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Culture Re-View: Houdini’s last show - Was the famed magician assassinated?

Houdini’s last show: Was the magician assassinated?
Houdini’s last show: Was the magician assassinated? Copyright AP Photo / Archives of Michigan
Copyright AP Photo / Archives of Michigan
By David Mouriquand
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On this day in 1926 Harry Houdini performed what would be his final show. But was the famous magician's death a suspicious one?

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Happy 297th day of the year!

Halloween is soon upon us, and there are only 67 days until a new year is reached... In case you were counting or wanted to know.

But did you know that on this day in 1926 was Harry Houdini’s last performance, which took place at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit?

One of the world’s greatest magicians was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874. He began his magic career in 1891, and soon became known as The Handcuff King and then cemented his reputation as the greatest escape artist the world had ever seen.

While he was not the first escape artist, he was certainly the first to add some dramatic panache and suspense to the act. Houdini reportedly prolonged his simple escapes by playing up the drama, leading crowds to think that his death was imminent.

Houdini also introduced the infamous Chinese Water Torture Cell as one of his most famous acts in 1912. He was suspended in a locked glass and steel cabinet full of water while upside down. After holding his breath for over three minutes, he managed to escape, to the astonishment of everyone in the audience.

Escape artist Harry Houdini before being lowered in a packing crate into the ice-covered Detroit River in 1907
Escape artist Harry Houdini before being lowered in a packing crate into the ice-covered Detroit River in 1907AP Photo

And it was on 24 October 1926 that the renowned escapologist made his final performance at the age of 52.

Reportedly, Houdini passed out during the show because he was suffering from a fever of 40° Celsius, but he continued the show until he finished.

He was then transported to Grace Hospital in Detroit, where doctors discovered he had appendicitis and peritonitis - the inflammation of the abdominal cavity wall.

He died a week later, on 31 October 1926, with his wife Bess and his two brothers by his side.

Who killed Houdini?

Harry Houdini circa 1925 - on right: his death certificate
Harry Houdini circa 1925 - on right: his death certificatePictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images - Archives of Michigan

Houdini’s death has been disputed for years.

The official cause was listed as peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. 

However, there were witness accounts of Houdini being punched in the abdomen just days before his death - something which may have contributed to his death.

Indeed, on 22 October, days before his death, Houdini was in Montreal, where he was giving a lecture. Backstage, a McGill University student then showed up and challenged the strength of the magician’s stomach muscles and his ability to take hard punches to the stomach – something Houdini had previously boasted about.

The student, a certain J. Gordon Whitehead, then repeatedly walloped Houdini in the stomach before he could tighten his muscles and prepare for the punch.

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While Houdini brushed off the incident and performed his last four Montreal shows, he started complaining about stomach cramps.

These still didn’t stop him from traveling by train to Detroit... And the rest is history.

Houdini's gravesite in Queens, New York
Houdini's gravesite in Queens, New YorkAFP

Bloody students, you may think, but there have been persistent rumours that this incident was actually part of a greater conspiracy.

You see, Houdini, a born sceptic, had something of a contentious relationship with Spiritualism, and the belief that some can communicate with the dead through séances and mediums.

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The magician had spent a lot of his life trying to debunk and expose psychics as frauds, something which earned him lawsuits and many enemies. Just a few months prior to his death, he had testified in front of Congress in support of a bill to outlaw fortune-telling in Washington, D.C.

In the 2006 biography "The Secret Life of Houdini", authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman contend that the magician’s death was possibly a planned assassination by members of the Spiritualist community – bolstering their argument with the fact that Spiritualists had a history of poisoning their enemies. In this case, J. Gordon Whitehead could have been a paid killer employed by Spiritualists.

So, was Houdini murdered or were the stomach blows he received a few days prior to his death simply an accident that worsened an already existing case of appendicitis?

We may never know.

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What we do know is that Houdini had promised his wife Bess that were he to die before her, he would try to communicate from beyond the grave – something he did not believe in and his absence in spirit form would be the ultimate debunking of Spiritualists’ claims.

Bess held an annual “Houdini séance” for several years after her husband’s death.

To this day, magicians and fans of Houdini have made the séance a Halloween tradition. But no ghost has spoken. So far...

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