What Killed Harry Houdini?

What Killed Harry Houdini?

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For over 30 years, Harry Houdini dazzled audiences with his bravura stunts and superhuman endurance. The Hungarian-born escape artist jumped off bridges while handcuffed and wearing leg irons, slithered out of sealed milk cans filled with water, and devised a “Chinese Water Torture Cell” in which he was submerged and suspended upside down by his ankles. The heart-pounding getaways usually involved a healthy dose of trickery and sleight-of-hand, but they were also fraught with genuine risk. In 1915, Houdini nearly suffocated during a stunt in which he was shackled and buried under six feet of dirt.

Houdini had made a career out of surviving the impossible, which only made the circumstances of his 1926 death all the more mysterious. The 52-year-old performed before a packed house in Detroit on October 24, but was rushed to the hospital afterwards with an apparent case of appendicitis. He died just a week later on Halloween, leaving his legions of admirers bewildered. An obituary in the New York Times expressed shock at the sudden passing of the man “who so often had seemed to thousands to be cheating the very jaws of death.”

The strange series of events that led to Houdini’s demise had kicked off several weeks earlier on October 11, 1926. While being shackled into his Chinese Water Torture Cell during a performance in Albany, New York, the conjurer was struck on the leg by a piece of faulty equipment. He hobbled his way through the rest of the show, but was later found to have sustained a fractured left ankle.

Against doctors’ orders, Houdini continued his tour and traveled to Montreal, where he gave a lecture at McGill University. Just a few days later on October 22, he invited some McGill students to visit him in his dressing room at the Princess Theater. The magician’s sore ankle was still bothering him, so he plopped down on a couch while the group chatted. At some point, a student named J. Gordon Whitehead arrived and asked Houdini if it was true that he could resist hard punches to his abdomen—a claim the magician had supposedly made in public. According to witness Sam Smilovitz, when Houdini said the rumors were true, Whitehead abruptly delivered “four or five terribly forcible, deliberate, well-directed blows” to his stomach. Houdini was still reclined on the couch and had no time to prepare for the punches, which appeared to leave him in considerable pain.

Houdini brushed off the incident at the time, but that same evening, he began to complain of discomfort and stomach cramps. His condition only worsened the next day, when he boarded an overnight train to Detroit for a new run of performances. The magician developed severe abdominal pain, cold sweats and fatigue, and his temperature rose to 104 degrees. A doctor suspected appendicitis and instructed Houdini to go to a hospital, but the performer insisted on taking the stage for his opening night show at the Garrick Theater. He proceeded to struggle through his routine before collapsing immediately after the final curtain.

The show would be Houdini’s last. That same night, he was taken to a Detroit hospital and prepped for surgery. Doctors successfully removed his appendix, which was found to have ruptured several days earlier, but it had already poisoned his insides. Despite a grim prognosis, the magician clung to life until October 31, when he died with his wife Bess and his two brothers by his side.

The official cause of Houdini’s death was listed as peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. At the time, the magician’s doctors firmly believed that the illness was the result of the walloping J. Gordon Whitehead had given him during their backstage encounter in Montreal. Such cases of “traumatic appendicitis” are extraordinarily rare—one study found only a couple dozen instances over a nearly 20-year period—but in 1926, the diagnosis was widely accepted. Houdini’s life insurance company was even forced to pay his wife a double indemnity for an accidental death.

Houdini was laid to rest in Queens on November 4, 1926, but rumors about his unusual death have persisted ever since. Many of the theories tend to focus on the magician’s contentious relationship with Spiritualism, a pseudo-religion whose adherents once claimed it was possible to communicate with the dead through séances and mediums. Houdini, a born skeptic, had spent much of the 1920s on a mission to debunk the Spiritualists’ claims and expose its top psychics as frauds. The crusade earned him several million dollars’ worth of lawsuits and more than a few enemies, but at the time of his demise, he showed no signs of letting up. Just a few months earlier, he had testified in front of Congress in support of a bill to outlaw fortune telling in Washington, D.C.

Could Houdini’s meddling have gotten him killed? In their 2006 biography “The Secret Life of Houdini,” authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman contend that the magician’s death may have been a carefully planned assassination by members of the Spiritualist community. “If one were to suspect Houdini a victim of foul play,” they write, “then the section of organized crime that was composed of fraudulent spirit mediums must be considered likely suspects.” Kalush and Sloman argue that the Spiritualists had a history of poisoning their enemies, and they note that no autopsy was ever performed to confirm that Houdini’s death was actually caused by appendicitis. “If someone were hell-bent on poisoning Houdini, it wouldn’t have been very difficult,” they conclude.

