You Can’t Escape the Grave

On March 24, 1874, a baby boy named Erik Weisz was born in Budapest, Hungary to Jewish rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz and Mayer Sámuel Weisz, the fourth child of what would eventually come to be a family of seven children. Seeking a better life, the family immigrated to America, arriving in New York on July 3, 1879 aboard the Fresia and later moving to Appleton, Wisconsin, where they eventually settled. In an attempt to “Americanize,” Rabbi Weisz changed the family name to Weiss and his son’s name to Erich. Life in America, however, wasn’t as the family had hoped. They struggled to make ends meet and moved from Appleton to Milwaukee and eventually back to New York City. In an attempt to help his family, Erich took on several jobs, including selling newspaper and shining shoes. At age nine, he began performing in vaudeville shows and even joined a local circus as a trapeze artist, billing himself as “Erich, the Prince of the Air.”

But something greater was calling.

Around this time, Erich and his brother Theo began studying magic. Performing mainly in dime theaters next to snake charmers and fire eaters, Erich began perfecting his craft and attempting to carve a niche in the entertainment world. The first thing he needed, he realized, was a stage name. Having just read an autobiography on French magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, Erich settled on the last name “Houdini,” erroneously believing that placing an “I” at the end of word meant “like” in French. For his first name, he settled on Harry, an adaption of “Ehri,” which was his family’s nickname for him.

Harry Houdini, then, was born.

What set Houdini apart from other magicians of the time was his uncanny and almost unnatural ability to escape any lock or enclosure. He could free himself from shackles, ropes, or handcuffs and extricate himself from everything from milk cans to coffins to prison cells. He and his wife Bess traveled from town to town, where he would challenge both police and spectators to bring their handcuffs and lock him up; he would, invariably and the astonishment of the crowd, be able to break free. Later, he even added straight-jackets to his routines, those seemingly escape-proof garments worn by mental patients in an effort to minimize self-harm.

After amazing crowds in America, Houdini and his wife traveled to Europe, where spectators in London and on the continent were equally as thrilled to watch his daring escapes. In fact, within a year, Houdini’s act was the most popular in Europe, selling out shows everywhere from Paris to Berlin. His time away, however, did nothing to lessen his appeal stateside. In order to continue to wow, he upped his antics, debuting tricks such as During this time, Houdini introduced his escape from a padlocked water can at the Columbia Theatre in St. Louis in January 1908, now known as the “Chinese Water Torture Cell” trick, where he was suspended from his ankles and submerged in water, and the “Vanishing Elephant,” where he seemingly made one of the massive animals disappear on stage at the New York Hippodrome. His tricks were becoming showier and riskier; though Harry’s impeccable skill and impressive strength made for great entertainment, his boldness–including a student in 1915 in which Houdini nearly suffocated after being shackled and buried under six feet of dirt–made many wonder just how many times the magician would be able to cheat death.

Which is perhaps why, when death finally did come for Harry Houdini, many found it so unbelievable.

On October 24, 1926, Houdini performed for a packed house at Detroit’s Garrick Theater. Witnessed reported the magician was feverish and groggy. He had to rely on his assistants to step in on several occasions. Even audience members noticed the showman seemed in a daze, missing several cues and seeming in a hurry to finish the performance. By the middle of the third act, Houdini accepted defeat, asking his assistant to lower to curtain, as he could no longer continue to show. At this point, it is reported, Houdini collapsed and had to be carried to his room. He was taken to the hospital, where doctors discovered a ruptured appendix. Despite emergency surgery, Harry passed away on October 31, with friends and family by his side.

The world’s strongest, quickest, and trickiest man brought down by….his appendix?

Fans and colleagues were shocked. But, it turns out, in his death, as in his life, there was more at play than what it originally seemed.

Houdini’s path to death actually started 20 days BEFORE his passing, on October 11, 1926. That night, during a performance of his famous “Chinese Water Torture Cell” trick in Albany, New York, Harry was struck on the leg by a piece of faulty equipment. Ever the showman, he hobbled his way through the rest of the show, but was later found to have sustained a fractured left ankle. Ignoring doctor’s orders for rest, Harry traveled to Montreal, where he gave a lecture at McGill University and, later, invited several McGill students to visit him in his dressing room before a show at the Princess Theater on October 22. The magician’s sore ankle was still bothering him, so he plopped down on a couch while the group chatted. At some point, a student named Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead asked Houdini if it was true that he could resist hard punches to his abdomen—a claim the magician had made often and publicly. According to witness Sam Smilovitz, when Houdini, while looking nonchalantly through his mail, said the rumors were true, Whitehead proceeded to deliver “four or five terribly forcible, deliberate, well-directed blows” (Smilovitz also described the hits as “hammer-like”) to his stomach. Another witness, student Jacques Price, said that Houdini winced after every hit and began gesturing to Whitehead to stop. Although Houdini had, in fact, been able to sustain serious blows to the stomach, in this particular instance, he remained reclined and had been unable to prepare himself for impact.

Although Harry continued with the performance that evening, he was in great pain. He was able to sleep and spiked a fever. Two days later, when he finally consented to see a doctor, it was discovered he was suffering from acute appendicitis. Again refusing doctor’s orders, Houdini continued with his planned performance; by the time he collapsed on stage, his appendix had already ruptured and poisoned his insides. There was no saving him. The official cause of death was listed as peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix, which doctors firmly believed was the result of the punches from Whitehead.

But can an appendix really be ruptured from a blow to the stomach? Yes, but it’s exceedingly rare. More than exceedingly; in fact, extraordinarily. Doctors studying the phenomenon discovered less than a handful of cases in a twenty year period. But still, it does happen.

And yet, the mundane nature of death for such an exceptional showman was nothing if not a catalyst for conspiracies.

Many of the theories tend to focus on the magician’s contentious relationship with Spiritualism, a pseudo-religion whose adherents once claimed it was possible to communicate with the dead through séances and mediums. Houdini’s skepticism of the movement stemmed from his early days in magic. Not making enough to help make ends meet, Harry took a job with a traveling medicine show where he pretended to go into a trance and pass on messages from the dead. It was easy, he realized, to manipulate the grieving. In his later years, however, Harry felt so guilty about his participation in such scams that he decided to dedicate his time and energy to debunking false mediums and psychics. He attended seances in disguise, accompanied by reporters and police officers, intent on catching charlatans in the act, wrote a book about the exploits, A Magician Among Spirits, and even testified before Congress in support of a bill to outlaw fortune telling in Washington, D.C. The crusade earned him several million dollars’ worth of lawsuits–and more than a few enemies (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame).

In their 2006 book, The Secret Life of Houdini, authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman contend that the magician’s death may have been a carefully planned assassination by members of the Spiritualist community. “If one were to suspect Houdini a victim of foul play,” they write, “then the section of organized crime that was composed of fraudulent spirit mediums must be considered likely suspects.” According to Kalush and Sloman, Spiritualists had a history of poisoning their enemies, and they note that no autopsy was ever performed to confirm that Houdini’s death was actually caused by appendicitis. Another book, 2005’s The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell, put forth a theory that Whitehead, who delivered the supposed deadly blows, may have even been in league with the Spiritualists, acting as their “hit man” in the war against the magician.

So was Houdini, born this day in 1874, killed by his enemies or his own stubbornness? We may never know. But for a man who lived his life shrouded in illusion, perhaps it’s only fitting that his death remains that way, too.

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