The strange death of Harry Houdini: Accident – or murder?
Now you see him. Now you don’t. Hungarian-born Erik Weisz, known by his stage name Harry Houdini, wowed audiences with his mind-blowing illusions & insane stunts. Houdini began as a vaudeville magician at the turn of the 20th century, quickly progressing into a world-renowned escape artist. News of Houdini’s feats spread. Soon, people traveled far & wide to watch Houdini free himself from handcuffs, straight jackets, and even large milk cans filled with water.
Harry Houdini seemed indestructible. With every new performance, he raised the stakes. In 1912, he escaped a Chinese water torture cell, as well a secured crate submerged in New York’s Hudson River. He even buried himself alive without a casket, using his bare hands to dig toward the surface.
Thanks to his prestigious reputation and superior marketing skills, Harry Houdini transitioned into film acting while still working as an escape artist. Houdini’s career never waned. By the time he was 50, Harry Houdini maintained a busy & grueling touring schedule.
While on the road in 1926, 52-year-old Harry “Handcuff” Houdini’s reign of superhuman endurance came to an abrupt end. He died on Halloween at Grace Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. The cause of death: peritonitis brought on by a ruptured appendix.
A blow to the gut
Despite breaking his ankle in Albany, NY when performing his Chinese water torture cell escape in early October 1926, Harry Houdini kept his travelling commitments. Houdini arrived in Montreal, Canada on October 18, where he gave lectures and performed in theatres.
While visiting with fans in his dressing room at the Princess Theatre on October 22, Harry Houdini – ever the gracious host – accepted one McGill University student’s invitation to endure repeated punches to the abdomen. The student, Jocelyn Whitehead, wanted to know if the rumors about Houdini being unaffected by sustained blows to the gut were true.
Jocelyn Smith delivered one sharp & intense blow after the other to Harry Houdini’s abdomen until the famous stuntman asked the young man to stop. Thanks to his broken ankle, Houdini was unable to stand. It was more difficult for Houdini to brace himself while laying down, and he could only take so much.
The show must go on
The fans departed, but Harry Houdini’s discomfort lingered. Houdini complained of extreme & acute pain where Jocelyn Smith had punched him repeatedly. Still, he performed three shows in Montreal before taking a train to Detroit, where he had a two-week engagement.
When Harry Houdini performed at Detroit’s Garrick Theater on October 24, he had a fever of 104 °F. Houdini had already been informed by a doctor he had appendicitis and needed immediate surgery. He ignored this medical advice, passing out repeatedly during his act.
That afternoon, Harry Houdini was hospitalized at Detroit Grace Hospital, where he underwent surgery to have his appendix removed. During the surgery, hospital doctors discovered his appendix had ruptured, leading to inflammation & infection throughout Houdini’s abdominal area.
In the time before antibiotics, a ruptured appendix was a death sentence. Harry Houdini lingered for days before finally dying on Halloween. Witnesses report his final words were, “I’m tired of fighting. I do not want to fight anymore.”
The legend continues
2,000 mourners gathered in New York City for Harry Houdini’s funeral on November 4, 1926. The story about Houdini’s run-in with Jocelyn Smith circulated, and the media blamed Smith for Houdini’s death. Were the college student’s punches severe enough to burst Houdini’s appendix? Did Smith have it out for the beloved stuntman?
Contemporary medical research tells us the likelihood of Harry Houdini dying as a direct result of Jocelyn Smith’s blows to the guts is slim. Most experts now believe Houdini was probably dealing with the onset of appendicitis long before interacting with Smith. Still, medical anomalies can occur. Fans can go too far.
Whatever the truth, Harry Houdini’s acclaim as a master illusionist remains unmatched. Whether the victim of a freak accident, a brewing medical issue, or an intentional assault, Houdini will be remembered for sustaining his strongman routine until the end.
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