At Appleton’s ‘Houdini museum,’ the star is Jewish | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

At Appleton’s ‘Houdini museum,’ the star is Jewish

APPLETON – Looking for an easy, affordable, not-far-away, not-affected-by-the-weather day trip? Southeastern Wisconsin residents need look no further than a couple of hours north to the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton.

Appleton locals know the History Museum at the Castle as the “Houdini museum.” Although the History Museum is not exclusively devoted to Harry Houdini, there is a large exhibit called “A.K.A. Houdini.” It showcases Houdini’s connection to Appleton, plus his family, early career, stunts and tricks, physicality, impact on the magic community and death. And it’s related to Jewish history because Harry Houdini was Jewish.

The History Museum at the Castle in Appleton features the “A.K.A. Houdini” exhibit. Houdini claims Appleton as his birthplace. Photo by Melissa Taylor.

The History Museum at the Castle in Appleton features the “A.K.A. Houdini” exhibit. Houdini claims Appleton as his birthplace. Photo by Melissa Taylor.According to the exhibit, Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss on March 24, 1874 to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. Houdini would later claim he was born in Appleton.

In 1878, the Weiss family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin because Houdini’s father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, had a job prospect of being a rabbi in Appleton. Also, at the time Houdini was born, many Jews were immigrating to the United States to escape prejudice and economic depression, and we the assumption is the Weiss family was doing the same.

When Houdini was four years old, his father became the community’s first rabbi. There is not a lot known about the time that the Weiss family remained in Appleton except that after four years, Rabbi Weiss was fired. Houdini claimed that his father was fired because he did not speak English and did not assimilate well into American culture, according to museum records.

Why did Houdini lie about his birthplace and claim Appleton? Historians are not certain, but speculate that for the sake of his successful career, Houdini did not want to identify as an immigrant, but as one of the “all-American” boys. Another theory is that Houdini’s happiest memories were from the time his family lived in Appleton. This is most likely because the family enjoyed a higher standard of living compared to Budapest. Hard and impoverished days were ahead for the Weiss family after they left Appleton, so the good memories of Appleton always represented “home” to Houdini.

The Houdini exhibit includes Houdini’s hand-cuffs, locks and picks and is very interactive and family-friendly. Kids and adults can attempt to re-enact some of Houdini’s tricks as well as test their strength to see if they would be able to perform a Houdini stunt.

Houdini did not seem to practice his Judaism. But if you are interested in the history of Judaism in Appleton, you can make the quick and easy four-block walk from the History Museum to the shuttered Temple Zion on Durkee Street.

According to the plaque outside of the synagogue building, Houdini’s father helped Appleton’s Zion Congregation plan and start construction on this temple. Appleton’s first temple was finished in 1884 after the Weiss family had left Appleton, and it remained a synagogue until 1932.

Edna Ferber, most famous for being the author of the novel “Showboat” that was later made into the popular musical, was also born to a Jewish family in Appleton and worshipped at Temple Zion. The History Museum features a small display dedicated to Edna Ferber’s life and work in Appleton.

The History Museum also features seven other small-to-large exhibits about history and current life in Outagamie County on topics including homelessness, black experiences in the Fox Cities, toys and biking with their most recent exhibit, “Shifting Gears: A Cyclical History of Badger Bicycling.”

Melissa Taylor, digital media specialist for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, was the digital media specialist for the History Museum at the Castle from 2010 to 2012.

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How to go

The History Museum at the Castle

330 E. College Ave., Appleton

Visiting Hours:

Tuesday – Sunday

11 a.m. – 4 p.m.