Monday, October 01, 2012

Handcuff Harry and Tailgunner Joe

 Sept 10, 2012

I knew this was coming up, but I'd forgotten that Saturday marked the exact day when Jimmy Carter bested Herbert Hoover as the president with the longest life after his presidency. As the Atlantic article points out, September 8, 2012, was President Carter's 11,544th day as former President Carter, or nearly 32 years. Here's hoping he has some more post-presidential days.

The History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, Wisconsin, started out as a Masonic Temple, but now focuses on local history. Such as the previously mentioned Harry Houdini, master of escape and self-promotion, who has a whole floor devoted to him and his illusions. How is it that the former Erik Weisz (Ehrich Weiss) called Appleton his hometown? "Houdini came to America as a four-year-old boy in 1878," the museum web site says. "His parents moved him and his brothers to Appleton because of a job opening. Houdini's father, Meyer Samuel Weiss, became the community's first rabbi."

But the young Ehrich Weiss left Appleton with his family when he was only seven, after his father lost his job, moving to New York. So "hometown" is a bit of a stretch, but apparently Houdini claimed the town as his own, even asserting that he'd been born there instead of Budapest. Still, Appleton's a good place for such an exhibit, and the museum does well with it, featuring photos of Houdini during his performances, but also more casual shots; handbills and posters; and plenty of Houdini equipment, such as handcuffs and shackles and confining spaces, like a milk can and a simulated Chinese water torture box.

Various exhibits discuss how some of the escapes were done, which apparently upset some current illusionists -- such as David Copperfield, who owns a lot of Houdini artifacts himself -- as if all the information was somehow not on the Internet. There was also an exhibit, complete with seance table, explaining how some of those tricks were done, just as spiritualist debunker Houdini did during his lifetime.

The museum isn't all Houdini. The lower floors feature exhibits about local history, including an assortment of machines made or used in the area. One was a genuine early 20th-century Linotype machine. Considering how ubiquitous they once were, it's odd how few of them I've run across. Maybe I'm not looking in the right museums.

Right at the foot of the stairs in the basement is a bronze bust in a clear display case. "People ask us why we keep a bust of Joseph McCarthy," our guide said, anticipating the question. "Like him or not, he's part of our history." Sounds reasonable; he was born in Grand Chute, near Appleton, and is buried at St. Mary's Parish Cemetery in Appleton, which wasn't on my press tour. No point in pretending he didn't exist.

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