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Debunking the Myth of Houdini’s Death on Halloween, 1926

1920s | October 31, 2018

Always amazing and often mystifying, escape artist Harry Houdini’s name is now synonymous with daring, death-defying escape tricks. Houdini dodged death multiple times when he was chained up and plunged upside down in a vat of water, yet the great Houdini did die, and fairly young, too. At only 52 years old, on Halloween in 1926, the Great Houdini could escape death mo more and passed away at Grace Hospital in Detroit. The urban myth surrounding Houdini’s death is one that nearly everyone has heard…he was punched in the stomach and the blow burst his appendix. But there is much more to the story than that, as we see here. 

Harry Houdini (1874-1926) American conjuror, here with chains, c. 1906. (Photo by APIC/Getty Images)

Harry Houdini, the Man, the Myth, the Legend

Born Ehrich Weiss in Hungary in 1874, Houdini adopted his stage name “Harry Handcuff Houdini” while working as a vaudeville performer. He toured across Europe and the United States and challenged local police officers to handcuff him on stage. He would promptly escape, to the surprise of the officers and delight of the audiences. He took his performances up a notch by adding ropes, chains, straitjackets, padlocks, and large tubs of water to his act. He was quick to silence critics who claimed his tricks were faked. He maintained a level of professionalism, learned how to effectively market himself, and kept his trade secrets closely guarded. All this earned him a reputation for being the greatest magician escape artist ever. Even today, we use his name to describe a person or pet who can quickly escape. 

The Houdini Death Myth

The widespread story of Harry Houdini’s death states that the performer was fond of showing off his rock-hard abs and frequently invited people to punch him in the stomach as a way to prove how tough and fit he was. The story goes that Houdini was boasting about his tight, hard muscles and taunting a group of college students to punch him in the gut. One student took him up on the offer, but he did so from the side. Houdini was caught unaware and didn’t have time to tighten his abdominal muscles. The story goes on to say that the blow was so hard that it ruptured Houdini’s appendix and he died a few weeks later. 

(image by Michael Custode)

The Real Story…

Houdini was in the midst of a tour that took him across the northeastern part of the United States and into parts of Canada in the Fall of 1926. He performed his escape from a water torture cell at a venue in Montreal on October 18, 1926, and the next day, he gave a lecture at McGill University regarding fraud among mediums and fortune tellers. After the lecture, he stood around chatting with professors and students from the university. Samuel J. Smilovitch, a McGill University student, showed the famous escape artist a drawing he had done of him. Houdini was so impressed with the young man’s talent that he invited him to come backstage after his next show. 

This recreation is inaccurate...Houdini was laying down on a couch when he was punched.

The Punches Took Place in Houdini’s Dressing Room

Smilovitch, along with two other students, Jack Price and Gordon Whitehead, went to Houdini’s dressing room on October 22. Houdini lay sprawled out on a couch as Smilovitch sketched and the other two chatted with the great escape artist. According to reports, it was Whitehead who first asked Houdini about his extraordinary abdominal muscles. Houdini replied that he has excellent muscle tone in his arms, back and shoulders as well, and invited the three college students to feel his biceps. Whitehead then asked if it was true that Houdini’s stomach muscles could withstand punches. Price noted that Houdini’s response was one of boredom over the question. Whitehead, however, took it as a challenge and began repeatedly punching the unprepared Houdini. 

Houdini preparing for one of his famous tricks.

Houdini was Laying on His Side When He was Punched

Houdini had been lounging on a couch at the time. He was turned slightly onto his left side. Whitehead’s punches landed on the right side of Houdini’s abdomen and the reclined position that he was in prevented him from fully flexing his abdominal muscles. The attack had also taken Houdini by surprise…he simply wasn’t expecting to be hit so many times with a series of hammer-like punches. Price and Smilovitch were as surprised as Houdini and they yelled for their friend to stop his attack. 

What Do We Know About Whitehead?

Much of the mystery of Houdini’s death centers on Whitehead. Some reports indicated that he came to Houdini’s dressing room with Smilovitch and others state that he came on his own and, in fact, was not an acquaintance of Smilovitch and Price’s. And was even a student at McGill University, as he claimed? Some researchers believe that he was, in fact, an amateur boxer looking to make a name for himself by besting the great Houdini. Whitehead later claimed that he asked for and received Houdini’s permission before punching him, yet other witnesses dispute this. 

And Aftermath…

Houdini winced in pain after Whitehead’s punches but performed two more shows. A few days later, he was traveling from Montreal to Detroit aboard a train and he was experiencing some severe abdominal pain. Houdini’s wife, Bess, was so concerned that she wired ahead asking the hotel to have a doctor waiting for them. The train, however, was late and Houdini had to go straight to the venue for his next performance. After the show, the doctor finally examined him and was alarmed that his temperature was 104-degrees. The doctor wanted to transport Houdini to the hospital immediately, but the stubborn performer had one more show to do that night and he didn’t want to let his fans down. In obvious pain and weak from the fever, Houdini muddled his way through his final show. Even after the performance, Houdini was reluctant to go to the hospital. 

Did Houdini Die of Stubbornness?

Houdini did not want to seek medical help, even though he was suffering greatly from the pain. It was only after his wife’s insistence that he allowed the hotel doctor to examine him that evening, after his show. The hotel doctor immediately called in a surgeon and the two agreed that Houdini was suffering from acute appendicitis and would need surgery. Houdini still refused to go to the hospital. Instead, he phoned his doctor back in New York at 3:00 in the morning, asking his advice. Only then did Houdini allow himself to be taken to the hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. 

Houdini’s Appendix had Ruptured

During the operation, the surgeon observed that the escape artist had experienced a ruptured appendix and that he was suffering from peritonitis, a severe infection of the abdominal tissue. In the days before antibiotics, infection was often deadly. Although Houdini seemed to be improving, his condition suddenly worsened and he died on Halloween. Peritonitis was listed as the official cause of death, with ruptured appendicitis as a secondary factor. 

Can a Punch to the Stomach Really Cause Appendicitis?

Because he had been punched on the right side of his abdomen just prior to the onset of appendicitis, the doctors at the time assumed that the trauma caused the appendix attack. However, we now know that it is extremely rare for acute appendicitis to be the result of trauma or blunt force to the abdomen. In Houdini’s case, it seems as though it is only a coincidence that the great escape artist would contract appendicitis after being punched in the stomach. 

The Delay in Seeking Medical Attention was Likely the Biggest Factor

Whether the appendicitis was caused by the punches or not will also be a subject for debate. What is clear, however, is that Houdini’s refusal to seek medical help … after the punches and all the way up until he was finally hospitalized…was perhaps the biggest factor leading to his death. Had he seen a doctor weeks earlier, his life may have been spared. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.