Houdini’s Amazing Life – and Mysterious Death

Photo: the escapologist Harry Houdini in chains, c. 1899. Source: McManus-Young Collection; Library of Congress.

Harry Houdini is internationally famous as the world’s foremost magician and escapologist. For 35 years, from 1891 until his sudden death on October 31, 1926, at the age of 52, Houdini amazed audiences with seemingly impossible escapes that became increasingly dangerous.

More mysterious than any of his escapes, however, was the circumstance of his final act: his death. Houdini did not perish before an audience performing one of his stunts; rather, his death seems to have resulted from pride and stubbornness.

Houdini’s escapes made great copy, and newspapers closely followed his exploits throughout his long career—up to and including his puzzling death. Reading these contemporary accounts provides fresh perspective on the man and his times.

Houdini was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. His family immigrated to the U.S. and lived in Wisconsin and then New York City where, at the age of 9, Erik began his performing career as a trapeze artist called “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.”

In 1891, at the age of 17, he began his career as a magician, first performing card tricks billed as the “King of Cards.” His fame grew when he moved on to escaping from handcuffs, eventually becoming widely known as “The Handcuff King.”

To publicize his escape act, Houdini would challenge a city’s local police force to use their strongest handcuffs on him. This Nebraska newspaper article reported the time the 25-year-old Houdini confounded the Omaha Police Department.

 Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 1 April 1899, page 7

According to this article:

Three pairs of wrist fasteners were placed on Houdini first, then his feet were secured with very heavy leg irons, and to make his escape a still greater feat, he bent over and permitted his wrists and ankles to be secured with two additional pairs of handcuffs.

In less time considerably than it took to perform the task of adjusting this array of “jail jewelry,” he returned from an adjoining room, where it was impossible to conceal a confederate, relieved from the entire paraphernalia and having the same linked together, forming a chain, showing conclusively that they had not been slipped off through any trick. How it was done is the secret from which Houdini derives his living and naturally he did not volunteer to divulge it, so his method is only a matter of conjecture with the Omaha police department and with that of every city of the United States that he has visited.

Later that same year, the “King of Handcuffs” was perplexing the Cincinnati Police Department.

Cincinnati Post (Cincinnati, Ohio), 9 December 1899, page 4

From 1900 to 1904 Houdini performed in Europe, breaking out of jail cells as well as handcuffs. Performing once again in the U.S. in 1905, this photo caption noted his expanded repertoire: “The Handcuff King and Jail-Breaker.”

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 24 December 1905, page 26

He had adopted the name Houdini in homage to Robert-Houdin, a French magician he admired. It says a great deal about Houdini’s integrity that when he later discovered Houdin was a fake, he exposed him in a 1908 book called The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 May 1908, page 5

After confounding local police everywhere he went, Houdini moved beyond handcuffs and jail cells by extending his challenge to the general public. Daring anyone to come up with a device or trap he couldn’t escape from, he escaped them all.

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 November 1914, page 12

Now 40 years old, Houdini’s career soared, attracting large crowds to see his increasingly elaborate—and dangerous—escape acts. His performances grew to include: chains and ropes; being hung upside down in a straightjacket from skyscrapers or cranes; and immersed, handcuffed, into a large, locked milk can filled with water. While anxious crowds watched, Houdini escaped every time.

This 1915 ad is a good example of the excitement Houdini generated everywhere he went.

 Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 19 December 1915, page 42

The copy below the ad reads:

After many, many weeks of heraldry, during which time all recognized channels of publicity have pulsated with his illustrious name, Houdini, man of mystery and world famed self liberator, comes to pay his first professional visit to Salt Lake City this week, opening with [a] matinee this afternoon at the Orpheum theatre.

The name Houdini conjures up jails, prisons, handcuffs, bolts and bars, for he has startled experts by escaping from them. Houdini arrived here yesterday afternoon. As is his unvarying custom, he had little or nothing to say regarding his act which he will give at the Orpheum for fourteen performances, smilingly informing his interviewers that he prefers to try his case in the great court of public opinion.

“Seeing is believing, you know,” he added. He said, however, that he would perform his celebrated self invented water torture cell trick, in which he is locked head downward in a tank filled to the brim with water, his feet clamped and shackled into the massive cover of the tank. He also will introduce the masterpiece of the Yogis, the East Indian needle trick.

On Halloween Day in 1926, Houdini died—at the height of his fame—in a hospital room in Detroit. The official cause of death was peritonitis due to a ruptured appendix. The mysterious question that may never be answered, however, is this: what really killed Houdini? Was the ruptured appendix that caused the inflammation of his peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal wall) an unfortunate act of nature—or was it the strange incident that happened a few days earlier in a dressing room of the Princess Theatre in Montreal?

A student from the city’s McGill University, J. Gordon Whitehead, visited Houdini on October 22 and found the famed magician lying on a couch resting an ankle he had recently broken. Houdini prided himself on his renowned strength and fitness, and when Whitehead challenged Houdini to see if he could handle the student’s punches to his stomach, Houdini accepted the challenge.

After several powerful blows, however, Houdini was in great pain and ordered Whitehead to stop. Whether by design or simply because it was the most accessible area of the reclined magician’s stomach, Whitehead had aimed his blows at the lower right quadrant of Houdini’s abdomen, where the appendix is located.

The magician performed his usual, strenuous act that evening despite the acute pain in his abdomen. The pain persisted for two more days and Houdini became feverish—but continued performing, refusing to see a doctor or let the show be stopped. Finally, he was hospitalized after collapsing during his last show on October 24 at the Garrick Theater in Detroit—after performing with a temperature of 104!

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 25 October 1926, page 1

The doctors decided Houdini was suffering from appendicitis and operated on October 25, with a follow-up operation three days later. Right from the outset, they said they had “grave doubts” about the magician’s recovery. Ominously, they reported that Houdini’s “appendix had ruptured far over on the left side of the abdomen.”

The article elaborated: “The surgeons said it was an extremely rare case for the appendix to be out of place.”

 Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 26 October 1926, page 1

Houdini’s condition worsened despite the two operations, and the great magician died on October 31, 1926. Historians and medical experts have been debating his death ever since. Did Whitehead’s punches dislocate and rupture Houdini’s appendix? Did the student mean to harm Houdini? Was the magician’s pride in accepting Whitehead’s challenge to blame, or perhaps his stubbornness in initially refusing medical help and insisting on going on with the show? Was the ruptured appendix simply an unfortunate natural act not caused by Whitehead’s punches? If the student hadn’t punched him, might Houdini have sought medical help right away—but because of the student’s blows did he not realize he was suffering appendicitis, and thought instead the student has just made his abdomen sore? We’ll probably never know…

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 1 November 1926, page 2

Houdini’s funeral was held in New York City on November 4, 1926, and he was buried in the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens. The crest of the Society of American Magicians is part of his gravesite memorial.

Photo: Houdini’s gravesite. Source: Anthony 22; Wikimedia Commons.


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