Considerable debate has also focused on J. Gordon Whitehead, the McGill student who supposedly delivered the potentially fatal gut punches in Houdini’s Montreal dressing room. In the 2005 book “The Man Who Killed Houdini,” author Don Bell floated a theory that Whitehead may have been in league with the Spiritualists, some of whom had previously threatened to kill Houdini or have him beaten up. Bell concluded that there was not enough evidence to connect Whitehead to any kind of criminal plot, but others have argued that he was an enemy agent who stalked Houdini during the magician’s time in Montreal.

The true cause of Houdini’s demise may never be known for sure, but the majority of scholars tend to dismiss the murder theories as mere speculation. For them, the more pressing question is whether Houdini’s ruptured appendix had any connection to the stomach blows he received a few days earlier. While the evidence shows that such a condition is indeed possible, many consider it more likely that Whitehead’s punches simply caused Houdini to ignore an already existing case of appendicitis. By the time the magician finally sought out treatment, the theory goes, it was already too late.

Interestingly, perhaps the most sought after source for information about Houdini’s death is none other than Houdini himself. In what amounted to his ultimate test of the Spiritualists’ claims, the magician promised his wife Bess that he would try to communicate with her from beyond the grave. Bess went on to hold an annual “Houdini séance” for ten years before finally abandoning the search in 1936. Fans and fellow magicians have since made the séance a Halloween tradition, but thus far, the great Houdini’s ghost has refused to speak.

Talk:Who Killed Harry Houdini?

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Body Blows

In 1926 at age 52, Harry Houdini was at the top of his game.

He toured the country in the early part of the year, performing escapes and enjoying his decades-old fame. But when he toured again that autumn, everything seemed to go wrong.

On October 11, Houdini broke his ankle while performing Water Torture Cell escape trick in Albany, New York. He managed to push through the next several appearances against doctor’s orders and then traveled to Montreal. There he made appearances at the Princess Theater and held a lecture concerning spirit fraud at McGill University.

Wikimedia Commons Houdini prepares to escape from handcuffs — and a box thrown overboard a ship — in 1912.

After the lecture, he schmoozed with students and faculty, among them Samuel J. “Smiley” Smilovitch, who made a sketch of the famous magician. Houdini was so impressed with the drawing that he invited Smilovitch to come to the Princess Theater on Friday, October 22 to do a proper portrait.

On the appointed day at 11 a.m., Smilovitch came to visit Houdini with a friend, Jack Price. They were later joined by a freshman student named Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead.

While Smilovitch sketched Houdini, Whitehead chatted with the magician. After some talk about Houdini’s physical strength, Whitehead asked if it was true that he could withstand even the mightiest punch to the stomach. Jack Price then recalled the following as was recorded in Ruth Brandon’s book, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini:

“Houdini remarked rather unenthusiastically that his stomach could resist much….Thereupon he [Whitehead] gave Houdini some very hammer-like blows below the belt, first securing Houdini’s permission to strike him. Houdini was reclining at the time with his right side nearest Whitehead, and the said student was more or less bending over him.”

Whitehead struck at least four times until Houdini gestured him to stop in mid-punch. Price recalled that Houdini, “looked as though he was in extreme pain and winced as each blow was struck.”

Houdini said that he didn’t think Whitehead would strike so suddenly, otherwise he would have better prepared.

By evening, Houdini was suffering tremendous pain in his abdomen.

Library of Congress One of Harry Houdini’s tricks was escaping from a milk can.


This is the only known photo of Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, the McGill University student who punched Houdini in his dressing room at the Princess Theater in Montreal on October 22, 1926. Whitehead's blows either started, contributed, or covered-up (lots of debate about this) the appendicitis that would take Houdini's life nine days later on Halloween.

This photo comes from The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell, a MUST read for anyone interested in the events of 10/22/26. It shows Whitehead in Rodick's Bookstore in Montreal around 1950. Bell says Whitehead was 31 when he delivered the blows, so this would put him in his mid 50s here.

Sort of ironic that Whitehead is holding a book here. Returning a borrowed book was how he gained entry to Houdini's dressing room that fateful day. He was also charged with shoplifting books twice in 1928.

According to Bell, the troubled Whitehead died a recluse and hoarder in 1954. He is buried in an unmarked plot in Hawthorn-Dale Cemetery in Montreal, Canada.

