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Harry Houdini: The Man, The Myth, The Wisconsinite

Collection of the McCord Museum
Portrait of Harry Houdini, circa 1910.

Although Harry Houdini died nearly a century ago, the famed illusionist and stunt performer is still a household name. Over time myths and legends have become such an integral part of Houdini's life story — even now it can be difficult to figure out fact from fiction.

"One of the challenging things about presenting a Houdini exhibit is any time you think you're standing on dry ground, you realize, 'Oh wait, there's all of this other myth underneath it,' " says Ellie Gettinger. She's the curator of "Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini," an exhibit at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. 

Credit Library of Congress Collections
Harry Houdini, full-length portrait, circa 1899.

But we do know this: For much of his childhood, Houdini was a Wisconsinite. Born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, he was around 4-years-old when his family moved to Appleton, Wis. His father was hired to be the head rabbi of a local synagogue. 

Unfortunately, that would be one of the last stable jobs his father would have during his lifetime. He was excused from his position as head rabbi (there are several myths about why this happened and no clear answer), and the Weisz family moved to Milwaukee. It was a tumultuous time for the family and a transformative time for the young Houdini. 

"[In Milwaukee] there were street performers that he became friends with ... a contortionist that he became friends with, circus performers." - Glen Gerard

The family moved to the Haymarket area (near what is now Milwaukee Area Technical College), and Houdini started to become interested in performing. 

"There were street performers that he became friends with ... a contortionist that he became friends with, circus performers. He saw his first magic show at a dime museum, and a dime museum was a type of theatrical venue where they might have sideshow acts ... lectures, all kinds of things," says Glen Gerard, a local magician and Houdini historian.  

Erik Weisz didn't pick up the name "Houdini" until after he left Milwaukee. But his formative years in the city taught him how to perform and the importance of the press — something that would eventually make him one of the first international celebrities. 

Credit Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
“Houdini–le Maître du Mystère,” circa 1915.

"He's like a viral celebrity in that way that if you think about how people have all of these multiple platforms in which they're working today, and they're putting things out, they're making their brand. He was doing that 120 years ago," Gettinger explains.  

His public performances were attended by thousands of people, making the news in cities around the world. Some audience members paid to see his shows, while others went to the free, public events.

Like his life, there have been many myths about Houdini's death. He died of peritonitis, due to a ruptured appendix, but the cause was unusual. At the end of his life, Houdini became an anti-spiritualist advocate. Spiritualism is the idea that people can speak with the dead and it was propelled into popularity by the massive loss of life during the first world war.

"The fellow who did punch Houdini ... really didn't care for Houdini. He was a supporter of spiritualism." - Glen Gerard

Houdini's anti-spiritualism crusade made him a pariah in certain circles, and that seems to include the man who eventually punched Houdini and ruptured his appendix. "The fellow who did punch Houdini ... really didn't care for Houdini. He was a supporter of spiritualism," says Gerard.

The man approached Houdini saying he'd heard the famed illusionist could absorb any punch. Houdini was relaxing at the time and before he could prepare himself, the man punched him four times, assaulting the illusionist while he was sitting. Houdini went on stage that night, but he died a few days later. 

The exhibit "Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini" is on display at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee through January. They will also hold an unofficial Halloween seance (a tradition since his death) on Oct. 31. 

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.