According to legend, the magician, illusionist, and master escape artist Harry Houdini died on Halloween in 1926. As the story goes, an overeager fan literally punched him in the gut, causing his appendix to rupture. But it might not be the case. Are these two events – his death and the literally gut-wrenching event – really linked?
Houdini defied the impossible throughout his mystifying career, which turned him into a household name that still gets mentioned even today. He was known for swallowing needles to pulling himself out of a dead whale. His famous “Chinese Water Torture Cell” stunt dazzled millions. So how could it be that something as “minor” as a punch to the gut ended it all? And the fact that he died on Halloween only made the circumstances surrounding his death even more eerie and hard to believe. In fact, the mystery and speculation have fascinated people ever since.
For more than 30 years, Harry Houdini dazzled his audiences with brave (albeit insane) stunts and superhuman endurance. The master escape artist would do things like jump off bridges wearing handcuffs and leg irons. He would slither out of sealed, oversized milk cans (of all things) filled with water, and he escaped from a “Chinese Water Torture Cell” after being submerged and suspended upside down by his ankles.
The audience, hearts in their mouths, would watch as Houdini made his getaways. While his stunts usually involved trickery and sleight-of-hand, they were also loaded with real life-threatening risk. In 1915, for instance, Houdini almost suffocated during a stunt which had him shackled and buried under six feet of dirt.
The wild and incredible Houdini made a successful career out of surviving the impossible, which only makes the scenario of his death all the more mysterious. After decades of death-defying tricks, the 52-year-old performed for a packed house in Detroit on October 24, 1926. But after the show, he was rushed to the hospital with an apparent case of appendicitis.
He died a week later, on Halloween, leaving his admirers in a state of confusion and awe. His obituary in The New York Times left readers in shock at the sudden passing of a man “who so often had seemed to thousands to be cheating the very jaws of death.”
Harry Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874 as Erik Weisz, one of seven children. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1878, on the S.S. Fresia. Once in the country, the Jewish family changed their name to the German spelling Weiss, and Erik then became Ehrich.
They lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, on Appleton Street – an area now known as Houdini Square. By 1882, the family moved to Milwaukee and fell into grim poverty. In 1887, Ehrich and his father, a rabbi, moved to New York City to live in a boarding house on East 79th Street. Once they found permanent housing, the rest of the family joined. As a child, Ehrich was forced to take several jobs. He made his public debut as a 9-year-old trapeze artist. He called himself “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.”
He started his career in stunts at an early age. His start as a trapeze artist at age nine was just the beginning. By 1891, at the age of 17, he launched a Vaudeville career in magic. It was then that he changed his name to Harry Houdini – to honor the famous French magician, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.
As Houdini, he became known as the “handcuff king” who marveled his audiences around the world with his daring escapes. His most famous escape – the water torture cell in 1913 – involved having only two minutes to escape. Obviously, he pulled it off, to the amusement and relief of his audiences.
Houdini was theatrical and had charisma. His rise coincided with a growing revolution of media in the early 20th century. It didn’t take long for him to soar to super-stardom. From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini was very successful in the US. He escaped from jails, chains, ropes, handcuffs and straitjackets – all while typically hanging from a rope in front of street audiences.
The possibility of both failure and even death kept his audiences hypnotized. He also wrote a collection of articles on the history of magic, which he published in 1908. Throughout his career, some of Houdini’s escapes became particularly notable. Let’s go through the most notorious ones…
In 1904, The London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from special handcuffs that the Mirror claimed took Nathaniel Hart (a locksmith) five years to make. 4,000 people, including over 100 journalists, watched as the escape attempt dragged on for more than an hour, with Houdini emerging from his “ghost house” (a small screen that concealed his methods) several times.
56 minutes after Houdini used a pen-knife to cut his coat off from his body – with his teeth – his wife Bess came on stage and gave him a kiss. (Many believed that she had the key to unlock the special handcuffs in her mouth, but the fact that the key was six inches makes that theory a little less likely.)
After 70 minutes, Houdini emerged free of the handcuffs. As he was being patted on the shoulders and cheered by the crowd, the escape artist broke down and wept. He later claimed that it was the most difficult escape of his career. Many modern biographers found evidence (mostly in the custom design of the handcuffs) that the Mirror challenge might have been arranged by Houdini himself.
They claim that his long struggle to escape was just a matter of showmanship. A full-sized design of those handcuffs as well as a replica of the key is on display at The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The set of cuffs is said to be one of only six in the world.
