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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Houdini, Harry 1874 - 1926


Magician, showman;  Although Harry Houdini claimed Appleton as his home town, he was born Erich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, and only came to Appleton  in 1878 when his father Samuel accepted a post as the city's first rabbi. Samuel Weiss was dismissed by his congregation in 1883 and moved first to Milwaukee and finally to New York, where he and his family struggled to make a living.
Young Erich was fascinated by magic and circuses from an early age, and began his career as a magician in 1891 with Jacob Hyman as one of "The Brothers Houdini," a name inspired by the French magician Houdin. In 1893 Houdini married Wilhelmina (Bess) Rahner and together the two undertook a music hall career with an escape act. They had little success until Martin Beck, a major figure in vaudeville spotted the act and offered Houdini a place on his Orpheum circuit in 1897. Beck sent Houdini to England where he performed with great success until his return to the U.S. in 1907. Besides escaping from handcuffs, shackles, straitjackets and other constraints, Houdini added danger and excitement to his acts by escaping from water-filled containers.
Between 1919 and 1923 Houdini expanded his career by making six motion pictures, though none were particularly successful. In the 1920s he turned his attention to debunking spiritualism, the belief that the dead can contact the living. While performing in Montreal in October 1926 Houdini was unexpectedly struck in the abdomen by a college student testing his claim to be able to withstand any blow. Houdini died in a Detroit hospital on October 31 of peritonitis resulting from a ruptured appendix, though whether the blow was the cause of the rupture remains in doubt.

For more information on Houdini's Wisconsin ties, see ""The Bonds He Did Not Break: Harry Houdini and Wisconsin," by Kimberly Louagie in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 85, no., 3, Spring 2002: 2-17.

[Source: Houdini Museum, Appleton ; Internet Movie Data Base; "The Bonds He Did Not Break: Harry Houdini and Wisconsin," by Kimberly Louagie, Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 85, no., 3, Spring 2002.]
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