Harry Houdini is probably the most famous illusionist and escape artist in history. He could escape from pretty much everything—handcuffs, boxes, jail cells, the belly of the Loch Ness Monster—you name it.
But he wasn’t exactly the best at making friends and influencing people. He was dead-set against anything having to do with spirituality and wrote a ton of what we assume were self-published books throwing shade at the who’s-who of the magic world.
So, when he suddenly died of what seemed to be a mundane medical condition, people got suspish. Thank god The Lady Dicks are here to unravel yet another mystery: who killed Harry Houdini?
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Who was Harry Houdini?
Most of us have probably heard of Harry Houdini—an illusionist and stunt-man known for his daring escapes. However, he was not born Harry Houdini, his name was actually Erik Weisz.
Weisz was born on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (now simply Hungary). In 1878, when he was four, his family immigrated to the United States and changed their name from the traditional spelling of Weisz to German “Weiss” and Erik became “Erich.” They arrived on July 3, his father Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz, mother Cecília Steiner who was pregnant at the time, Erik and his four brothers.
The Weisz family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where he would later claim he was born. When he was 13, Weisz moved with his father to New York City, taking on odd jobs and living in a boarding house before the rest of the family joined them. It was there that he became interested in trapeze arts.
He was fascinated with magic in his younger years, particularly the work of French conjurer Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, and officially began his career in the industry in the 1890s, which is when he adopted a new name. He named himself after Robert-Houdin, adding an “i” to the end of his last name. Throughout childhood he had the nickname “Ehrie” which he changed to Harry. With that, his stage name—Harry Houdini—was born.
Side note bitches: Harry and his magical inspiration, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, actually got into it in the later years when Harry accused Robert-Houdin of stealing other magician’s tricks (a BIG no-no in the magic world). In 1908, he actually wrote a book called “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin” where he branded him a fraud who “ waxed great on the brainwork of others.” This would not be Houdini’s only tell-all book, but we’ll get to those later.
At around the age of 20, in 1894, Houdini married Wilhelmina Rahner who went by Bess, short for her middle name Beatrice. She was born in New York, the daughter of German immigrants and became his stage partner.
Houdini’s magical break came in 1899, when he was booked to tour with Martin Beck, a vaudeville impresario, around the United States and Europe. On Beck’s advice, Houdini made his escapes the central part of his act. He was big on audience participation, and would challenge viewers to tie him up or lock him in handcuffs themselves.
He also promoted his shows by staging escapes from local jails. Typically, this would involve being strip-searched by police first then put in handcuffs. Needless-to-say, the public loved it and the newly christened “King of Handcuffs” played to sold-out crowds across Europe. He would later cement this fame by staging high-profile escapes back home in the US. During one stunt, he jumped into a New York River with his hands cuffed behind his back, and, in another, he broke out of the jail cell that once held Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James A. Garfield.
A group of Boston businessmen challenged Houdini to attempt the most bizarre stunt of his career in 1911. They wanted him to escape from the belly of a 1,500-pound “sea monster” that had washed up in the city’s harbor. Historian’s still have no idea what kind of “sea monster” this creature was, it’s been described as everything from a whale to a leatherback turtle, but regardless, Houdini was game.
Thousands of spectators watched while the magician, 37-ish at the time, was handcuffed, shackled in leg irons and wedged into the rotting carcass. The creature was then covered in chains and placed behind a curtain. A mere 15-minutes later, he emerged triumphant. However, he did later admit that he nearly died of suffocation due to the fumes of the chemicals that were used to embalm the creature.
Another fun sidenote: Beyond having a passion for magic, Harry was also into planes. In 1909, he purchased a French-made Voisin biplane and became one of the world’s first private pilots. Though we should point out that he did crash in Germany during his maiden flight.
Houdini was a staunch supporter of the US’s involvement in World War I and actually persuaded the Society of American Magicians to sign loyalty oaths to President Woodrow Wilson. He would later cancel a tour so he could devote himself to exclusively entertaining soldiers and raising money for the war effort. He even went so far as to draw on his experience to help train American troops through a series of classes that were held at New York’s Hippodrome. He would train “doughboys” or infantry soldiers how to escape from sinking ships, handcuffs, ropes and other restraints in the event of capture.
Houdini’s career was pretty dangerous (go figure) and his sea monster near-death-experience wasn’t the only one. In 1915, he almost suffocated performing a stunt where he was shackled and buried under six feet of dirt.
