His name is synonymous with magic, but Harry Houdini (born Erich Weiss) rose to fame as an escape artist and stunt performer. Long before David Blaine, Houdini perfected the art of death-defying public spectacle. He hung from skyscrapers while tied in a straightjacket and immersed himself in freezing rivers while trapped in a barrel.
The son of a rabbi, Houdini became a strong moral figure in the magic community often resolving disputes between competing magicians. In 1906 he started the magazine Conjurer’s Monthly helping to unite magicians who had no union at the time.
Legend has it that Houdini was killed by a punch to the stomach. Though parts of the story are accurate, it’s not the whole truth.
On October 18, 1926, Houdini was scheduled to perform at the Princess Theater in Montreal. On the day of the performance, Houdini gave a lecture at McGill University about exposing fraudulent spiritualists and mediums. After the speech, three students visited Houdini backstage.
As the students entered the dressing room, Houdini was lying on a couch reading mail. One of the students, Joselyn Gordon Whitehead, brought up the question of Houdini’s strength and his ability to take a punch to the stomach. Houdini stated this stomach could resist much, but did not offer to test the statement. He remained reclined on the couch having broken his ankle a few days earlier while performing the Water-Torture Cell Escape.
Suddenly, Whitehead struck several fierce blows into Houdini’s gut. Houdini winced in pain and gestured for the student to stop. Houdini had not been given time to prepare. Had he known the punches were coming, he would have stood up.
By mid-afternoon, Houdini was suffering from severe stomach pain. He made it through that evening’s performance as well as two more shows the next day. On a train to Detroit for a week of new shows, the stomach pain was insufferable. Houdini’s wife Bess wired ahead for a doctor who met them atthe Detroit theater dressing room. Houdini had a 104-degree temperature.
The doctor urged Houdini to go straight to the hospital. Houdini proclaimed, “I’ll do this show if it’s my last.” By the show’s third act, Houdini could not continue. His assistants finished the act and Houdini was rushed to the hospital.
The surgeon determined Houdini had a ruptured appendix and was suffering from peritonitis. These were the days before antibiotics and Houdini’s condition was serious. Houdini hung on for four days before undergoing a second operation. Though he seemed to be recovering, Houdini died a few days later on Halloween.
Newspapers reported that the blows to Houdini’s stomach had killed him. Today, medical experts agree that appendicitis caused by blunt trauma is not possible. Houdini was likely already suffering from appendicitis when Whitehead punched him. (His wife Bess confirmed Houdini was in discomfort for weeks.) Houdini possibly wrote off his pain as a residual effect from the blows thus delaying the medical treatment that might have saved his life. At the time of his death, Houdini was just 52 years old.