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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Houdini Museum

Houdini Museum. All photos property of the Houdini Museum and used with permission.

The name of the city of Scranton brings to mind coal fields, industry and, if you have been through the area, the vision of the Pocono Mountains and remote vacations. But on Main Avenue stands a most unusual museum, dedicated to the memory of a man that had no real ties to the area, except for his performances as a traveling magician.

Harry Houdini was born in 1874, probably in Budapest, Hungary, despite his claim of Appleton, Wisconsin, as his birthplace. Like many immigrants of the period, Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss) probably felt that being of foreign birth might hamper his career in the United States. His family moved to Wisconsin when he was four, poor German immigrants of Jewish descent. Like many young people of the time, young Ehrich went to work early to help support the family. He left home at the age of 12, traveling around the country to try to earn money to send back to the family. Eventually he rejoined his parents in New York City, where he became interested in a career in magic. First calling himself "Eric the Great", he eventually changed his name to Harry Houdini after reading of the exploits of magician Robert Houdin.

Early in his career, Houdini began to develop his signature escape artist act. First working with a co-worker at a tie factory and then with his brother, after Houdini met and married Bess Rahner, he spent the next thirty plus years traveling with her, performing throughout the United States and internationally. His early travels took him through Scranton with the Welsh Brothers Circus and he later returned to the area as a major star.

Houdini became a great success, mostly because of his escape artist techniques. He was dedicated to the exposure of gambling, spiritualist and psychic frauds, writing several books on the subjects and lecturing. Houdini worked hard to promote the art of magic and the Society of American Magicians and his efforts to benefit his fellow magicians, despite his fame, were admired. Houdini died in 1926 of peritonitis due to an appendix ruptured by a punch to the stomach from a fan, who wanted to test the claim that he could withstand such blows.

The Houdini Museum in Scranton honors the achievements of Harry Houdini, with a vast collection of memorabilia from the performing life of the magician. They carry on the tradition of a Halloween seance that is said to have begun with Houdini's wife and been carried on by writer Walter Gibson. Two of the museum's directors are magicians, Dorothy Dietrich and John Bravo. There is a wealth of information about Houdini and the museum at the museum's comprehensive web site. A fairly recent book, by author Kenneth Silverman, about Houdini is available from the Houdini Museum, along with t-shirts, souvenirs and magic kits.

The Houdini Museum is located at 1433 North Main, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, near the beautiful Pocono Mountains. Open holiday weekends, June weekends and daily through July and August to Labor Day weekend. Consult the museum web page for more details.


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