Harry was also vehemently against spiritualism, which is ironic because Houdini seances are still conducted at The Magic Castle (you can learn more about the Magic Castle in our episode Hollywood’s Most Haunted: Knickerbocker Hotel, Magic Castle & Hollywood Forever Cemetery) however, we’ll get to that part of the story later… right now you need to know that he firmly believed that the majority of people who practiced spiritualism (such as Mediums) were con men (and women).
In 1922, Houdini and Bess were invited to a seance held by a medium, Lady Doyle, who was the wife of his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (writer of Sherlock Holmes). Sir Arthur Doyle was convinced that the use of spiritualism could connect him with his son Kingston Doyle who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. He also believed that, despite the fact that Houdini denied it, he, in fact, possessed the supernatural abilities he needed to do this. In fact, despite Houdini’s disbelief, this was at least one of the reasons they were friends.
In any case, this seance was to be held at the ambassador hotel in Atlantic City. During which, Lady Doyle knocked on the table three times and claimed to be in contact with Houdini’s mother who passed away in 1913. She then proceeded to write 15-pages of messages to Houdini as his mother. Houdini accepted the letters and peaced it… but he was PISSED. Also, no word on whether or not Kingston Doyle was contacted this evening or not. The letters were written to Houdini entirely in English, a language his mother did not know how to speak let alone write.
This incident seemed to be the final straw for Houdini. He went into full early-1900s troll mode and was set on exposing and destroying spiritualists. He did that through a series of right-to-the-point-titled-books:
- Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: A complete expose of the modus operandi of fire eaters, heat resisters, poison eaters, Venomous reptile defiers, sword swallowers, human ostriches, strong men, etc which exposed the tricks behind sideshow acts that claimed impossible feats.
- Then his page-turner, A Magician Among the Spirits which featured a 40-page illustrated pamphlet dedicated solely to take down one medium in particular, Boston’s Mina Crandon AKA Margery. He titled the pamphlet Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium “Margery”
At this time, he also began lecturing around the country about “fraudulent spiritualist phenomena.” In 1926, he testified in front of Congress to lobby for a bill that would regulate mediums and fortune-tellers, and would have the potential to charge those “pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation” with a crime.
The death of Houdini
On October 11, 1926, Houdini broke his left ankle during a performance in Albany, New York. He was shackled into his “Chinese Water Torture Cell” (a direct quote guys, that’s not us), when he was struck on the leg by a piece of faulty equipment. Houdini, ever the show man, hobbled his way through the rest of the show, finishing the performance. But he suffered a fractured left ankle.
Against doctor’s orders, which suggested he take a break and heal, Houdini and Bess made their way to his next performance in Montreal, Quebec.
On October 22, Houdini performed a show at the Princess Theatre in Montreal. His ankle was still bothering him at the time but he managed to get through the performance. A few days before during his trip to the city, Houdini had lectured at McGill University to a crowd of students.
After the October 22 performance, some of those medical students were hanging out with him in his dressing room when one of the students, Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, asked if Houdini could really resist a punch in the abdomen like he’d been saying. When Houdid said yes, Whitehead asked if he could punch him in the stomach. He agreed.
Witness Sam Smilovitz, another student, said that at this time Houdini was inclined on the couch and not prepared to receive the punches when Whitehead “abruptly delivered four or five terribly forcible, deliberate, well-directed blows to his stomach.”
Later that evening, Houdini began to complain about stomach cramps during their 15-hour train ride to Detroit where his next show was. During the commute, he was in a great deal of pain from both his stomach and ankle, and arrived in the city with a fever of 104 degrees.
The October 24, performance at the Garrick Theatre was sold out. A doctor came to visit Houdini at the theatre before his performance and diagnosed him with acute appendicitis. He told him that he needed to cancel the show and rush to the hospital immediately. Houdini refused declaring “I’ll do this show if it’s my last.” He struggled through his routine and promptly collapsed as soon as the final curtain had closed. He was rushed to the hospital.
That night he had an operation to remove his already-burst appendix. And while the surgery was successful, the delay in treatment had already poisoned his insides. A second surgery was performed to mitigate this but it was too late.
Houdini died on October 31, 1926, of a severe case of sepsis with his wife and two of his brothers at his side. The official cause of his death was Petronius caused by a ruptured appendix. At the time, the doctor thought it was a direct result of him being punched in the stomach, and newspapers immediately began to speculate about foul play.
So, did Houdini die naturally or was it murder?
Theory #1 Whitehead accidently caused the appendicitis
The going theory of doctors at the time was that the appendicitis was caused by the punches that student Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead delivered to Houdini in his dressing room on the night of October 22.
