Historians Have Uncovered The Untold Story Of Harry Houdini’s Final Mystery

For decades Harry Houdini dazzled fans with his outlandish tricks and death-defying stunts. These often left audiences questioning how such feats were humanly possible and cemented the magician’s place in the history books as one of the greatest ever illusionists. But perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding Houdini was the final chapter of his life.

Houdini’s quite possibly the most well-known illusionist ever to have lived. Rising to fame at the turn of the 20th century, his extraordinary tricks won him a legion of fans. He became particularly renowned for his talents as an escape artist. And over the years he pulled off a number of feats that seemed to flout accepted wisdom about what the human body is capable of.

Some of Houdini’s most impressive feats included escaping from water-filled milk containers, leaping from bridges in leg irons and enduring a “Chinese Water Torture Cell.” While such tricks seemed to be death-defying to the audience, lots of them relied on a great deal of deception. There was real danger involved in some, though, and during 1915 Houdini almost died in a stunt that saw him buried alive.

All things considered, then, it could be said that Houdini carved a three-decade career out of seemingly cheating death, much to the delight of the crowds who came to see him. So when death finally did catch up with him in 1926, some people just couldn’t understand it. And his passing became the subject of wild conspiracy theories.

While his stage name would become known the world over, Houdini was actually born Erich Weisz in 1874. He originated from Budapest in Hungary and his father was a rabbi. Along with his parents and six siblings, Houdini later emigrated to Wisconsin at the age of four.

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Even as a child, Houdini – then known as “Ehrie” or “Harry” – was obsessed with illusions. He was particularly fascinated by Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who was a celebrated magician at the time. Harry admired the Frenchman so much, in fact, that to create his own stage name he simply put an “i” at the end to make Houdini.

Houdini’s first taste of show-business came after he relocated to New York City in his early teens. He soon found work as a circus trapeze artist and went on to become a vaudeville act as well, but the money wasn’t good. At one point, the future star even considered giving up performing altogether.

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Around the same time Houdini was doubting if he had a future in vaudeville, he married Wilhelmina Rahner in 1894. Later that same year he re-launched himself as a professional magician, with Rahner – now known as Beatrice “Bess” Houdini – as his attendant. The pair would work together for the rest of the illusionist’s career.

But success wasn’t forthcoming for Houdini in the magic world. He did, though, start to attract attention as an escape artist. His big break eventually came in the late 1890s when mogul Martin Beck signed him up for dates across Europe and the U.S., with the instruction that escape routines should be the focus of the performances.

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In these early years, Houdini’s act often saw him incarcerated in the local police cells. Of course, the magician would then do the seemingly impossible by absconding. These stunts made him a huge star and earned him the nickname “King of Handcuffs.”

Before long Houdini was playing to packed-out venues around Europe and had become the biggest earner in the vaudeville scene. But even in achieving worldwide fame, the magician didn’t take his foot off the gas. Houdini instead devised ever more daring performances, initially escaping handcuffs, then a straitjacket and eventually sealed tanks.

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Many of Houdini’s stunts captured the public’s imagination. In one high-profile trick, he leaped into a river in New York State after his arms had been tied together behind his back. Another saw him escape the former cell of Charles Guiteau, who’d killed President James A. Garfield back in 1881.

For one of his signature acts, a shackled Houdini was trapped inside a heavy, bound crate. This was then dropped off the side of a ship, meaning that the illusionist had to escape from his watery jail. In another stunt, he was suspended upside down 70 or so feet in the air and had to take off a straitjacket.

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Such performances attracted huge audiences, often numbering in the thousands. Houdini’s incredible talents as an escape artist drew on his dexterity and considerable stamina, as well as his extraordinary lock-picking skills. And they’d ultimately make him a movie star, with the magician appearing in a number of films during the 1910s and 1920s.

In 1912 Houdini’s career perhaps peaked with the creation of the Chinese Water Torture Cell. This stunt involved the illusionist being lowered by his feet into a locked glass box that was filled with water. In order to escape, he then had to hold his breath for several minutes. The death-defying feat proved so popular that the magician would perform it for the rest of his life.

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Outside of magic, the money that Houdini’s success brought enabled him to pursue his interest in aviation. He bought an aircraft during 1909 with the aim of making a pioneering journey across Australia. While he eventually managed to complete the trip, he didn’t fulfil his ambition to be the first to do so.

And while the power of his act relied on some degree of deception, it would seem that Houdini was in fact a great defender of the truth. With that in mind, he even turned against his childhood hero and the inspiration behind his name: Robert-Houdin. In his 1908 tome The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, Houdini accused the Frenchman of ripping off other illusionists’ acts and claimed that he “waxed great on the brainwork of others.”

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Houdini also put a great deal of effort into trying to debunk phony “psychic” mediums. Being the head of the Society of American Magicians, he used his platform to call out those who claimed to have otherworldly gifts. In one notable example, he debunked the work of Mina “Margery” Crandon, who was a well-known medium at the time.

In the end, though, Houdini’s efforts to discredit Crandon cost him his friendship with the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle, who’d become a spiritualist after his son Kingsley died, believed in Crandon’s visions. So Houdini’s assertion that fake mediums were “human leeches” drove a wedge between him and the Sherlock Holmes creator.

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Even so, Houdini stood firm in his belief that fraudulent spiritualists should be exposed. To do this, he penned two books: Miracle Mongers and Their Methods and A Magician Among the Spirits. He also regularly attended séances undercover and put up a $10,000 reward for anyone who demonstrated “physical phenomena” that couldn’t be rationally explained.

