Today’s post is written by Daniel Dancis, an Archivist in the Textual Records Branch at the National Archives in College Park, MD.
The name itself conjures up visions of handcuffs, underwater submersions, and impossible escapes.
For just a moment imagine yourself in a large theater in the early 1900s. From the upper balcony, surrounded by decorative plaster garlands, you look down to see rococo scroll panels and cartouches. In front of you is a stage richly adorned with Baroque touches and above you a ceiling with restrained classical ornamentation. The lights dim and the curtains are pulled back signaling that the evening’s performance is about to begin – a magic show featuring the great illusionist Harry Houdini! A short while later, amazed and entertained, you exit the Arcade Theater and spill onto Ryan Street with the rest of the satisfied crowd. It’s Sunday night in Lake Charles, Louisiana and some in the audience came by rail from nearby eastern Texas, others from the surrounding parishes. If you are a local resident, you have most likely been here before, perhaps for a political affair, a holiday ceremony, or a school performance. You’ll be back. Next Sunday will feature another vaudeville troupe.
This scene and others like it may well have occurred at the Arcade Theater or the Odd Fellows Building in Boyne City, Missouri, Loew’s Theater in Syracuse, New York, or a myriad of other venues, all places where Harry Houdini is known to have performed. The architectural details, the luminaries who performed at these halls, and other matters of historical significance related to these sites are recorded in the series National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records (NAID 20812721) from Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service, which can be viewed online in the National Archives Catalog. The paperwork within this series includes material submitted as part of the application process for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, and within this material is a rich trove of architectural, political, economic, religious, and cultural history as gathered and presented by the authors of the applications.
All types of sites and locations are represented in these records including houses of worship. In the submission for Temple Zion and School, a Jewish congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin, are additional details about young Houdini:
“In 1874 the congregation hired its first rabbi, Mayer Samuel Weiss. Weiss had emmigrated [sic] from Hungary that same year, and he brought with him a wife and an infant son, Erich. Young Erich grew up in Zion Congregation; later he would earn world-wide renown as the great escape artist and illusionist, Harry Houdini. Rabbi Weiss remained with the congregation less than ten years, and although Temple Zion was planned during his tenure, he left for Milwaukee before its dedication. Weiss was not well suited to Zion Congregation which found his religious views too orthodox; moreover, the liberal congregation wanted a rabbi who could preach in English and Weiss could not.”
Further records from the National Archives related to Houdini can be accessed through Ancestry.com and Fold3. Located here are passport applications in which he variously identifies himself by his birth name, Ehrich Weiss, or his stage name. Interestingly, although he was born in Hungary he registers Appleton, Wisconsin as his birthplace in all but the earliest application. For occupation, he lists himself as either an artist, performer, or actor depending on the year; and the description of his physical attributes vary over the years as well. As for his beloved wife, Bess, her name appears as just Wilhelmina, Wilhelmina Weiss, just Beatrice, and finally Beatrice Houdini. Her birthdate, always in January, fluctuates between 1875, 1876, and 1877. As for his birthday, it’s always April 6, 1874, except once, when it appears as 1873. If anything, these records reflect the international travel he took to meet demand for his performances.
In addition to the passport applications, the most well known documents attributed to Houdini at the National Archives are his patent for a quick escape diving suit and his World War I draft registration card signed “Harry Handcuff Houdini” when he was 44 years old, coming in just before the cutoff age of 45. Although the great illusionist passed away in 1926, nearly a century later, records at the National Archives still have the power to bring him back to life.
May is Jewish American Heritage Month. To see more examples of historic properties related to Jewish American history visit the webpage of the National Register of Historic Places dedicated to Jewish American Heritage Month.
 The description of the theater is based on the information in the entry for the Louisiana SP Arcade Theater (NAID 73973225). As explained here, traveling shows took advantage of the ability to perform in Lake Charles on Sundays because in nearby Texas this was forbidden by a “blue law.”
 Even this date is controversial. Most sources give his date of birth as March 24, 1874. See https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harry-Houdini