The tale and secrets of an enigmatic icon are exposed in the confines of a historic masonic temple, sure to have secrets of its own. Sound cool? How about an exhibit that focuses on the horrors and injustices of the Insane asylums of the late 19th and early 20th centuries? I know, rather grim. None of these, however, showcase the museum’s most inquired about piece. The place is called the History Museum at the Castle and is located in the downtown portion of Appleton Wisconsin.
We had a six-hour window in which we could do whatever pleased our eager brains. I made the suggestion of visiting Appleton, as it’s a quick scamper south. That was agreed upon rather quickly, however, besides a few run of the mill attractions, I was pretty much clueless about the town. Turns out, Appleton has a plethora of genuine Midwest city appeal, although its claims to fame maybe a shade darker than most.
I referred to My Trip Advisor app, thumbing through the ‘things to do’ feature, and discovered a museum that definitely sparked interest. Located in a historic landmark, the History Museum at the Castle was said to feature Appleton’s most famous resident. The drive could have been three hours, I would have went.
As I enter, I must be wearing a delighted smile. I feel like I’ve walked into a scene in a Dan Brown novel, spying a masonic symbol above an antique fire-place. The stone gilded building exemplifies everything I’ve read about the order, being on the National Register of Historic Places. There are the stained glass windows, the arched doorways, the antique lighting fixtures, winding staircases and creaking wood floors that inspire thrilling juvenile thoughts of what conspiracy theories might surround the place, I rarely take one seriously.
As I’m sure some would say the building was a shroud for secrets, the temporary exhibit on the main floor featured places where many people entered and disappeared from society forever. That’s a horrifying thought. Yet, many endured such a circumstance.
The Insane Asylums of the late 19th and early 20th centuries housed many people for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, the condition wasn’t really psychological, like epilepsy. These patients endured experimental techniques such as electro-shock therapy and the use of highly addictive drugs. Often sterilized, these patients were believed to have traits that would be passed to their offspring. Not to mention, straight jackets were frequently used and these asylums were over crowded.
Among exhibits that testify to these accepted forms of torture, I feel my heart sink as I marvel at hand crafted master pieces. They were constructed by patients locked away from the rest of the world, a talented mind unable to reap the benefits of his labor.
We leave the main floor and follow a winding staircase toward the basement, as a giant machine from the Appleton Wireworks Company greets us at the bottom. Here, the exhibits are quite random, showcasing everything from a fully furnished antique bathroom to a gravity fed gas pump looming over a Ford Model T. There is also a timeline, highlighting significant events in the area’s past.
After a while of perusing the disjointed exhibits I stumble on a black spot that cursed the town of Appleton. A resident of Appleton, not the one I’ve alluded to in my intro, was the leader of a dark time in political history. Senator Joe McCarthy’s bronze bust is cased in glass and on display here, personally I’m rather glad it is.
In most Museums I’ve come across, the positive is highlighted while the negative is a side note. Not in this place. The leader of the ‘Red Scare’, a witch hunt where many people were accused of being communists who had infiltrated the state department, gave birth to the term McCarthyism. This bust is an important reminder how political fervor can create injustice. McCarthy was censured for his actions in 1954, he died shortly after in 1957 at age 48. This piece gets a lot of attention, being the most inquired about artifact in the museum.
I suppose I’ve kept those not familiar with Northeast Wisconsin in suspense long enough. So, who is Appleton’s Iconic resident? The escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini. The showman seemed to have a supernatural mystique about him, even Houdini’s death on Halloween night sparks a bit of drama.
Houdini is part of the American vernacular. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “he pulled a Houdini”, and other statements to that effect. The magician claimed to be born in Appleton, as he lived in the city until he was thirteen. However, records indicate he was actually born in Budapest Hungary as Ehrich Weisz. Even so, he was raised in the town and will forever be linked to Appleton.
Houdini was actually quite a character, while confounding many who witnessed his death-defying feats. He was friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which makes sense, as Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes professed that behind every great mystery a logical explanation lied. Houdini’s secrets included, hiding tools in his hair, rectum, and sometimes swallowing and later vomiting the tool when needed.
Houdini published a magazine that revealed the elements of his tricks, this exhibit reveals some of Houdini’s secrets. While the rest of the museum is artifacts and placards, this portion of the museum is very interactive. You can perform some of Houdini’s stunts and tricks, as there are explanations on how to accomplish the feats. For instance, escaping a straight jacket.
There is paraphernalia that Houdini used in his shows included here. Props, tools, and restraints are all showcased in this colorful and informative section of the museum. This was the main reason for driving here, as the temple itself falls a close second. I love the fact that this is the last exhibit because it is definitely the most entertaining.
The price of admission was $8 and I spent about an hour and a half inside the museum. The insane asylum exhibit is temporary but lasts until next year. I did not mention, yet it is a great move and shows social conscience, that there is a exhibit on the homeless in the local area. Go see the Museum, I think you’ll be glad you did.