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 straight jacket. He immersed himself in frozen rivers while trapped in a barrel. His most famous stunt was the Chinese Water Torture Cell where he was shackled in a glass tank overfilled with water and had to escape before drowning.
The son of a rabbi, Houdini was 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, he 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, a man named Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, brought up the question of Houdini’s strength and his ability to take a punch to the stomach. Houdini said his stomach could resist much, but he did not offer to take a punch. He remained reclined on the couch having broken his ankle a few days earlier while performing the Water-Torture Cell Escape.
Without warning, Whitehead struck several fierce blows to 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 and tightened his abdominal muscles.
By mid-afternoon, Houdini was suffering severe stomach pain. He made it through the evening’s performance as well as two more shows the following day. On a train to Detroit for a week of new shows, his stomach pain was agonizing. Houdini’s wife Bess wired ahead for a doctor to meet them at the Detroit theater dressing room. At that point, Houdini also 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 third act, Houdini could not continue. His assistants finished the…