The Death of Harry Houdini

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

Few men (or women) in any field of human endeavor rise to become the unequivocal, undisputed, unquestioned "top dog" #1 person in that field. Shakespeare. Babe Ruth. Michael Jordan. Thomas Edison. Fred Astaire. The list is a very short one.

But ask almost anyone on the planet to name a famous magician and take the proverbial "dollars to doughnuts" wager that they'll say "Houdini!" The Houdini legend persists, and indeed, seems to grow larger with each passing year. This fact stems, at least partly, from a hugely popular 1953 film called Houdini starring Tony Curtis. This very successful film was a largely fictional account of the life of the great Houdini (even the fact of the magician's physical appearance was untruthful).

Houdini himself looked nothing like the Greek god-looking Curtis. The magician was actually a squat, fairly severe-looking Jewish fellow. Other facts are ignored or omitted in the movie.

Houdini, in his storied life, was also a moderately successful movie actor (he appeared in several silent shorts) and was also a highly successful airplane pilot -he made the first successful, sustained, powered flight in the continent of Australia. Be that as it may, the legend of Houdini the magician/escapologist lives on, and if Harry Houdini (born Erich Weiss), the most famous magician/escapologist of all time, lives on as legend fodder to each passing generation, his death has become a key part of that legend.


The story runs like this: Houdini was in Montreal, in his dressing room after a show, when a young American student named J. Gordon Whitehead was shown into his dressing room. After they chatted, Whitehead asked Houdini if it was true that punches in his stomach didn't hurt him. Houdini replied in the affirmative, and Whitehead promptly asked if he could punch him in his gut.

Houdini agreed, but before the magician could brace himself, the young man hauled off and smacked him cold in the breadbasket several times (by some accounts, Whitehead only delivered one devastating punch). Houdini, shocked by the harsh blows, doubled up in pain. Later that afternoon, Houdini complained of a stomachache, but struggled through two more shows.

Two days later in Detroit, the pain became so severe that Houdini was forced to abandon his performance -although he did not collapse onstage, or have to be rescued from the Chinese water torture tank, as depicted in the Curtis picture. Houdini was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. Despite surviving two operations to remove the appendix, the infection spread and Houdini died of peritonitis -infection of the intestinal wall- about a week later.

The world's greatest magician died on Halloween- October 31st, 1926.


The assumption made by both the doctors who treated him, and the life insurance company that paid the claim, was that the punches to the stomach had ruptured Houdini's appendix. This was a reasonable diagnosis at the time. But we now know that this would be the only case in recorded history of abdominal trauma ever leading to death in this way.

Medical opinion now suggests that Houdini already suffered from appendicitis, and the pain from Whitehead's punches served to mask the true seriousness of the condition. Put another way, if he hadn't been punched in the stomach he might well have consulted a doctor before his appendix burst, increasing his chances for survival. In the era before antibiotics, the secondary infection caused by a rupture was almost always fatal. But this isn't the only false legend to surround Houdini's death.

Another was this: spiritualists, resentful of Houdini's tireless attempts to unmask their tricks and discredit their profession, poisoned him. This specious claim culminated in 2007, when Houdini's great-nephew, George Hardeen, announced that he had applied to have the body exhumed to test for the presence of poison. In fact, the application was never made and the whole story was later revealed to be a publicity stunt organized by the authors of a 2006 book The Secret Life of Houdini, which had done much to peddle the poisoning theory.

The truth is, during his later life, Houdini was highly skeptical of the "art" of spiritualism and devoted many years to debunking spiritualists and mediums, including attending many seances. As a trained magician, he was savvy to many of the tricks fake mediums and spiritualists used to con their trusting customers.

Before he died, Houdini promised his beloved wife, Bess, that if he could possibly communicate "from the other side" after his death, he would do so at a seance on the 10th anniversary of his death. The two made a secret pact and a code was agreed upon: the phrase "Rosabelle believe" (a phrase from a show the two appeared in together when they first met). If Houdini could possibly communicate to Bess after death, he would identify himself by uttering this phrase.

A seance was held every year after Houdini's death, with no results. Finally, on October 31st, 1936, ten years to the day of Houdini's death, the "great" seance was held in the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, California. Bess sat waiting to hear the magical words "Rosabelle believe" while 300 curious witnesses and bystanders looked on. The highly-anticipated Halloween evening came up disappointingly empty.

After ten unsuccessful years, Bess finally put out the candle she had kept burning beside her late husband's photograph since his passing a decade earlier. Sadly and pathetically, Bess, grieving and in need of attention, once staged a phony communication with her late husband, which she later recanted.

Ironically, although Houdini was fiercely against seances and any kind of spiritualism, the annual "Houdini seance" is routinely held every Halloween by magicians the world over.

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