Thanks to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum in Scranton for this image scan.


His unmarked grave on "Find A Grave":


Cemeteries keep records of who is buried in which number plot. It sometimes occurs that a grave goes unmarked. A headstone is an expense some can't afford. Ed Saint also has no marker, as we discovered a while back.

Did whitehead get fined for punching Houdini?

No. There were never any charges for anything brought against him. It was considered an accident.

Interesting. Thank you, Joe. Funny they call him a boxer. He wasn't. That's part of the myth. Bell and Smiley both say he was a divinity student.

You know, as he died in ི, I wonder if he ever crept out into the night to see the Tony Curtis Houdini movie? If so, what thoughts must have been going through his mind?

Well if we're giving out sites for Whiteheads grave, go here
This is my Dead Conjurers site. Interestingly, Whiteheads grave has received more hits than all the magicians graves combined, even Houdini's.

Thanks Dean. I had forgotten you posted this last year. I've linked to it in my post.

What's an unknown nothing like Whitehead doing with borrowed books from one of the most famous people in the world? Is there any info concerning how these two met and how he got to borrow books from Houdini? Seems weird that HH knew this guy well enough to let him borrow books!

You know why no one answered that? Who is asking?
Anonymous posts don't belong on a site like this.

Oh, I don't mind Anonymous comments. Some people are still spooked about putting their names online.

I've wondered about the book(s). Did Whitehead and Houdini meet before? It's just one of the outstanding mysteries.

Patrick needs to relax. Why would anyone care if someone is called anonymous, Bill, Tom or anything else? I have no issues having my name on here but never thought it necessary. We are talking about incidents that occurred nearly 90 or more years ago not the secrets of the CIA! Many have responded to my posts including you in the past. Anyway. they must have met prior to Houdinis dressing room if he was returning books to him. On another subject my wife is a nurse for many years and the idea of the punches to the gut causing an eventual infected and ruptured appendix is a real possibility. She said that several doctors she works with had seen this type condition over the years.

One tiny comment regarding the first line "the only known photo of J.Gordon Whitehead". John, you've actually got an older post on Whitehead and a photo there that was on the cover of some sort of program. So maybe the photo here is the last known photo of Whitehead.

Oh, that's not Whitehead. That's a fictional book with just a pic of some dude. A Whitehead stand-in.

I'm a very distance relative of Whitehead and I see no resemblance to anyone whiteheads in the family from this photo.
john williams

You are aware "John Williams" that features change throughout the generations yes? My brother for example looks nothing like our father, he is a spitting image of mum.

The only way you'd see resemblance, seeing as you say distant relative, to your whiteheads and this whitehead is if they kept marriage "very close" as in married their cousins. Given as whitehead was obviously a coward, I wouldn't be surprised if incest happened there.

just imagine how he must have felt, i`m not saying i don't blame him but after the incident he just vanished. Then when he died his grave was unmarked and now it`s just covered in grass :/

Whitehead allegedly asked Houdini if it was true that he could be punched in the stomach without harm, then unloaded a barrage of blows on the magician's midsection. Why did he ask that particular question? I find it very curious that a man who apparently knew Houdini well enough to borrow his personal property i.e. books from him, would not also know about Houdini's famed ability to withstand blows to the stomach! I find Whitehead's actions to be highly suspicious. We've all heard the speculation that Whitehead may have been a hit-man sent by the mediums that Houdini angered. Perhaps there's something to it after all!

With all due respect, who is gonna hire a hitman that uses gut punches instead of bullets?

I'm going to assume you're being sarcastic in your last sentence, AmazingGordo.

If you're not, I'd suggest some logical thought. If he was a hitman, what was his plan? Punch Houdini in the stomach hoping either to:

a) exacerbate a condition that, even all these years later, people argue about whether or not he had

b) give him a condition that, even all these years later, people argue about whether or not can be given in that manner

with the knowledge that, even if he was successful, an immediate trip to the hospital would take care of the problem completely?

Would you hire a hitman who offered you that guarantee of success? "Yeah, I can punch him really hard in the stomach, so that he may or may not wind up with a condition that, if left untreated, will most likely, though not definitely, kill him"?

Was Milbourne Christopher the first to divulge Whitehead's name as the assailant or was it revealed in an earlier Houdini biography? The Christopher book is the only older biography I know of to divulge the name. Many books just referred to him as a "McGill University student."