In 1926 Houdini even spoke in front of Congress to give his backing to legislation that’d make “pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation” illegal. But perhaps the magician’s most defiant act in disproving the work of mediums was also his last. And it came upon his death that same year.

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Before Houdini died on October 31, 1926, he had made a pact with his wife to test the validity of mediums’ claims. They cowed that whoever was the first to die would attempt to communicate with the surviving party from beyond the grave. According to Bess Houdini, the attempts weren’t successful, and she passed away in 1943 without hearing from her late husband.

Even so, Houdini’s obsession with disproving spiritualism coupled with the fact he died on Halloween endeared him to fans of the occult. To this day, so-called “Houdini séances” are held annually on the anniversary of the magician’s death. The hope is that the illusionist will finally make contact with the living.

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And the Houdini séances aren’t the only way that the magician’s passing has become the stuff of legend. That’s because the actual cause of his death is seemingly up for debate. Though it was officially stated that Houdini’s demise was caused by a ruptured appendix, there are a number of other rumors regarding his final days.

A week prior to his death, Houdini, then 52, had been on stage in front of a packed-out crowd in Detroit. It would turn out to be his last public appearance. He was rushed to the hospital following the show with a suspected case of appendicitis. When he later died, officials stated that his passing was due to peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix.

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Houdini’s death sent shockwaves through his legions of fans, with many bewildered that the man who escaped the seemingly inescapable had succumbed to death. Perhaps it was this inability to accept the truth that gave rise to the conspiracy theories that emerged in the wake of his passing.

It would also be fair to say that the lead-up to Houdini’s death was dogged by a string of peculiar incidents. These began on October 11, 1926, when the escape artist performed his Chinese Water Torture Cell act in Albany, New York. During the stunt, Houdini’s leg was hit by a malfunctioning apparatus.

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While Houdini managed to battle through the remainder of his performance, it later emerged that he’d fractured an ankle in the incident. The magician was advised by doctors to can the rest of his dates, but Houdini carried on regardless. And so he traveled to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, to make a speech.

Some believe that this trip to McGill University played a fateful part in Houdini’s demise. Because, a few days later, the magician allowed a few Montreal undergraduates to go backstage. One member of the group, J. Gordon Whitehead, then enquired if Houdini really was able to withstand blows to his stomach.

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Houdini had supposedly stated that, by tensing the muscles in his abdomen, he could withstand even the strongest blows from any man. And when the magician apparently repeated this claim to the students, Whitehead decided to test his assertion. Witness Sam Smilovitz recalled that the student surprised the illusionist with “four or five terribly forcible, deliberate, well-directed blows” in the midriff.

At the time of the incident, Houdini was apparently lying on a couch to take the weight off his fractured ankle. He also reportedly had no time to prepare for the blows, and as such was forced to endure a great deal of agony. Even so, the magician played down the matter, though it seemingly came back to haunt him.

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The very same evening Houdini had his alleged run-in with Whitehead, he apparently started experiencing abdominal pains. His discomfort heightened the following day when the illusionist took a night train to his next shows in Michigan. He reportedly suffered from severe stomach problems, tiredness and a soaring temperature of more than 100° F.

Based on Houdini’s symptoms, a medic concluded that the magician was suffering from appendicitis and advised him to visit a hospital. Being a consummate pro, though, Houdini decided that the show must go on. And so he struggled through his performance in Detroit only to pass out as soon as it was over.

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Following the show, Houdini was rushed to the hospital, where he had his appendix taken out. Unfortunately, though, it’d already burst by then and caused severe damage to the rest of his body. Houdini still battled on for a number of days but died on October 31 as his family sat at his bedside.

Houdini’s doctors were apparently almost certain that his demise had been caused by the punches thrown by Whitehead. Instances of so-called “traumatic appendicitis” are scarce – some investigations have concluded that they occur fewer than 30 times over the course of a couple of decades. Despite this, the official cause of the magician’s death wasn’t disputed at the time.

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The conspiracy theories don’t end there, though. Over his lifetime, Houdini had made a number of enemies on his crusade to debunk mediums. With that in mind, it’s been suggested that the illusionist’s death may have been a result of a planned assassination by those who supported spiritualism.

In the 2006 book The Secret Life of Houdini, writers Larry Sloman and William Kalush allege that spiritualists could’ve poisoned the magician. They claimed that the group had a track record of doing just that to their detractors. The authors point out that an autopsy was never performed in order to confirm the performer’s cause of death. And they also state, “If someone were hell-bent on poisoning Houdini, it wouldn’t have been very difficult.”

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It’s also been suggested that Whitehead may have had links with spiritualists. Writer Don Bell put the theory forward in his 2005 work The Man Who Killed Houdini. That being said, the author ultimately concluded there wasn’t sufficient evidence to definitively link the McGill student with an assassination attempt.

For the most part, though, experts on the subject have dismissed the idea that Houdini was murdered. And while it’s possible that Whitehead’s punches could’ve caused the magician’s demise, they suspect the blows were inconsequential. That’s because it seems likely that the jabs allowed Houdini to ignore a suspected case of appendicitis, leading him to delay treatment.

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While the theories surrounding Houdini’s death may intrigue those of us with curious minds, the truth is they’re just speculation. And if one thing’s for certain, it’s that we may never know for sure what happened to cause the great magician’s downfall.

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