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Preserving Houdini's Milwaukee roots on his 148th birthday

By James Groh,

2022-03-24
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Happy birthday to the global icon who grew up in Wisconsin and is considered the greatest magician and illusionist of all time, Harry Houdini. On March 24, 2022, he would have been 148.

Houdini was born in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. Back then, he was known as Erik Weisz and eventually Ehrich Weiss. Shortly after his birth, he moved to Appleton because his dad accepted as job as a rabbi here in Wisconsin. Houdini lived there until he was nine years old and then moved to Milwaukee. The Cream City is where he discovered his love for magic and performing.

“He learned magic. He learned escapes. He learned sleight of hand. He was a street performer down on Wisconsin Avenue, and then he became a global success," Glen Gerard , a magician, illusionist and Houdini historian from Germantown, said.

Jewish Museum Milwaukee/James Groh
A picture of a young Harry Houdini from the Jewish Museum Milwaukee's exhibit on Houdini.

On Houdini's 148th birthday, Gerard performed various Houdini-inspired tricks for a crowd of students at McLane Elementary School in West Bend. He hopes these types of performances preserve the global icon.

“I think it’s very important because he was so instrumental in the history of American entertainment.”

Eventually, the family moved to Milwaukee. This all happened in the 1880s. Various historians and museums have explored Houdini's somewhat unclear history in Wisconsin. However, a few things are known about the masterful magician's time in the Badger State.

As a paperboy for the Milwaukee Daily Journal, Houdini discovered the importance of good promotion and getting into the press. It's part of the reason he did such public and death-defying stunts, Gerard said. It also paved the way for to him becoming an excellent promoter of his shows.

"He realized that if he could do big publicity stunts like make an elephant disappear or hang upside down from a strait jacket from a corner of a building, that would get him headlines and those headlines would equate success," Gerard said.

Jewish Museum of Milwaukee/James Groh
A photo of a picture from the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee during its 'Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini' exhibit.

However, before the promotion could happen, Houdini needed to find his love for magic and escapes. He found that in southeast Wisconsin.

"Really, here in Milwaukee, he saw his first magician. He saw his first circus. He became interested in magic. Escapes. He learned how to swim in the Milwaukee River," Gerard said.

Houdini would move to New York City towards the end of the 1880s, and that would eventually become his home.

He died on Halloween night in Detroit, 1926. As legend goes, before a show, a student asked if he could punch Houdini in the stomach, since the magician said he could withstand punches to the abdomen.

The student did punch Houdini a few times before the magician stopped him, saying that he was not ready for the hits. He felt sick for a few days, but continued to perform. He later died from peritonitis, which can occur after an appendicitis.

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