A magazine article by Sam Smiley revealed Whitehead's name in 1953.

Actually, the article in the September 12, 1953 "Weekend Magazine" was by Stanley Handman. But Smiley was the source who revealed Whitehead's name in his interview with Handman. I'd like to read that article. Very important piece of Houdini history.

Here is the 1953 article from Weekend Magazine. As I have only seen a typewritten transcription, I can only assume that Handman gave his column that week to Smiley. You will recognize descriptions later used by Christopher, Silverman and others.

It's been a while but I hope someone can answer my question: did Whitehead get prosecuted/arrested for Houdini's death?

No. He was deposed along with the other 2 boys in the room at the time, but it was deemed an accident. No charges.

My theological analysis from an over arching world view:

Harry Houdini who was a master illusionist and who's main area of expertise was escaping from a myriad of man made traps, bindings etc. the reality is this he couldn't escape death. Harry Houdini was not going to live forever, everyone dies and I believe that whichever way he died people would still expect him to escape death and be upset over his loss.

For his persona was one of generating admiration from the people by escaping when it seemed impossible, this is proven by the fact that even to this day people still attend seances to see if he will escape from that final judgement of his. But remember what he said: "I'm tired of fighting."

Now about his death. The man seemingly set up his own death through his own pride. He prided himself in his ab muscles so he challenged people to punch him. I actually believe that he challenged Whitehead, this not just because of witness reports but because of the fact that he made such an effort to make it seem like Whiteheads punches didn't actually hurt him. He didn't cancel the show and didn't seek medical attention right away for fear that if he did that Whitehead would find out that "he got him" and then his pride would be deflated and it would be a slashing to his unsoiled name.

God set up his death so that there is a lot of irony. I believe that throughout history God makes statements that those who have "ears to hear" will be able to understand. The master of escape. not killed by a mere punch but by a trap of his own making which he couldn't escape from because of his own pride and inflated ego.

Now. what was the real important message to the world. Just before he got his fatal blow he was asked a simple question that most people seem to ignore or gloss over. Houdini was asked what he thought of the miracles in the Bible. He answered in a way that implies that the miracles in the Bible were just well performed tricks that people in the past were just too ignorant to know what was really going on. This consists with Houdini's world view because although he was of Jewish descent he didn't practice Judaism but rather practiced free masonry. He was an unbeliever.

So the summary is this. Harry Houdini did not believe in the gospel or in man's need to escape from the shackles of sin and death through Christ. The master escape artist did not believe that he needed to escape from the most important thing that needed to escaping from. This butts heads with God's message to the world. Well we all know how the story ends. Do not make the same mistake.

Do not get me wrong. As a person Harry Houdini was indeed a marvel. Someone who was extremely skilled and worthy of respect. I am also sure that if I lived in his time that I would be amazed if I watched one of his shows but the fact of the matter is that the eternal destiny of our souls are more important than our entertainment and God has made this clear through out history more often then not.

Actually, Houdini did not answer Whitehead's question about miracles in the Bible. He waved the question off. In fact, in Houdini's program, it specifically states that he will not answer questions about the Bible. He knew this was spiritualistic bait.

A lot of people think because Houdini was a skeptic he must have been an atheist or what you call an "unbeliever." He wasn't. Again and again he expressed a belief in God, even under oath in front of Congress. Your reference to free masonry is interesting because Houdini actually equated belief in God as being a necessary part of being a Mason. Here are two exact quotes from his congressional testimony:

Houdini: "[I] believe in premonition absolutely, but, not in spiritualism…I believe in the subconscious mind, in the hereafter, in the Almighty God."

Houdini: "My religion and my belief in the Almighty have been assailed. I stated yesterday that I do believe in the Almighty. I have always believed and I will always believe. I am a Mason, and you must believe in God to be a Mason."

But I appreciate you sharing your worldview take on this and how Houdini's life and death could have been part of God's plan. It doesn't quite resonate for me. Unlike Houdini, I am an atheist. But it might resonate for others. So thank you.

Bess Houdini

Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner was born in Brooklyn, New York (before New York City was consolidated) in 1876 to German immigrants Gebhard Rahner (a cabinet maker) and Balbina Rahner (née Bugel).

