Everyone has heard of Harry Houdini. Houdini was one of the first Great Masters of magic, and has provided inspiration to David Copperfield, David Blaine and other magicians of our time. But not everyone is familiar with the true story of how this great performer met his demise. So how did Houdini die? Here’s what really happened.
Harry Houdini: His Life
Harry Houdini was a Hungarian born performer. Born in 1874, he was legally known as Erik Weisz. The son of a Jewish family, and brother to six siblings, Houdini arrived in America in 1878, just four years after his birth.
Harry Houdini was most well known for his performances as an illusionist. But his career in show business started at a very young age. At only 9 years old, the child debuted as a trapeze artist, dubbing himself “Ehrich, Prince of the Air.” It was only when he began his career as a professional illusionist that Weisz began to call himself “Harry Houdini.”
Houdini’s career had humble beginnings. He started as a strongman in a tent act, and then moved on to simple card tricks. He toyed with escape acts, but it wasn’t until 1899 that Harry Houdini began performing in earnest. At 25 years old, Houdini was discovered by manager Martin Beck. Beck was particularly impressed with Houdini’s handcuff escape trick, and soon after, Houdini’s escape arts earned him a spot on the vaudeville circuit.
In the year that followed, Houdini’s manager arranged for him several interviews in Europe. He was finally booked at the Alhambra, and was soon known as the handcuff king.
The Harry Houdini remembered by the world was one who succeeded in some of the greatest escape acts ever performed. He was strip searched and shackled by prison guards, and made to escape the cells. He was wrapped in straightjackets, submersed underwater in boxes nailed shut. The escape artist was even challenged to extract himself, in leg irons, from the belly of a beached whale.
Eventually, Harry Houdini no longer desired to lead the life of a traveling magician. He began his own full time performance, dedicated to his escape acts.
Harry Houdini: The Occult
Houdini’s career was, by definition, shrouded in mystery. But his life was far from ordinary as well.
Harry Houdini’s mother died in the 1920s. Devastated, Houdini began to research methods of contacting the dead. In fact, he was desperate to find her, and enlisted many mediums in the attempt. Those mediums turned out to be frauds, but séances became a frequent part of Houdini’s repertoire.
Houdini was, frankly, infuriated by these false mediums. He referred to them as “vultures who prey on the bereaved,” and as grief continued to consume him, he began to dabble in the occult. Determined, Houdini himself tried to contact the spirit of his mother. He simultaneously began to perform entire shows devoted to debunking the mediums who had tricked him.
It was when he began to experiment with the supernatural that a series of mishaps began in Houdini’s life. First, his wife Bess became seriously ill with ptomaine poisoning. The second was during Houdini’s his famous Chinese Water Torture Escape act. A chain slipped, causing Houdini an ankle fracture. The illusionist did not, however, allow this to stop him. He continued performing as scheduled.
Of course, it could be said that Harry Houdini’s career choice would, by nature, make him more vulnerable to bouts of bad luck. But the timing of the incidents makes them subject to suspicion, and culminated in the third unfortunate event. This would ultimately lead to his death.
On October 22, 1926, Harry Houdini was visited in his dressing room by two university students. Still slightly handicapped from the injury to his ankle, Houdini was lounging as he visited with his friends. He was due to perform that evening, and was enjoying some hard-earned yet scarce leisure time.
The Death of Harry Houdini
Once a strongman, Harry Houdini was also arrogant. It was his claim to fame that he could withstand any punch delivered by another man to his torso. As he relaxed with his dressing room visitors, Harry lay on his side on a couch. One of his guests, J. Gordon Whitehead, questioned Houdini’s claim.
Houdini replied that yes, he could if given time to brace himself. Unfortunately, Whitehead didn’t heed the stipulation, and proceeded to draw back and punch Houdini in the stomach four times.
In intense pain, yet unwilling to admit defeat, Harry Houdini continued with his performance as planned that evening. And, ever arrogant, he continued in pain for the next several days. He was resistant to the idea of seeking medical attention, and it was that pride which eventually killed him.
Over the course of the next several days, Houdini’s health declined; he continued to perform on stage, however. On October 24, 1926, during what would be his final performance, Henry Houdini’s temperature reached 104 degrees. It was during the third act that he asked for the curtains to be lowered – he couldn’t continue to perform for the excruciating pain.
Harry Houdini was carried back to his dressing room, and remained there until the following morning. Houdini, with more intense pain than he’d felt in all his years of performing, finally agreed to seek medical attention.
Upon arrival at the hospital, doctors diagnosed the illusionist with appendicitis. The doctors noted that his appendix had already ruptured, and the prognosis was not good. October 31, 1926 marked the End of the Great Houdini.
What Killed Harry Houdini?
Harry Houdini was diagnosed with appendicitis, but it’s not clear if that was caused by the blows to his abdomen. That is to say, it’s possible that the appendicitis existed but remained masked by the pain of those blows.
Regardless of whether the punches precipitated the appendicitis or merely obscured it, one thing is clear. Harry Houdini could have sought life saving medical attention if not for his smug arrogance.
An accomplished illusionist during his life, the death of Harry Houdini is a message: pride truly does come before the fall.