However, a 2013 study in the World Journal of Emergency Surgery stated that “appendicitis as the result of blunt force trauma is extremely rare.” Does that mean that it’s not possible, not necessarily. But despite the fact that “such cases of traumatic appendicitis are extraordinarily rare” a different study did find that a couple dozen suspected cases did happen over a period of 20 years.
But that’s today’s medicine, and to the extent or not that they still debate these findings we don’t know. However, it’s medically unlikely that the cause was Whitehead’s punch and more likely that it was coincidence. However, in 1926, that diagnosis was widely accepted. Houdini’s life insurance company was even forced to pay his wife a double indemnity for an accidental death.
#2. Houdini developed appendicitis naturally
Looking critically at the fact that, medically speaking, it’s likely the punch from Whitehead didn’t cause Houdini’s appendicitis, it’s more likely that the pain caused by the punch simply caused him to ignore an already existing ailment.
It’s possible that he had a case of bad luck and refusing medical treatment simply made things worse. By the time that Houdini actually did go see a doctor, it was much too late.
#3. Whitehead was an assassin sent to murder Houdini
On a slightly less-realistic note, some believe that Houdini was assassinated by Whitehead. It’s no secret that Houdini had no shortage of enemies, including other magicians, mediums and basically the entire field of spiritualism.
Some theorize that Whitehead was hired to assassinate the illusionist and that because he was a medical student, he knew how to do it best… by punching him. This theory is really weak, it would be a pretty ineffective assassin who chose to try to punch appendicitis into someone. Talk about a lucky kill.
#4. Someone poisoned Houdini while he was in the hospital
According to the biography “the secret life of Houdini” poisoning was the preferred method of murder for the spiritual community, who clearly disliked Houdini. Despite receiving plenty of death threats, Houdini and Bess travelled without security.
So, in theory, it is possible that someone could have had an opportunity to murder him in hospital. To make this theory a little more murkey, he was buried without an autopsy so there really is no evidence to prove or disprove this.
The sudden death of Harry Houdini shocked the world. He was laid to rest in Queens on November 4, 1926, but rumours about the unusual way he died have persisted. It seemed unreal that someone who constantly lived on the edge could die from something as simple as appendicitis.
However, if he was murdered, it seemed the effort was futile. Long after his death, Houdini’s legacy continued to discredit spiritualism. Bess and Harry had decided that when one of them died, the other would try to contact them. They had a prearranged code that could prove it was really them.
Bess held the annual Houdini seance for 10 years on the eve of his death before abandoning the search for him in the afterlife in 1936. Her last words on the matter was, “10 years is too long to wait for any man.”
No medium was ever able to relay the code. Since Bess’s efforts ceased, friends and magicians have continued to hold the tradition every Halloween. There is an official Houdini seance that is held every year in the same city. And Los Angeles’ Magic Castle ironically has a Harry Houdini seance room.
Did you love this episode? Check these other gems out:
- Hollywood’s Most Haunted: Knickerbocker Hotel, Magic Castle & Hollywood Forever Cemetery: The Magic Castle has a Houdini room, you can learn more about it by checking out the episode.
- Sea Creatures Part 2: Good Ol’Locky, the Sea Bishop & Vodyanoy: Houdini probably didn’t escape from inside the Loch Ness Monster, but you can here more about that creature here!
- The Dark Side of Disney: Ghosts at the Park: Can’t visit Disneyland? No problem, you can hear about all of the ghosts.
- Throwback: The Bell Witch of Tennessee: Let’s get our witch on!
- Is Missing Lord Lucan the Ghost of Galway? Is Lord Lucan Andrea’s long lost cousin-in-law? No… but there is a connection, listen in to find out more!
The Lady Dicks did not just magically come up with the information for Who Killed Harry Houdini? The Mysterious Death Of The Greatest Illusionist In History themselves, they, in fact, did research beyond Wikipedia (thanks jerky iTunes reviewer for your one-star comment), and here are those sources:
- Buzzfeed Unsolved True Crime: The Suspicious Death of Harry Houdini.
- What killed Harry Houdini? History.com.
- 10 things you may not know about Harry Houdini, History.com.
- Harry Houdini, Biography.com.
The Lady Dicks Podcast was created by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks are Andrea Campion, Nikki Kipping and Tae Haahr. “Who Killed Harry Houdini? The Mysterious Death Of The Greatest Illusionist In History” was research, written, edited and produced by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks theme music, A Pink Panther, is licenced through AudioJungle.
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