Bess was working at Coney Island in a song and dance act called The Floral Sisters when she was first courted by Houdini's younger brother, Theo (a.k.a. Theodore Hardeen). But it was the older Houdini brother, Harry, that she fell in love with and married on June 22, 1894. [2] The pair worked as The Houdinis for several years before Houdini hit it big as The Handcuff King. But he and Bess continued to occasionally perform their signature trick, Metamorphosis, throughout his career. Bess also looked after their menagerie of pets, collected dolls, and made the costumes for Houdini's full evening roadshow. [3] The Houdinis remained childless throughout their marriage. Bess's niece, Marie Hinson Blood, said Bess suffered from a medical condition that prevented her from having children. [4]

After Houdini died on October 31, 1926, Bess opened a tea house in New York, and briefly performed a vaudeville act in which she froze a man in ice. [5]

She moved to Inwood, Manhattan, and would try to contact Harry during seances, with a code that only Harry and Bessie knew about, to be sure that the spirit medium was not a fraud. [6] The code was: Rosabelle – answer – tell – pray – answer – look – tell – answer – answer – tell. Bess' wedding band bore the inscription "Rosabelle", the name of the song she sang in her act when they first met. The other words correspond to a secret spelling code used to pass information between a magician and his assistant during a mentalism act. Each word or word pair equals a letter. The word "answer" stood for the letter "B", for example. "Answer, answer" stood for the letter "V". Thus, the Houdinis' secret phrase spelled out the word "BELIEVE". [7]

In the 1930s she moved to Hollywood, California, and worked to promote Houdini's memory along with her manager and partner, Edward Saint. On Halloween 1936, Bess and Saint conducted a "Final Houdini Séance" on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. At the conclusion of the failed séance, beside a photograph of Houdini, she put out the candle that was said to have burned for ten years. In 1943 she said "ten years [was] long enough to wait for any man." [8]

After the 1936 séance, Bess asked Walter B. Gibson—writer of the mystery series The Shadow and a friend, confidant, publicist and ghostwriter for Houdini—to carry on the yearly tribute. He held them for many years at New York's Magic Towne House with such magical notables as Houdini biographer Milbourne Christopher. Before he died, Gibson passed on the tradition [9] to Dorothy Dietrich. [10]

Bess Houdini died from a heart attack on February 11, 1943 while in Needles, California, aboard an eastbound train traveling from Los Angeles to New York City. She was 67 years old. [11] [12] [13] Her family would not allow her to be interred with her late husband at the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York as she had been raised a Roman Catholic and he was a Jew. She is interred instead at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.

In film Edit

Bess Houdini appeared as herself in the 1938 film Religious Racketeers (a.k.a. Mystic Circle Murder) directed by Frank O'Conner and produced by Fanchon Royer. In the film, she expressed her belief that communication with those who have died is impossible. The film sparked controversy among spiritualists, but was praised by magicians. It was released on DVD in 2006 by Alpha Video. [14]

Bess has been portrayed in film by Janet Leigh (Houdini, 1953), Sally Struthers (The Great Houdini, 1976), Stacy Edwards (Houdini, 1998), and Kristen Connolly (Houdini, 2014). On stage, she has been played by Judith Bruce (Man of Magic, 1966), Viviane Thomas (Houdini – A Circus Opera, 1979), Kim Lores (The Great Houdini, 1999), and Evanna Lynch ("Houdini", 2013). [15] [16] [17]

In music Edit

The Kate Bush song Houdini from her 1982 album The Dreaming is about the story of Bess Houdini and her attempts to communicate with her deceased husband Harry. [ citation needed ]

The My Chemical Romance song This Is How I Disappear was inspired by the séance performed by Houdini to contact her dead husband, Harry. [18]

Bálint Varga and Lia Barcellona Tamborra's 2020 album musical/audiobook d'ILLUSION: The Houdini Musical depicts Harry and Bess' relationship as part of the plot. She is portrayed by Quiana Holmes. [19] [20] [21] [22] [23]

Harry Houdini: From Appleton to the World

The Official Houdini Seance, held each year since the magician's death in 1926, originated from Houdini's efforts to expose fraudulent mediums. He claimed that if there were truly a way to contact the living after one's death, he would do so. He set up a code with his wife Bess, who faithfully attended the annual seances and awaited his return for 10 years, after which time she gave up. The séance is held each year in a location with a significant connection to Houdini's life.

Although Houdini claimed to have been born on April 6, 1874 in Appleton, Wisconsin, he actually was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. Recently discovered ship's logs indicate that the Weiss family moved to Appleton when Houdini was a toddler. The family came to America because of a job opportunity for Houdini's father, Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss, who became Appleton's first rabbi. While Houdini wasn't born in Appleton, he fondly referred to it as his hometown.

