“Houdini had made a career out of surviving the impossible, which only made the circumstances of his 1926 death all the more mysterious. The 52-year-old performed before a packed house in Detroit on October 24, but was rushed to the hospital afterwards with an apparent case of appendicitis. He died just a week later on Halloween, leaving his legions of admirers bewildered. An obituary in the New York Times expressed shock at the sudden passing of the man ‘who so often had seemed to thousands to be cheating the very jaws of death.’
“The strange series of events that led to Houdini’s demise had kicked off several weeks earlier on October 11, 1926. While being shackled into his Chinese Water Torture Cell during a performance in Albany, New York, the conjurer was struck on the leg by a piece of faulty equipment. He hobbled his way through the rest of the show, but was later found to have sustained a fractured left ankle.
“Against doctors’ orders, Houdini continued his tour and traveled to Montreal, where he gave a lecture at McGill University. Just a few days later on October 22, he invited some McGill students to visit him in his dressing room at the Princess Theater. 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 J. Gordon Whitehead arrived and asked Houdini if it was true that he could resist hard punches to his abdomen—a claim the magician had supposedly made in public. According to witness Sam Smilovitz, when Houdini said the rumors were true, Whitehead abruptly delivered ‘four or five terribly forcible, deliberate, well-directed blows’ to his stomach. Houdini was still reclined on the couch and had no time to prepare for the punches, which appeared to leave him in considerable pain.
“Houdini brushed off the incident at the time, but that same evening, he began to complain of discomfort and stomach cramps. His condition only worsened the next day, when he boarded an overnight train to Detroit for a new run of performances. The magician developed severe abdominal pain, cold sweats and fatigue, and his temperature rose to 104 degrees. A doctor suspected appendicitis and instructed Houdini to go to a hospital, but the performer insisted on taking the stage for his opening night show at the Garrick Theater. He proceeded to struggle through his routine before collapsing immediately after the final curtain.
“The show would be Houdini’s last. That same night, he was taken to a Detroit hospital and prepped for surgery. Doctors successfully removed his appendix, which was found to have ruptured several days earlier, but it had already poisoned his insides. Despite a grim prognosis, the magician clung to life until October 31, when he died with his wife Bess and his two brothers by his side.”
Continue reading about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Houdini’s death at History.com’s What Killed Harry Houdini?