Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, illusionist, and magician, was in Detroit on October 24, 1926 and performing at the Garrick Theatre during a successful tour when he succumbed to enormous pain. Only after the resolute performer had concluded the show was he examined by physicians and rushed to Grace Hospital. He was at the height of his career and 52 years old. He died 7 days later.
Born Erich Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874, Houdini was the son of a rabbi. A progeny at a very early age as a contortionist and trapeze artist, by 9 years old, Houdini joined a traveling circus as a performer. As he grew older, he developed his skills, with his tricks becoming more risky and formidable. Almost all of his illusions were his own works, and he kept his secrets guarded among his few trusted assistants. He was capable of freeing himself from handcuffs, padlocks, chains, bindings, and straitjackets, and had successfully accomplished feats where he was buried alive. He escaped from dozens of famous prison cells in Europe and America, including the one in Washington, DC where President Garfield’s assassin had been held. He was the author of several books and maintained a remarkable library at his home in New York.
Houdini was also an ardent exposer of mediums and spiritualists. He had tried his hand at the medium business and mastered the craft, but masquerading as a medium wasn’t something that he was proud of, and so he focused his energy on debunking mediums and psychics. As much as he wanted to believe in spiritual contact from the afterlife, even making pacts with friends numbering in the hundreds to communicate with him after their deaths, he never received any signs. He also told his wife Bess that upon his death he would try to communicate with her, and devised a secret code so that she would indeed know that it was him.
His final tour began in the fall of 1926 and was cursed with problems. Bess was suffering from ptomaine poisoning, and in early October, a chain fractured Houdini’s ankle during his famous Chinese water torture cell escape. On October 19, in Montreal, Canada, he delivered a lecture to a group of McGill University students about his life as an escape artist and exposing mediums. At a reception following the lecture, he mentioned how he could tighten certain abdominal muscles and withstand the hardest punches anyone could inflict upon him. Later, a student approached Houdini with a sketch he had drawn of him. Houdini was so impressed that he invited the student to come backstage at the Princess Theatre after his show and do a full portrait. The student, Samuel Smilovitch, brought along his friends Jack Price and Joselyn Gordon Whitehead. Whitehead brought up Houdini’s incredible strength and his ability to withstand blows to his stomach, and after receiving permission, repeatedly took shots at Houdini’s stomach in an effort to prove he could indeed hurt him. Houdini may not have had time to prepare for the physical blows, and was in a compromised reclining position when they were dealt.
Houdini began to suffer from severe stomach pains, but did not cancel any of his shows or his travel arrangements. He had 3 more shows in Montreal, and then took a train to perform in Detroit the next day. On October 23, he was suffering from pain and a fever of 104 degrees but went directly from the train to the theater. He maintained his “show must go on” mentality and entertained his fans. After the performance, physicians were summoned and diagnosed him with acute appendicitis. On October 24, surgery was performed to remove his appendix and they found the organ had ruptured. Houdini died of streptococcus peritonitis on October 31, 1926.
Physicians believe Houdini had been suffering from appendicitis for several days and that his appendix might have ruptured even without the stomach punches. The biggest issue was that he had not sought medical attention in a timely manner. Perhaps this was a result of him believing the pain was solely from the blows he had endured.
As for communicating with his wife from the afterlife, Bess offered rewards for any spiritualist who could give her word from her deceased husband, including the code they had agreed upon prior to his death. There were scores of mediums and séances to follow for Bess, causing emotional and physical stress. None offered the convincing proof she needed from her husband. The man who could overwhelm seemingly impossible barriers could not break through the ultimate one.
- Harry Houdini dies after operations. New York Times website. November 1, 1926. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0324.html.
- Harry Houdini’s last performance. Stones Detroit website. http://stonesdetroit.com/harry-houdinis-last-performance/.
- Punched out. Snopes website. Updated October 30, 2013. http://www.snopes.com/horrors/freakish/houdini.asp.