Buster Keaton claimed that Houdini coined his nickname. After seeing some of Keaton's work falling down a staircase, Houdini called him "a real buster," and the name stuck.

Houdini was known as a debunker of fake mediums and spiritualists. His interest began during his bereavement after the death of his mother, Cecilia Weiss. Because of his background as an illusionist, he recognized the techniques of mediums who claimed to have contacted the spirit world. Houdini became a crusader against these charlatans who bilked grieving families of their money. He frequently attended séances in disguise in order to expose the mediums.

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the famous Sherlock Holmes character, was a contemporary and admirer of Houdini's. Ironically, Doyle was known for the logical explanations in the Holmes stories, yet he truly believed that Houdini's escapes and illusions were supernatural phenomena.

Who Killed Harry Houdini?

The legendary magician Harry Houdini died on Halloween 90 years ago at the age of 52. Known for his dramatic escapes, Houdini was ultimately killed by a punch to the gut from a college student.

In October&nbsp1926, Houdini lectured a group of college students in Montreal, Canada. Staying past the lecture to talk more intimately with the students, he ( bragged about the strength of his stomach muscles. Without giving Houdini any time to prepare his muscles, J. Gordon Whitehead, a McGill University student, punched him twice in the stomach in quick succession.

Soldiering on, Houdini continued to Detroit after the incident where he performed for the very last time Oct. 24, 1926, at the Garrick Theater. He complained of pain, and according to some ( reports passed out multiple times during the show, but Houdini finished the performance before heading back to his room at the Statler and meeting with doctors. The doctors diagnosed him with appendicitis but his condition quickly deteriorated and the magician was taken to Grace Hospital in downtown Detroit.

Houdini remained in the hospital for a week where he had two operations to repair his ruptured appendix. But he had developed ( peritonitis, an infection of the abdominal cavity caused by a ruptured appendix. Houdini died in room 401 of Grace Hospital on Halloween 1926.

Houdini's wife, Bess, conducted several [email protected] to contact her husband spirit after he died, following an agreement the two had made earlier in life. She was never able to contact him and eventually condemned the whole experiment as a failure.

Harry Houdini's war against spiritualism

As the 1920s rolled around, Houdini was a living legend, not just among his ardent fans but within the stage magician community. Now elevated to the illustrious position of President of the Society of American Magicians, Houdini gained something he'd never had as a young man: influence. It was at this stage of his career that Houdini doubled down on what would become a life-long war against spiritualism. Houdini's obsession with debunking the tricks of psychic performers placed him at odds with the magical community.

Houdini's crusade culminated in a public falling out with his close friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. According to The Guardian, Doyle was an ardent believer in the supernatural, and the men had a very public spat when Houdini described one medium of the time as a "human leech." It was an odd chapter in the life of these two famous figures. A stage magician whose life revolved around misdirection became a staunch advocate for skepticism, while the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, a character of pure rationality, became the poster child for blind faith in the supernatural. The two titans remained at odds for the rest of Houdini's life.

What Killed Harry Houdini? - HISTORY

Few people in any field of human endeavor rise to become the unquestioned “top-dog” in their profession in their generation, let alone of all time. But ask almost anyone who the greatest illusionist / escape artist in history was and take the proverbial “dollars to doughnuts” wager that they’ll say “Houdini”.

The Houdini legend persists, and indeed, seems to grow even larger with each passing decade. But we’re not here to talk about Houdini’s life. Rather, we’re going to discuss the truth about how he died.

Thanks to the hugely popular (and largely fictional) 1953 film Houdini, starring Tony Curtis, a common myth you’ll often hear concerning how Houdini died is that he drowned failing to escape from a water tank during a performance, having to ultimately be pulled from the tank as depicted in the film.

The real story of how Houdini died is very different.

When Harry Houdini and his entourage arrived at The Garrick Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 1926, the Hungarian-born magician and escape artist was running a fever of about 102-104 degrees Fahrenheit. Two days before this, Houdini had been resting in his dressing room prior to a show in Montreal when a college student named J. Gordon Whitehead approached him. It’s difficult to determine exactly what happened from here as accounts from eye witnesses are slightly conflicting. However, the general story seems to be that Whitehead asked Houdini if the claim that he could withstand any punch to the abdomen had any truth to it. Houdini assured him it was true and gave him permission to see for himself.

