Preeminent illusionist Harry Houdini died on Halloween 95 years ago. It was a curious death. A famous fortune teller predicted it months in advance. And shortly beforehand, Houdini himself suspected it was coming.
While his attending physicians identified peritonitis, occasioned by a ruptured appendix, as the official cause of death, some wondered if foul play was involved.
At the age of 52, Houdini had more than his fair share of enemies: given the strange circumstances immediately preceding his passing, some believed the Grim Reaper had human assistance.
Today, most accept the official version — but the opinion is far from unanimous. In The Secret Life of Houdini, The Making of America’s First Superhero, William Kalush and Larry Sloman wrote, “The question of whether or not Houdini was deliberately killed may never be fully resolved.” The authors point out no autopsy was performed so the matter will remain as it stands.
Houdini began his final tour of shows — they mixed death-defying tricks with audience exchanges — on September 7, 1926 in Boston.
On October 12, while being immersed into a water tank on stage in Albany, New York, Houdini broke his ankle, an accident which figured prominently in his eventual demise.
The Houdini Show arrived in Montreal, Canada on October 18. The next day, he limped on stage to lecture a packed ballroom at McGill University. Some of the students were surprised by his appearance: pale and worn, he hardly seemed to be the world’s foremost live entertainer.
As usual, however, Houdini did not disappoint. He brought down the house with a notorious routine — sticking a long sewing needle directly into his cheek, Houdini did not even wince. Amazingly, the needle drew no blood.
The next morning, October 22, Houdini was in his backstage dressing room at the Princess Theater being interviewed by two McGill students. Because his ankle was bothering him, Houdini was reclining on a couch. Five other associates were packed into the small, dreary room.
Presently, a third McGill undergraduate, J. Gordon Whitehead, entered, bearing a book Houdini had loaned him. Whitehead was six-foot-five and powerfully built: at 31, he was older than most undergraduates.
Immediately dominating the conversation, Whitehead fired questions at the illusionist in an annoying manner. Finally, he asked if it was true that Houdini could take direct punches to his stomach without pain — it was alleged that Houdini could brace himself, flex his muscles, and withstand several blows.
Houdini answered affirmatively and began to rise from the couch when Whitehead set upon him, peppering him with hits to the lower abdomen. The fury of the attack startled everyone — Houdini grimaced and waved Whitehead off.
Nine painful days and two surgeries later, the master conjurer was dead. His appendix had ruptured and the poison of peritonitis robbed him of life. The man who could vanish an elephant and escape from a packing crate dropped in the East River could not avoid the ultimate force of destiny.
Was Whitehead’s attack responsible? Did it cause or exacerbate the appendicitis? Or, did the pain of the punches mask the rupture?
Houdini had spent years exposing fraudulent mediums and other huckster “spiritualists” who deceived those in search of lost loved ones. Did someone finally exact revenge on Houdini? Was it possible he was murdered?
These questions are still be debated.
Houdini’s passing was foreshadowed by several odd occurrences. When he testified before Congress earlier in 1926 on behalf of a bill that would regulate fortune telling, a prominent clairvoyant, Madame Marcia Champney, predicted to Houdini he would be dead before November.
Eerily, Houdini also sensed his passing in advance. His driver reported while on their way to the train station to begin his final tour, Houdini asked him to circle back past his home so he could see it for what he called “the last time.”
Despite his skepticism about the paranormal, Houdini and his wife, Bess, had an agreement that whoever died first would reach beyond the veil to contact the surviving spouse. Bess kept the pact — she held the first Houdini séance on Halloween 1927, and continued to do so each year for a decade. When no contact ensued, Bess gave up. “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man,” she is reported to have said.
Houdini’s fans, however, did not capitulate. Every Halloween, séances are held to channel the great beyond in search of his spirit. The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania does a zoom event in these days of COVID-19. (https://www.houdini.org/index2.html)
Why have the ties with Houdini continued to bind with so many people? Joe Posnanski, in his book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, answers this question with a quote from the artist himself. “The secret of showmanship consists not of what you really do, but what the mystery loving public thinks you do.”
The appeal of that showmanship is still evident every Halloween.