On 31 October 1926, world-renowned escape artist Harry Houdini collapsed on stage in Michigan after performing the final show of his life in agony. He died that evening, and four days later his solemn funeral procession wound its way through New York City, attended by over 2,000 mourners.
But after a lifetime of death-defying stunts, what killed Houdini on that fateful Halloween?
A deadly challenge
On 22 October 1926, Houdini was relaxing in his dressing room at the Princess Theatre in Montreal, Canada, sifting through his mail and resting his ankle, which he had broken in a show a few days earlier.
Three students from McGill University arrived at his dressing room, apparently to return a borrowed book. One of these was 31-year-old Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead. Whitehead reportedly asked Houdini “if he believed in the miracles of the Bible”, and queried whether he could really withstand any blow to the abdomen, as had been previously proclaimed.
Houdini mused that his stomach could withstand a lot. Suddenly and forcefully, Whitehead began to punch him hard in the abdomen, delivering ‘hammer-like blows’ upon the magician. Laid back on the sofa with a broken ankle, Houdini was unable to stand and protect himself, and the assault only ceased when he began to gesture that he had had enough, gasping that he had not had time to brace himself.
It is unknown whether Whitehead believed Houdini to be braced for the impact or whether he had intentionally sought to hurt him, yet his actions that evening would send Houdini’s health on a rapid downward spiral.
The show must go on
Harry performed his show that evening in immense agony, and the pain would continue to plague him for the next two days. Unable to sleep, he was prompted by his wife Bess to see a doctor and was found to be suffering from acute appendicitis with a raging fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius).
He was instructed to have immediate surgery, yet ignored this advice and continued on with his show that evening on 24 October at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit, Michigan. It would be his last performance.
In debilitating pain, reports say Houdini collapsed during the show, yet was revived and continued on. Afterwards, he was rushed to Grace Hospital in Detroit, but could not be saved. A week later he died there of a ruptured appendix aged 52, with his last words reportedly, “I’m tired of fighting… I do not want to fight anymore…”
Death of an icon
After interviewing the other students, Houdini’s insurance company concluded that his death was caused by the incident in the dressing room that fateful night. But Whitehead was never charged.
As the relationship between appendicitis and blunt force trauma remains uncertain, today no one can be sure what exactly caused Houdini’s death. It has been proposed however that had he not received those punches that evening, he may have been more acutely aware of the appendicitis he was suffering.
Four days after his death, Houdini’s body was transported to New York City for his funeral, arriving by train to the magnificent Grand Central Station, completed just 13 years before. Providing a fitting end to the great illusionist’s life, he was buried in Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens, in the very same casket he had used in many of his stunning performances.
On his gravesite was inscribed the crest of the Society of American Magicians, of which he had served as president for nearly 10 years. A broken wand ceremony was held at his grave by the society, in which his wand was symbolically broken in half to indicate the loss of its magic. The society continues to hold this ceremony every year at his grave.
The final trick?
Even in death, the magic of Harry Houdini endured through the efforts of his wife, Bess. During their lifetimes, Houdini and Bess had promised that if one of them should die, the other should attempt to contact them from beyond the grave. Bess held up this promise.
When trying to contact Harry during seances, she used a code familiar only to herself and her husband – spelling out the word “BELIEVE” – ensuring that any spirit medium they used was not a fraud. Houdini himself had always been stringent in calling out false spiritualists and was enthusiastic about upholding the professionalism of his craft.
For years she received no luck in her supernatural endeavours, and on Halloween 1936, the 10th anniversary of Houdini’s death, Bess conducted a “Final Houdini Séance” on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. A final and undoubtedly disappointing failure, she at last put out the candle said to have burned for ten years in his absence, solemnly stating, “it is ﬁnished. Goodnight, Harry.”
She would later state, “ten years [was] long enough to wait for any man.”