Houdini exhibit visits Jewish Museum Milwaukee

Ehrich Weiss wanted to be like a superhero.


Weiss, known pre-immigration as Erik Weisz, was the man who performed magic and escape acts as Harry Houdini. For Weiss, Houdini wasn’t merely a stage name, but a persona.


“He created a back story and a biography for himself that contributed to the understanding of him that he wanted the public to believe,” said David London, a magician and storyteller.

Do spirits return? Houdini says no – and proves it! 1909. Library of Congress Collections. Courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

London, who is based in Baltimore, curated “Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini.” The traveling exhibit debuted at the Jewish Museum of Maryland and will soon be on display at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.


The exhibit will be in town from Sept. 25 through Jan. 5, 2020, and will be accompanied by a variety of programs.


Although much information is available about Houdini the performer, London said this exhibit stands apart because it also delves into lesser discussed aspects of the life of Weiss.


“Most of what people know about him are the second half of his life, once he achieved fortune and fame,” London said. “The approach we took with the exhibit was that, ‘What were the things that made us all feel connected to the person who invented and became Harry Houdini?’”


The creator of Houdini was born to Rabbi Mayer Samuel and Cecilia Weisz in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary.


Shortly after the Weisz family entered the country through New York and became the Weiss family, it relocated to Appleton, Wisconsin. Ehrich Weiss was 4-years-old at the time, said Molly Dubin, curator at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.


His father became the community’s first rabbi before losing the position, Dubin said. The family then moved to Milwaukee for four years. After finding more hard times in southeast Wisconsin, she said, the Weisses moved back to New York.

Harry Houdini, circa. 1899. Library of Congress Collections photo. Courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee.


But the years in Milwaukee were among the most formative for the budding performer, Dubin said.


“His time period here is credited with where his great interest and love of magic began,” she said.


Like London, Dubin said she wants people to learn from the exhibit about his immigrant past.


“There was the person, and then there was the personality, the persona,” she said. “You don’t often hear a lot about his past.”


Biographies don’t spend much time talking about the impact of his time in Milwaukee, Dubin said. To localize his story, the museum is adding a section specific to the time his family spent in Wisconsin.


Staff at the museum have been researching specifics as best they can. The trouble, she said, is that as part of his self-promotion for his acts and his persona, Weiss is known to have fabricated stories about who Houdini was and experiences he had.


The museum found records to show that the Weiss family sought aid at the local Hebrew relief society. But Weiss either obscured or invented some of his personal history, and he didn’t address details like where he went to school. Museum staff researched the storied magician’s time in Milwaukee, making use of information from the Milwaukee County Historical Society.


“Historians were able to track residences so that they could try and surmise where he might have attended school,” Dubin said. “We’re going to have a large map that’s going to have notations of where the family would have lived or (other) significant places.”


London said creating the main exhibit required similar deep research and attention to detail. Although he said he was able to build on others’ work, London still had to deeply investigate footnotes and cross reference information.


For example, he said a report led people to believe for decades that Houdini’s father was not truly a rabbi. But in 2016, writer and producer David Saltman located in Milwaukee County records a certified, official copy of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz’ ordination credential.


“That one document that was discovered now turns what was believed to be one story totally upside down,” London said.

“Harry Houdini, King of Cards,” 1895. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Washington D.C., McManus-Young Collection. Courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee.


With that in mind, the opening panel of the exhibit communicates that the information is what the curators believe to be the truth, but that it could all change tomorrow.


“Little bits of information can shift a whole story or expand the story or change long-held beliefs,” he said. “It’s a story that is ever-evolving.”


Both Dubin and London said Weiss, as Houdini, was an innovator and adopted the newest, emerging technologies of his time. Similarly, the exhibit uses informational displays, artifacts and technology to tell the story of Weiss and Houdini.


In addition, guests can participate in a variety of programs that will take place during the exhibit’s local run. The schedule includes a tour of the Forest Home Cemetery to learn about some of the prominent figures during Weiss’ time in Milwaukee.


Visitors can also take part in a seance on Halloween — the date of his death in 1926 — akin to the annual seances that occur in an effort to try to “connect” with Weiss.


When he died at 52, London noted, Weiss had spent his life “perfectly balanced” between the 19th and 20th centuries. His life was also balanced in that he spent the first 26 years faced with difficulty, and the latter 26 realizing his dreams and achieving fortune and fame, London said.


“I hope that (guests) learn and see Houdini as a human being, and not as a superhero, as somebody who — like everyone does — went through great struggles and pursued his dream of being a superstar magician,” he said. “Really what I hope is that people find connection to Houdini as a person and find inspiration in his pursuit of his dreams and his determination to become what he knew he could be.”