MILWAUKEE — Maybe this will be the year Harry Houdini finally reveals himself.
The escape artist died on Halloween in 1926 and since that time, family, friends and fans have been trying to make contact with Houdini, who had made a pact with his wife, Bess, that whoever died first would extend contact from beyond the grave.
Bess never succeeded and neither have others who have held seances on the eerie anniversary.
But that’s not stopping the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. Officials here are under no illusion that they’ll get a signal from Houdini, but are hosting a Halloween night seance from 7 to 9 p.m. anyway as a way to bring people into the museum to check out their largest exhibit to date.
“Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini” runs through Jan. 5 and tells the story of Houdini, who as a child lived in Wisconsin, first in Appleton and then in Milwaukee. He went on to become an international star performing in Vaudeville, making films and escaping from straitjackets, milk cans, trunks and water-filled tanks.
Houdini spent much of his life trying to debunk seances, fortune tellers and mediums, and even testified before Congress. If by chance he does make contact later this month on Milwaukee’s East Side, it would be a blow to Houdini’s theory, but a major bonus for those attending the museum event that will include tarot card readers, a Houdini-inspired escape room and visitors and staff in costumes.
“We’ll have a medium, but it’ll be fun,” said Molly Dubin, the curator at the museum. “He’s never come through yet.”
The exhibit was originally curated by the Jewish Museum of Maryland and was displayed there last year before moving to Atlanta. The exhibit in Milwaukee has been modified somewhat to include more Wisconsin information and includes materials and artifacts from the Houdini collection at the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton.
The exhibit also clarifies Houdini’s death at the age of 52. He was performing in Canada when a college student, who wanted to test Houdini’s claim that he could take a punch from anyone, made his way backstage. The student, however, delivered four sucker-punch blows. A few days later, Houdini, who continued to perform and refused medical treatment despite the pain, was dead from a ruptured appendix.
The incident brought to an end a remarkable rise for a Hungarian immigrant who grew up poor, began his career doing card tricks in Milwaukee and ultimately found fame and fortune as one of the biggest self-promoters in U.S. history. His feats and style still resonate today even though Houdini didn’t own a cell phone or have a Twitter, Facebook or Instagram account or his own YouTube channel.
“We’re looking at him as really the first nationally renowned pop celebrity,” said Patti Sherman-Cisler, executive director of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. “He was very savvy, and he was someone who certainly worked in paying his dues in the lower rungs of entertainment.”
The museum’s mission is to chronicle Milwaukee’s Jewish community. The museum, 1360 N. Prospect Ave., which opened in 2008, was created from the Milwaukee Jewish Archives that were founded in 1984 and designed to assemble documentary evidence of the history of Jewish people in in the city. The museum’s collections include information on thousands of Jewish residents over the years, Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, organizations, photographs, the Holocaust, oral histories and marriage and death records.
This summer, the museum hosted an exhibit of 23 color and 15 black-and-white circus-themed lithographs created by Marc Chagall, a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin. In late January, the museum will become just one of three Jewish museums in the country to host an exhibit about a diary written by Rywka Liszyc in a Polish ghetto during the Holocaust. The teenager later survived deportation to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Next summer, protest posters and signs from internationally recognized designer and artist Luba Lukova will take over the temporary exhibition space at the front of the museum.
But for now, that space is all about Houdini, whose real name was Ehrich Weiss and whose father was a Jewish rabbi. The family emigrated to the U.S. when Ehrich was 4 years old, first landing in New York but finding their way to Appleton, where his father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, had a job as the first rabbi for the growing Jewish community there. But after four years, the elder Weiss was fired, and the family moved to Milwaukee when Ehrich was 8. His father was unable to find work, and the family struggled to make ends meet, moving five times in four years during their time in the city. The exhibit, which includes interactive displays of Houdini’s tricks and escapes, also includes an old ledger from the Hebrew Relief Society, where his mother, Cecilia Weiss, had gone to get coal and other necessities.
“In fact, their last address was a barn,” said Dubin, as she showed off a map of the city that highlights their addresses. “That’s how poor they were.”
Young Ehrich, however, did his best to make money by delivering groceries and newspapers and shining shoes. Milwaukee is also where he began to hone his skills with card tricks and take an interest in gymnastics and bodybuilding. He did street performances on what is now the Wisconsin Avenue bridge in the city’s downtown and began teaching himself how to hold his breath for minutes at a time in the Milwaukee River.
“He really has some of his most formative years here,” Dubin said. “He often glossed over his time in Milwaukee, because it was such a challenging time for the family.”
The exhibit not only chronicle his early life in Wisconsin, but also tracks his performances in Wisconsin after he took on the stage name of Harry Houdini.
In 1897, Houdini took the stage at opera houses and performance halls in Stevens Point, Appleton, Menasha, Beloit, Janesville and Racine, according to the exhibit. From 1896 to 1923, Houdini put on dozens of shows in Milwaukee. In 1912, Houdini did his famed milk can escape in Milwaukee, only the Schlitz Brewing Co. asked that the can be filled with beer. Houdini’s last Milwaukee appearances, according to the exhibit, were on Oct. 5, 1923. That’s when he was challenged by Milwaukee County Sheriff Phillip Westfahl to escape a full-body straitjacket. On the same day, Houdini gave a lecture at Marquette University.
A few months later, in January 1924, Houdini spent a week in Madison. It included shows at the Orpheum Theatre, which at the time was located on what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He also gave lectures at the Lions Club and the Music Hall at UW-Madison. But his most public event in Madison occurred outside the offices of the Wisconsin State Journal. At that time, the paper’s offices were not on Fish Hatchery Road but on South Carroll Street, just off Capitol Square.
Houdini, a master at marketing, frequently would perform outside newspaper offices (including at the Milwaukee Journal in 1916) as a way to drum up publicity. His Madison performance was a massive success. Houdini was hoisted with a block and tackle upside down 50 feet into the air and, before an estimated crowd of 15,000 people, freed himself.
“He wiggled and wiggled until had wriggled himself out of the straitjacket, which he dropped to the ground,” the State Journal wrote. “Tremendous was the applause from the immense throng when the great mystifier liberated himself.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.