A Historical Guide to Houdini’s Wisconsin

Houdini Plaza
Houdini Plaza | © Appleton Downtown Inc.

Despite historical ship logs showing that Harry Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary, and immigrated to the USA with his family when he was four years old, he always fondly claimed Appleton, Wisconsin, as his birthplace. Though Houdini only spent some of the early years of his life in Wisconsin, the state is proud of its connection to the man considered by many to be the world’s greatest escape artist.

Born Erik Weisz, Houdini and his family created their new home in Appleton in 1878, where his father became the city’s first rabbi. He reflected on those years of stability fondly and proclaimed publicly to reporters that Appleton was his hometown. In 1882, the family moved to Milwaukee when Houdini’s father was fired from his job. The years Houdini spent there were said to be hard, and he rarely talked about it. It is now often overlooked and forgotten that Houdini even lived in Milwaukee for part of his childhood. While there is disagreement over when Houdini’s first performances took place, some believe this happened while he was trying to earn some extra money in Milwaukee.

Harry Houdini

In addition to performing magic, Houdini was passionate about debunking fake mediums. As an illusionist, he recognized the tricks of people falsely claiming to be able to contact the dead, and he made it his mission to expose them. As part of these efforts, he vowed that if there were truly a way to communicate with the dead, we would do so after he passed. As a result, an Official Houdini Séance has taken place every year since his death in 1926 in hopes of a message from beyond. Several of these official séances took place in Milwaukee, as recently as 2016, but confirmed contact has yet to be established.

Despite leaving Wisconsin over 130 years ago, an active community of Houdini enthusiasts remains. The Houdini Club of Wisconsin, which formed in 1938, hosts regular events promoting the art of magic and remembering the great magician who once called the state home. This club isn’t the only reminder of the time Houdini spent in Wisconsin; Houdini Plaza is an urban square in the heart of Appleton’s downtown area celebrating the city’s history. The plaza plays host to several events including the local Farmer’s Market, Summer Concert Series, and the annual Oktoberfest. A bust of the city’s most famous illusionist performing his iconic straightjacket escape is on full display in the plaza, along with some of his treasured words.

Houdini Plaza

Every year, Appleton’s Houdini 10k provides runners with “Houdini-esque” entertainment and quirky medals. The race begins at the Houdini Plaza and ends at Houdini’s Escape Gastropub, where visitors can enjoy a magical dining experience and watch pint after pint of local craft beer disappear before their eyes.

For a taste of Houdini history, magic fans and history buffs cannot miss the AKA Houdini exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle in downtown Appleton. Formally known as The Houdini Historic Center, this museum houses some of the most treasured Houdini artifacts and offers visitors an interactive look into the life of one of the city’s most famous residents. The exhibit has experienced a bit of criticism for revealing how some of Houdini’s signature tricks were performed, but enthusiasts who do not want the illusion spoiled can easily avoid this section of the exhibit.

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