of Appleton had no rabbi, wanted a German-speaking one, and thus Weiss, a Talmudic scholar who'd originally wanted to be a lawyer, left religious persecution for the friendly shores of the Fox River.
He met his family in Appleton--or brought them there--and led his congregants in prayer in a room above a saloon downtown. Some say that in order to make little Ehrich, or Ehrie, feel secure, his mother told him he was born in Appleton, just as his brother Theodore was. This was just one of the "myth-like fabrications," scoffs Bernard Meyer in a 1983 article in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly, "invented largely by a mother who tinkered with truth and fiddled with facts." Meyer links Houdini's desire to fly and escape to a well-developed death wish, and also notes darkly the covering up of the "painful migration" of the uprooted family.
In any case, Ehrich Weiss grew up in Appleton, and cited as his first public appearance a contortionist act he performed in a field in town when he was nine.
That same year, 1883, the family left when the congregation members, impatient with their traditional, greenhorn rabbi who never mastered English, made it clear they preferred someone more in step with the times. The family went to Milwaukee and then New York City. Rabbi Weiss died when Ehrich was 18.
By then the rabbi's son had left a job as a necktie-lining cutter and had adopted the name and ambition of the French conjurer Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, performing magic with his brother in local beer halls and social clubs. In 1894 he married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner and incorporated her into his act. After a slow start, the escape and magic shows moved from vaudeville to the great theaters of Europe. "He was a genius in public relations," notes Broeren, with no equal except perhaps P. T. Barnum. In a new town, Houdini would typically stride into the police station, get the police to manacle and lock him in the most daunting cell, and stride out to the glare of newspaper flashbulbs. When a German policeman charged that Houdini wasn't living up to his claims, the escape artist sued for libel and won, and thereafter flaunted his official apology.
Houdini was always looking to improve his act and appeal to changing tastes. He practiced doggedly and studied all the tools of his trade. He was obsessive. He slept five hours a night and would wake up his friends when he had a new idea. He attracted female fans but was devoted to his wife and his mother, and was prudish around other women. He was vain, had a quick temper, often fired and rehired his assistants, frequented gravesites, had short-lived enthusiasms (airplanes, art), long-lived ones (magician memorabilia), loved home and hearth and his library, yet was peripatetic, prone to severe seasickness, and stoic in the face of pain. He was an expert swimmer and in top physical shape and would invite people to punch him in his muscle-tensed midsection. In a 1904 interview with the 30-year-old Houdini for the Appleton paper, writer Edna Ferber felt his forearm and found it "amazing, as massive and hard as a granite pillar." In his later years he aggressively debunked mediums, publicly demonstrating their tricks. But when it suited his purposes, he claimed that he worked by supernatural means.
He drove himself hard. In October 1926 in Montreal, exhausted by his touring, he allowed a college student to take up his stomach-punch challenge. But the student struck before the 52-year-old Houdini had a chance to brace himself. He continued to perform, though the pain persisted. He died nine days later in Detroit, poisoned by a ruptured appendix.
His brother inherited many of his memorabilia and artifacts, which in 1945 he passed on to an amateur magician and Houdini-inspired escape artist, Sidney Hollis Radner. In 1985 Radner came to Appleton for a dedication of Houdini Plaza, and he helped organize a Houdini seance there the next year. He decided the collection belonged in what he considered Houdini's hometown, rather than his own basement in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and thus the Houdini Historical Center opened in 1989, displaying part of the Radner collection, holding the rest in storage.
Shortly before he died, Houdini had ordered a $2,500 bronze casket for an underwater "buried alive" act. Instead, he was buried in the casket, with letters from his mother cradling his head, interred in Mechpelah Cemetery in Queens, next to his parents. After an investigation, the New York Life Insurance Company determined that the death was accidental. The exhibit has on display a copy of a life-insurance application form from 1916. In it Appleton is listed as Houdini's hometown. It doesn't seem so important.
The Houdini Historical Center, at 330 E. College Ave. in Appleton, is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 to 5, Sunday noon to 5, and in June, July, and August, Monday 10 to 5. Admission is $3 for adults, $2.70 for seniors, and $1.50 for kids under 18. Call (414) 733-8445.
For more information on Appleton, see the Visitor's Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Outagamie County Historical Society.