In 1908, Houdini brought his own original act, the Milk Can Escape, to the table. Houdini was handcuffed and locked inside an oversized milk can that was filled with water, and he made his escape behind a curtain. As part of the show, Houdini invited the members of his audience to hold their breath along with him for the time he was inside the can.
The posters leading up to the stunt read “Failure Means a Drowning Death.” Houdini then modified the act by locking the milk inside a wooden chest, chained or padlocked shut. This act was a regular part of his act for just four years, but it became one of the ones most associated with him.
Around 1912, after seeing the large number of Houdini imitators, Houdini decided to replace his milk can act with the water torture cell. His feet were locked in stocks, and he was lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The glass walls of the cell meant audiences could clearly see him, but a curtain concealed his escape. In the earliest version of the act, a metal cage was lowered in, and Houdini was enclosed inside it.
But the cage prevented him from turning. He used the original cell, built in England, in his first performance of the stunt, as part of a one-act play called “Houdini Upside Down.” It was for the sole purpose of copywriting the effect, giving him grounds to sue imitators – which he did. The escape is known as “The Chinese Water Torture Cell,” but Houdini always called it The Upside Down or USD. He performed the act until his death.
His next famous stunt involved being inside a nailed and roped packing crate that was lowered into water. The first time he performed it was in New York’s East River on July 7, 1912. Police restricted him from using one of the city’s piers, so he used a tugboat and even invited the press to come on board.
Houdini was then locked in handcuffs and leg-irons and entered the crate that was roped and weighed down with 200 lbs. of lead. The crate was lowered into the water. He escaped within 57 seconds. After the crate was pulled to the surface, people saw that everything was still intact. Houdini performed this act many times.
Houdini strapped himself into a regulation straitjacket and was suspended by his ankles from a tall building or a crane. He then made his escape in full view of the crowd. Many times, Houdini attracted tens of thousands of onlookers, bringing the city traffic to a halt. In New York City, he performed this escape from a crane that was being used to build the subway.
From the time he was hoisted up in the air to when the jacket was completely off, the escape took him two minutes and 37 seconds. One time, after being injured against a building wall due to high winds, Houdini started performing the act with a visible safety wire around his ankle. That way, he could be pulled away if necessary.
Houdini performed at least three versions of this stunt during his career. The first was time was in Santa Ana, California, in 1915. And it almost cost him his life. He was buried, with no casket, in a pit of earth six feet under. During that first performance, he got exhausted and panicked. He tried to dig his way to the surface and call for help.
As his hand broke the surface, he went unconscious and had to be pulled out by his assistants. He later wrote in his diary that the entire stunt was “very dangerous” and that “the weight of the earth is killing.” That was his first version of the notorious stunt. He learned what to do next time…
Houdini’s second version of the buried alive act was a sort of endurance test. It was designed to expose the mystical Egyptian performer of the time, Rahman Bey, who claimed to use “supernatural powers” to stay inside a sealed casket for an hour (more on his hatred of Spiritualism soon). On August 5, 1926, months before his death, Houdini remained in a sealed casket, submerged in a swimming pool at New York’s Hotel Shelton for 90 minutes.
His final buried alive performance was on a much more elaborate stage that occurred during a full evening show. He escaped after being strapped in a straitjacket, sealed in a coffin, and buried in a large tank of sand. The stunt was meant to be the feature escape of his upcoming 1927 season. But, of course, he died before that ever happened.
Rather ironically, the bronze casket he created for the buried alive act was used to transport his body from Detroit to New York after his death.
By 1926, at age 52, Houdini was at the top of his game. He was touring the country in the beginning of the year, performing escapes and enjoying fame. But his tour that fall was the beginning of the end. On October 11, Houdini ended up breaking his ankle while performing the water torture cell escape in Albany, New York.
Against his doctor’s orders, he pushed through the next several appearances. He then headed to Montreal, Canada. There, after a lecture concerning “spirit fraud,” Houdini schmoozed with the students and faculty. Among them was Samuel J. “Smiley” Smilovitch, who sketched the famous magician. Houdini loved the drawing so much that he invited Smiley to do a proper portrait on October 22.
Smiley came to visit Houdini at his dressing room with a friend, Jack Price, and a student named Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead. As Smiley sketched Houdini, Whitehead chatted with Houdini. After talking about Houdini’s physical strength, Whitehead asked him if it was true that he could endure even the strongest punch to the stomach.
Jack Price recalled the following in the book The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini: “Houdini remarked rather unenthusiastically that his stomach could resist much.” He described how Whitehead then went ahead and gave Houdini some “very hammer-like blows below the belt, first securing Houdini’s permission to strike him.” You see, Houdini was reclining on a couch at the time.
