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Happy Birthday, Harry!

Today, Harry Houdini would have turned 140 years old.

Because of his legendary escapes, one might half-expect him to crawl out of his grave, proving to be immortal. Alas, until then, he remains immortalized through accounts and pictures of his amazing performances.

As many Appletonians know, after his family emigrated from Budapest, Hungary in 1878, the famous magician called Appleton home for a time. After his father lost his job as a rabbi, the family was forced to wander looking for work, often living in poverty.

As the American National Biography notes, Houdini would remember these years as, “hard and cruel years when I rarely had the bare necessities of life.” He always held Appleton in high regard, though. He had many friends in the city and often referred to it as his hometown. Houdini even said he was born in the city on April 6. While known to not be true, theHistory Museum at the Castle has special birthday events planned for that day.

Perhaps it was the destitution of his youth that prompted him to get creative. Instead of pursuing a real job, Houdini perfected the escape arts. Beginning in the 1890s, he and a friend began showcasing their magical escapes in any venue that would have them. Though little is known about just how Houdini got so good at escaping, it seems Houdini had a natural knack for magic. He began attempting more dangerous and daring escapes to attract audiences.

He traveled throughout Europe becoming an international celebrity. In 1915 he freed himself from a straitjacket while dangling head first from a skyscraper, which drew enormous outdoor crowds, only adding to his celebrity. Contrary to popular belief, though the escapes looked dazzlingly effortless, actually left Houdini injured much of the time. Yet, insistent that he not end up destitute like his father, Houdini persisted, taking on novel challenges.

This is the public image of Houdini, the man dangling above a crowd, yet there was more to Houdini’s career than one might expect. In addition to his primary passion for magic, Houdini dabbled in writing, acting and aviation. He amassed a giant library in his Harlem home, many of the works about the history of magic and theater, which inspired him to publish The Conjurers’ Monthly.

Houdini’s insatiable curiosity also led him to aviation. He was fascinated with flying and bought his own biplane, which he took out on excursions, often to Australia. A quick glance at his IMDB page shows that Houdini had several film credits. In addition to starting his own film processing company in 1915, Houdini acted in several films showcasing his great escapes. Though he never made it big as a film star, Houdini proved himself to be multidimensional as a performer and someone interested in all aspects of modernity and technology.

After World War One, magic in the form of spirituality, often in the form of séances and conjuring the dead became popular. Houdini was a vocal critic of the acts. He would attend séances in disguise and discredit claims to have messages from dead relatives of people in the audience. He became a sort of vigilante in this field; taking down people he saw as trying to capitalize on people’s hopes of reaching their dead loved ones.

By the time he died at 52, Houdini’s body had taken a beating from years of increasingly risky performances. Although there is much speculation about whether Houdini’s ‘punching death’ is an urban legend, the fatal punch was probably just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many now assume that due to his strenuous performances, Houdini was suffering from appendicitis and when a student at McGill punched him repeatedly to test his supposedly superhuman strength, it ruptured and eventually led to peritonitis.

On his birthday, Houdini is remembered as a man who kept (and still keeps) people guessing about his feats. Yet, he was a multi-dimensional figure with an eye towards modernity, creativity while maintaining what he considered magic-purity. A man who died in his craft, he lives on as a creative mind and ingenious magician, someone Appleton should be proud to call their own.

— Eryn Wecker

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