Whitehead immediately took a few jabs at Houdini’s mid-section while the magician was still reclining (he had recently broken his ankle in his famous Water-Torture Cell escape) and supposedly didn’t have a chance to prepare for the blows from the over exuberant Whitehead. The punches inflicted more pain than Houdini anticipated, and after a few fists to the gut, he motioned for Whitehead to stop. Despite the extreme physical pain that continued even after Whitehead ceased punching him, not to mention his broken ankle, Houdini insisted the evening’s scheduled performance must go on as planned.

By the time Houdini was heading for his next show in Detroit, his condition had deteriorated badly. He was running a high fever and, though refusing to go to the hospital, was nevertheless examined by a physician before the show. The doctor diagnosed Houdini with acute appendicitis and recommended he head immediately to the hospital for surgery. Houdini refused and took the stage.

He began the performance with several vanishing acts, culminating with making a woman disappear and conjuring a flowering shrub in her place. He made it through the first act, but his conditioned worsened and he was forced to have his assistant finish the show.

After the show was over, Houdini headed back to his hotel to rest up, but his wife, Bess, reportedly “threw a tantrum” that he wasn’t going to the hospital and so a physician was called in to examine him yet again. The conclusion was that Houdini needed immediate hospitalization and surgery. Houdini was still not keen on the idea, but after consulting with his personal physician, Dr. William Stone, over the phone, he finally gave in an agreed to go to Grace Hospital in Detroit to have an emergency appendectomy.

Once at the hospital, it was established that Houdini had peritonitis due to a ruptured appendix. At the time, it was speculated that the aforementioned blows to his abdomen may have been the cause of his appendicitis. In fact, the conclusion made by the life insurance company, who then had to pay double indemnity because of their findings, was that the punches to Houdini’s abdomen had ruptured his appendix.

This was a reasonable diagnosis at the time, but today it’s generally thought that this likely did not play a direct role in his appendix rupturing as such cases are exceptionally rare and from accounts, it’s thought Houdini was already suffering from the onset of appendicitis at the time of the blows. That said, it has been speculated that the pain from Whitehead’s punches may have served to mask the true seriousness of the condition, with Houdini perhaps assuming he was suffering non-life threatening pains from the blows. In the era before antibiotics, the secondary infection caused by a ruptured appendix was almost always fatal, so it was critical to get the appendix out before this happened. Thus, the theory goes that had Houdini not been punched, he might have sought medical attention sooner. However, this seems doubtful given that even as his condition worsened to life threatening levels, he still refused to heed the physicians who looked him over.

Whatever the case, as alluded to, doctors performed emergency surgery to remove Houdini’s ruptured appendix, but the damage was already done. Harry Houdini held on for about a week at Grace Hospital, but finally succumbed on October 31, 1926. He was 52 years old.

Despite the fact that Houdini believed spiritualism was a load of bunk and went out of his way to discredit it every chance he got, before he died, he promised his wife Bess that if he could possibly communicate “from the other side,” he would do so on the 10th anniversary of his death. At the appointed time, Bess attempted to contact Houdini during a séance held on Halloween, 1936, but to no avail. Pretty much ever since, various purveyors of the paranormal have attempted to do the same on Halloween, but with just as little luck.

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It was 100 years ago today on July 17, 1913, that Houdini's mother, Cecelia Steiner Weiss, died after suffering a stroke. When the news of her death reached Houdini who was performing in Copenhagen, he fainted.

It took Houdini several days to make it back to New York. The family delayed burial (against Jewish custom) so Houdini could have one last look at his mother. He placed in her casket a pair of woolen slippers which she had asked him to get her in Europe.

Houdini's mother's death might have been the single most important event in his life. His worship of his mother is well-known, and those who knew him said he was never quite the same man after her death. He mourned for months, even ordering new stationary rimmed in black. On November 22, 1913, he wrote to his brother Theo (Hardeen):

Even a full seven months after Cecelia's death, Houdini was still struggling with his grief. On January 19, 1914, he again writes to Theo:

Now, every Hollywood Houdini biopic, most documentaries, and even some magicians will tell you that after his mother died Houdini attended seances in the hopes to communicate with her. But all he found was fraud. He then set out to expose fraudulent mediums and launched into a new wave of his career as an anti-Spiritualism crusader and debunker.

It's a good story. Trouble is, it's not strictly true. In fact, the notion that Houdini's mother's death lead directly to his anti-Spiritualism crusade has grown to become one of the most permissive of all Houdini myths.