That day, on October 22, during what was supposed to be a time for his professional portrait, Whitehead struck Houdini at least four times, until Houdini motioned for him to stop mid-punch. According to Price, Houdini “looked as though he was in extreme pain and winced as each blow was struck.” This was a man who claimed that he could “resist much.”
According to Houdini, he didn’t think Whitehead would strike him so suddenly – otherwise he would have been better prepared for it. By that evening, Houdini was suffering – his stomach was in tremendous pain. The next evening, he left Montreal via overnight train to Detroit, Michigan. He asked a doctor to have a look at him.
The doctor ultimately diagnosed Houdini with acute appendicitis, telling him to go immediately to the hospital. But, he had a show that night in Detroit, at the Garrick Theater, with $15,000 worth of tickets already sold. Houdini reportedly said: “I’ll do this show if it’s my last.” And so, he carried on with the show, that night on October 24, despite a temperature of 104°F.
Between the first and second acts, he was given ice packs to cool down. Some reports say that he passed out during the performance. By the time the third act began, he had called off the show. Yet, he still refused to go to the hospital. That is, until his wife forced him to.
A physician from the hotel was then called, followed by his personal doctor, who at 3 a.m. finally convinced him to go to Grace Hospital. On the afternoon of October 25, surgeons removed Houdini’s appendix. But because he delayed treatment for so long, his appendix had already ruptured and the lining of his stomach was inflamed with what is called peritonitis.
Today, such a case would simply require a round of antibiotics. But this was 1926, and antibiotics wouldn’t be discovered for three more years. And so, the infection spread throughout Houdini’s body. His bowels became paralyzed and more surgery was needed. He ended up receiving two operations.
During one of the operations, he was injected with an experimental anti-streptococcal serum. At first, it seemed to help him recover somewhat, but he relapsed quickly, overcome by sepsis. At 1:26 p.m. on October 31, 1926, Houdini died in his wife’s arms. His last words were reportedly: “I’m getting tired and I can’t fight anymore.”
The question that surrounds Houdini’s death is whether or not there was a causal link between Whitehead’s punches to his ruptured organ. Back in 1926, such blows to the abdomen were believed to cause a ruptured appendix. However, these days, the medical community debates such a link. It’s possible that the uppercuts led to the appendicitis, but it’s also very possible that these two events just happened to coincide. Remember, as your math teacher always said, “Correlation does not infer causation.”
Houdini’s official cause of death was peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. But it’s said that such a case of “traumatic appendicitis” is extremely rare — one study found a few dozen instances over a 20-year period. But, again, it was 1926, and this diagnosis was widely accepted. Houdini’s life insurance company, by the way, had to pay his wife double coverage for her husband’s accidental death.
Houdini was buried in Queens on November 4, 1926, but theories about his unusual death have persisted ever since. Many of them focus on the magician’s hatred of Spiritualism, a pseudo-religion that claimed it was possible to communicate with the deceased through séances and mediums. Houdini, you see, was a born skeptic.
Spiritualism reached its peak popularity back in the 1920s. To give you a bit of perspective, World War I had just ended, killing 16 million people across the world. Then, the Spanish flu of 1918 wiped out 50 million more. The globe was traumatized by death. Thus, a religious movement that professed to keep the deceased somewhat alive was surely attractive.
With the movement came a flood of “mediums,” or people who turned into celebrities for their supposed ability to communicate with the dead. They used all sorts of tricks to fool people into thinking they had these supernatural abilities. Houdini, who used real laws of physics, couldn’t stand it.
In his most famous anti-Spiritualism debunking, Houdini showed up to two séances in 1924 held by Boston medium Mina Crandon, known as “Margery.” She claimed to be able to raise the voice of her dead brother Walter. She was up for a $2,500 prize, but she had to prove her spiritual powers to a six-person committee of respected scientists from Harvard, MIT, and other educational institutions.
Houdini, however, was intent on keeping her from winning that prize money. So, he went to her séances in the summer of 1924, and, as a witness, he was able to deduce how she performed her tricks. He saw how she would use a mix of distractions and contraptions.
Houdini recorded his findings in a pamphlet, adding drawings of how he thought her tricks worked. He even performed them for his own audiences – a play of sorts that was met with much laughter. As for Crandon’s supporters, they weren’t pleased. In August of 1926, Walter – speaking from the beyond – claimed that “Houdini will be gone by Halloween.”
