performing arts 

How Did Houdini The Magician Die

How Houdini Really Died

Houdini did not die the way most people think he did!

In fact, many myths and legends have sprung up around this famous but in many ways mysterious figure, some of which were encouraged by Houdini himself.

Always a master showman and publicist, Houdini often over-dramatized events in his life in order to make for good publicity. In addition, some writers long after Houdini’s death have, in some cases, thrown more darkness than light on Houdini and his life.

A popular movie biography of Houdini of the 1950s starring the late actor Tony Curtis is still the cause of many people’s misconceptions as to how Houdini actually died. That movie showed Houdini’s demise in his upside down water esscape, The Chinese Water Torture Cell.

The reality is that, although Houdini performed death-defying escapes throughout his life on an almost daily basis – being dropped while tied in chained inside packing cases into icy rivers, escaping from a straitjacket while suspended upside down from a building ten stories above the ground – the way in which Houdini actually met his demise was while performing a perfectly ordinary action – reading his daily mail!

How It Happened

It all happened one Friday morning when Houdini was in his dressing room at a theater in Montréal Canada. As he was relaxing, some students from McGill University were interviewing him.

One of the students, a boxer, asked Houdini if it were true that he take a hit in the midsection of any force without being hurt. Houdini, concentrating on his mail, mumbled something that the boxer took for a “yes.” Before he could prepare himself for the blow, the boxer began raining hammer blows to Houdini’s midsection.

Houdini succeeded in pulling off his matinee and evening performances, but from the time he was hit, he started suffering from great pain. It grew worse as time passed, and by the time of his evening show on Saturday, he needed assistance in order to change his clothing.

By the time he arrived in Detroit, where he was to begin his next series of performances, his wife and assistants had, against Houdini’s wishes, gathered a team of physicians to examine him. They discovered he had symptoms of acute appendicitis and advised immediate surgery.

Yet when Houdini discovered that the house in Detroit was completely sold out that evening, he insisted on doing his performance. He collapsed at the final curtain.

Houdini’s Last Hours

Houdini was taken reluctantly to Grace Hospital where he was annoyed that the doctors would not let him walk to the operating room and told the stretcher bearers that he could handle both of them in a fight.

But Houdini was now facing his final and greatest challenge. Although the doctors thought it would be a miracle if he could last for several hours, he fought on for seven days, but finally told his brother he was tired of battling.

The blows to the stomach were not the only cause of Houdini’s death. Apparently they aggravated an already diseased appendix.

A broken wand ceremony was performed for Houdini by the Society of American magicians, of which Houdini was one of the founders and president for several years (the broken wand is a gravesite ceremony at which a magic wand is broken symbolizing the end of the magician’s powers). He was buried in a coffin he used for his underwater burial trick.

When did Houdini die? On October 31, 1926 – Halloween. Today, the holiday marks the final day of National Magic Week in the United States, partly to commemorate Houdini’s legacy.

The Voice of Harry Houdini

Houdini speaks from beyond the grave
Although Houdini acted in several movies (and even at one time owned his own movie production company) they were all produced during the silent movie era (Houdini died in 1926, a few years before the first “talkie”).

For some time, it was not known if any recordings of Houdini’s voice existed. Then, an old wax cylinder in which Houdini spoke the introduction to his Chinese Water Torture Cell escape (the trick in which the 1953 movie “Houdini” had him dying) surfaced.

Although this recording existed, it was hard for many years for Houdini fans to find copies of it. Today, in the digital age, it is easily available for all interested parties to hear and enjoy.

As The Amazing Randi, co-author of a book on Houdini has said, Houdini’s voice, somewhat nasally and high-pitched, was not what one might have expected from such a larger-than-life personality. Nevertheless, the showmanship is there for all to hear in Houdini’s cultured, careful pronunciation of the words introducing his Chinese Water Torture Cell escape.

Houdini Escapes

Master magician Harry Houdini (1874-1926) starred in five silent films from 1919 to 1923. The famed illusionist/escape artist also founded his own movie company, the Houdini Picture Corporation.

In 1919, the great Houdini entered the movie business, eventually appearing in a total of five silent films that are now available in a special three-disc DVD box set: Houdini: The Movie Star DVD (Kino International, 2008).

Houdini Rope Escape

Houdini Straitjacket Escape

Sene from the 1953 movie on Houdini

This movie, while having great period settings and music, was the source of many myths about Houdini. Here we see Houdini (Tony Curtis) escaping on stage from a straightjacket for the first time.

Houdini Straitjacket Escape

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