So what did Houdini do after his mother died? We know he took three months off and he and Bess travelled to the South of France (where he took a morbid interest in a cemetery for suicides). He also spent a lot of time at her grave site in Machpelah Cemetery. But unless it's found in dairies or letters that I haven't yet read, there is nothing to support the idea that Houdini attended a single séance after his mother died. In fact, it would be 10 years before Houdini unmasked his first medium. And to suggest that his interest in Spiritualism was sparked by her death is clearly false.

Houdini's interest and attitudes toward Spiritualism goes all the way back to his childhood. In the excellent book, Houdini and Conan Doyle, author Christopher Sandford says that Houdini attended a series of seances at age 11 in an attempt to communicate with his recently deceased half-brother, Hermann. Later, when his father died, Houdini sold his watch to attend a "professional psychic reunion" with Rabbi Weiss. But even at this young age, the boy who would become Houdini sensed fraud. Certainly these experiences could be seen as the psychological fodder for his later hostility towards fraudulent mediums.

In his teens Houdini and his friend Joseph Rinn attended séances and smoked out the methods of mediums. Houdini even suggested some pretty aggressive ideas for exposures (see: That time Houdini threatened to shoot all the psychics). Later Houdini and Bess would dabble in performing as psychic mediums themselves, something Houdini eventually found too distasteful to continue. But he continued to collect books on Spiritualism and eventually amassed a large library on the subject. He even attended the trial of Anne Rothe, The Flower Medium, in Germany in 1902. This is all well before his mother dies.

Just the notion that Harry Houdini would turn to a medium in 1913 is pretty improbable in itself. Houdini had by this time amassed a lifetime of experience that told him Spiritualism was hokum. Also, Spiritualism itself was somewhat in eclipse at this time, stuck between the stage shows of the Davenports and later parlor masters like Margery. It would take a World War to give the old act a boost and new relevance. Not only does Houdini not turn to Spiritualism after his mother dies, this is actually a time when he seems least interested in the subject, along with much of America.

The true genesis of Houdini's anti-Spiritualism crusade is rooted in his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After World War I Spiritualism was suddenly back in vogue. Doyle, who lost his son in the War, became a passionate champion of "the movement." Houdini has a lifetime of experience with the tricks of the trade, so he and Doyle had a topic to discuss when they met in 1920. This was thrilling for Houdini who always craved attention as a scholar and intellectual.

In fact, there is some evidence that Houdini was toying with a pro Spiritualism position at this time. His 1922 film, The Man From Beyond, ends with his character reading a book by Doyle and nodding in agreement. It is a major endorsement of Doyle that can't be ignored. But maybe Houdini was just trying to get closer to his new intellectual friend (he was thrilled that Doyle endorsed the film). This could have also had more to do with Houdini's belief in reincarnation than Spiritualism. But I digress.

It's in the company of Doyle that the major link between Cecelia Weiss and Spiritualism occurs. On June 17, 1922, Lady Doyle gives Houdini a séance in which she channels "HER" via Automatic Writing. Lady Doyle makes embarrassing mistakes (like writing in English and making the sign of the cross), but Houdini is polite and keeps his thoughts to himself. Sir Arthur takes this as a sign that Houdini has been swayed to the side of the spirits and says so publicly.

Now Houdini has to speak out on the topic, and what he has to say isn't complimentary. Doyle responds defensively, and suddenly Houdini is in a public debate with one of the great intellectuals of the age. THIS is what drives him to go after mediums. He is going to win this fight at all costs, which is very Houdini. He also discovers that it makes for fantastic theater and gives his career the boost that he didn't get with his movies. So Houdini becomes a debunker of fraudulent mediums. This is 10 years after the death of Cecelia Weiss.

The reason for the direct linkage to his mother's death may come from the Doyle séance, and Houdini's own statements that he did long to speak with his mother again. As with many myths, Houdini had a hand in shaping it. It's also just irresistibly convenient storytelling, which is why every Hollywood movie and quickie documentary takes this narrative bridge. However, in crossing that bridge, what gets lost is 10 important years of Houdini's life. We don’t hear about his World War I activities, the vanishing elephant, and his entire movie career. Ten years lost! Don't you hate it when that happens?

So today as we remember the great Cecelia Steiner Weiss, mother of Houdini, lets also begin to unravel years of mythology about her death sending her son among the spirits. They both deserve it.

Watch the video: Harry Houdinis Grave (July 2022).


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