That, my friends, turned out to be the case. To the spiritualists, Walter’s prediction of Houdini’s death was their proof that their religion is legitimate. To others, the skeptics, it only fueled a conspiracy theory that the spiritualists were to blame for the magician’s death — that he was actually poisoned, and that Whitehead was in on it…
Houdini spent much of the 1920s trying to debunk the Spiritualists’ claims, exposing the psychics as frauds. This career-long crusade cost him several million dollars’ worth of lawsuits as well as his fair share of enemies. Up until the day he died, he showed no signs of letting up. In fact, a few months prior to his death, he testified in front of Congress to support a bill that would outlaw fortune-telling in Washington, DC.
So, is it possible that Houdini’s meddling in this mysterious world of Spiritualism could have gotten him killed? In their 2006 biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman suggest that his death might have actually been a carefully planned assassination by those in the Spiritualist community.
“If one were to suspect Houdini a victim of foul play,” the book reads, “then the section of organized crime that was composed of fraudulent spirit mediums must be considered likely suspects.” The authors argue that members of the Spiritualist community had a history of poisoning their enemies. According to Kalush and Sloman, no autopsy was ever performed on Houdini to confirm that his death was indeed caused by appendicitis.
They also added that if someone really wanted to poison the magician, it wouldn’t have been very difficult. In the 2005 book The Man Who Killed Houdini, writer Don Bell proposed a theory: that Whitehead might have been in cahoots with the Spiritualists. Some of them even threatened to kill Houdini or beat him up.
Bell ultimately concluded that there just wasn’t enough evidence to prove that Whitehead was involved in a criminal plot. But others argued that he was an “enemy agent” who stalked Houdini during his time in Montreal. The true cause of Houdini’s death might never be truly known, but, for most scholars, the most pressing question is whether his ruptured appendix was a result of the stomach blows he received a few days earlier.
Such a case is indeed possible, but most will tell you that it’s more likely that Whitehead’s punches caused Houdini to ignore his already existing case of appendicitis. By the time he finally sought out medical treatment, it was already too late – at least according to this theory.
If you want to get a little bit wild, you can indulge yourself in the possibility of the most sought after source of information about Houdini’s death: Houdini himself. The magician had promised his wife that once he passed on, he would try to contact her from beyond the grave. Bess actually held an annual “Houdini séance” for 10 years before finally giving up in 1936.
In her tenth and last attempt to contact her late husband, Bess conducted a séance in Los Angeles. She stood with Dr. Edward Saint, who held a pair of handcuffs. Houdini had been the only one who knew the combination to unlock them. Houdini never “showed up” spiritually.
Fans and even fellow magicians have since made the annual séance a Halloween tradition. “They usually form a circle, hold hands and say they are friends of Houdini’s,” said an amateur magician who attended a séance in 1940s in New York City. “They ask for some sign that he can hear them. Then they wait five minutes or half an hour and nothing happens.”
So far, Houdini has “refused” to speak. At the end of the day, it only proves what he was trying to prove all along – that you can’t communicate with the dead. Houdini had a bone to pick with those who claimed otherwise. In his eyes, it was all a sham.
And now for some random facts…
Did you know that Houdini became an active Freemason? He also lived for many years in New York City. In 1904, he bought a townhouse on 278 West 113th Street in Harlem. It cost him $25,000 for the five-story, 6,008-square-foot house. He lived there with Bess and various other relatives until his last days. In March 2018, that very home was purchased for $3.6 million.
A plaque was placed on the building which reads: “The magician lived here from 1904 to 1926 collecting illusions, theatrical memorabilia, and books on psychic phenomena and magic.”
Fun fact: In 1918, the magician registered for selective service as Harry Handcuff Houdini.
Houdini’s brother, Theodore Hardeen, was also a magician. He returned to performing after his brother’s death, inheriting Houdini’s effects and props. In Houdini’s will, it was stipulated that all his effects be “burned and destroyed” after Hardeen’s death. Hardeen later sold most of the collection to a magician and Houdini enthusiast named Sidney Hollis Radner in the 1940s.
Included in the collection was the water torture cell. Radner then chose certain pieces to be displayed at The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls. But in 1995, a fire destroyed the museum. The metal frame of the water torture cell remained, though, and it was restored by illusion builder John Gaughan.
In 1918, Houdini signed a contract to star in a 15-part series called The Master Mystery. He was later signed by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures. With them, Houdini made two pictures, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920). While filming the movies in Los Angeles, Houdini rented a house in Laurel Canyon.
After his two-picture stint in Hollywood, he went back to New York and started his own production company, Houdini Picture Corporation. He produced and starred in two movies, The Man from Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). That’s when Theodore Hardeen left his career as a magician to run the company (only returning to magic after Houdini died).