Updated: Jul 17
Do you truly know the story behind the death of the world's most famous magician, Harry Houdini?
For decades, Hollywood and sensationalist tales have woven a cloak of confusion around the truth of Houdini's demise, creating a narrative more fiction than fact.
If you're eager to pull back the curtain, you've come to the right place.
This blog post ventures beyond the spectacle, spotlighting the lies and revealing the true legacy of this legendary escape artist. We're here to unravel the mystery of Houdini's death, not through the lens of Hollywood's fanciful narratives, but grounded in truth and fact.
Contrary to popular belief, Houdini's death was not caused by a failed illusion.
So, let's embark on this intriguing journey and uncover the reality behind the magic, man, and myth of Harry Houdini.
How Did Houdini Really Die?
In this blog post, we'll explore lesser-known facts about Houdini's life, including his brother's involvement in magic, his mission to debunk psychic mediums, his foray into aviation, and his shocking final words.
Plus, did you know the Houdini Code is real?
The Houdini Code is a secret pact between Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess, to attempt communication from beyond the grave.
There is a ton of fascinating history you'll want to learn about Houdini and his untimely death below.
If you can't wait to learn the truth, here's the biggest takeaway:
Harry Houdini's demise on October 31, 1926, unfolded over several preceding days. On October 22, in his dressing room in Montreal, Houdini was abruptly punched in the stomach by a student who heard a popular rumor about Houdini's ability to withstand any abdominal blow. Houdini disregarded the severe pain and continued with performances but his condition rapidly deteriorated, leading to hospitalization. It was revealed Houdini had a ruptured appendix. Despite two surgeries, Houdini's condition worsened, culminating in fatal peritonitis.
Did the punch rupture Houdini's appendix? A new theory suggests otherwise! Read on!
Prepare for the unveiling of recently surfaced information that casts new light on Houdini's fascinating life and death.
Join us as we discover the captivating world of Houdini.
Table of Contents
Harry Houdini, born on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, was initially named Ehrich Weisz. He was the son of Rabbi Mayer Weisz and Cecilia Steiner.
Ehrich was one of seven children, having four brothers, including fellow magician and escape artist Theo Hardeen, and two sisters.
In pursuit of a better life, the Weisz family emigrated to the United States when Ehrich was only four. They settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as a rabbi.
Where Houdini Lived in Appleton
Houdini often referred to Appleton as his birthplace, fondly calling it his ‘hometown.’
He lived at 114 S. Appleton Street, now called Houdini Plaza and dedicated to Houdini’s life and career.
Who Influenced Houdini and Where Did Houdini Get His Name?
Ehrich showed interest in magic from a very young age and was influenced by the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, after reading his autobiography.
In 1891 he began his career as a professional magician.
He adopted the stage name ‘Harry Houdini,’ ‘Harry’ being the American version of his nickname ‘Ehrie,’ and ‘Houdini’ as an homage to Robert-Houdin.
He added the “i” to the name because, in Hungarian, it means “belongs to.”
What Did Houdini Look Like?
As for Houdini’s physical appearance, he was not particularly imposing, standing about 5’6” (1.68m) tall. However, he possessed a strong, athletic build that was vital to many of his escape performances.
Houdini had medium blue eyes that added to his charismatic stage presence.
Houdini’s early years were marked by struggle and hardship, including dire poverty. He eventually relocated with his family to New York City, where he took several jobs as a child, including a trapeze artist.
His beginnings in Appleton and his dedication to magic from an early age played a crucial role in shaping the legendary performer we continue to remember today.
Harry Houdini’s professional career in magic began in earnest with card tricks. He worked for starvation wages at dime museums showcasing curiosities for ten cents.
At this time, he billed himself as the ‘King of Cards’ and focused primarily on traditional card tricks.
Houdini also worked in sideshows, a form of entertainment that typically accompanied circuses and carnivals, performing magic tricks and began to experiment with escape acts.
These early experiences gave Houdini a deep understanding of audiences and performance art.
Performing With His Brother
In the early 1890s, he teamed up with his brother, Theodore and began appearing under the name ‘The Brothers Houdini.’
Theodore, known as ‘Dash,’ would later become a successful magician in his own right, adopting the stage name ‘Theodore Hardeen.’
The Brothers Houdini performed at the Chicago World’s Fair and dime museums in New York City.
Who is Bess Houdini?
During these early years of his career, Houdini met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, known as ‘Bess.’ Bess was a singer and dancer performing at Coney Island, and Houdini was instantly smitten.
They married in 1894, just three weeks after they first met.
Bess became Houdini’s stage assistant and an integral part of his performance. Bess Houdini was also his lifelong companion and played an essential role in his life and career.
Houdini’s Big Break
Houdini’s big break came when Martin Beck, an influential entertainment manager, discovered him in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Beck was impressed by Houdini’s handcuff escapes rather than his card tricks. He advised Houdini to concentrate on escape acts and soon booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit.
This led to significant success, as audiences were captivated by Houdini’s daring feats and charismatic showmanship.
This stage of Houdini’s life laid the foundation for the iconic figure he would become, setting him on a path that would change the face of magic and illusion forever.
Rise to Fame
Harry Houdini’s rise to stardom culminated in his relentless dedication, charismatic showmanship, and constant push to challenge the limits of possibility.
His fame spread to Europe, where he performed in some of the most prestigious theaters and astonished audiences with his daring escape acts.
Houdini became a global sensation due to his fearless escapes, ability to take risks, and impressive marketing skills.
Challenges, Escapes, and Publicity Stunts
Houdini’s escapes were as varied as they were breathtaking and were presented to the public as real, adding a sense of danger and thrill to his performances.
Houdini was skilled at crafting the narrative of his performances, often devising his own challenges to ensure his escape and maintain his reputation as a master escape artist.
What Did Houdini Escape From?
His repertoire included:
Escaping from handcuffs in darkened cells.
Wriggling free from packing boxes.
Extricating himself from straitjackets (often while suspended upside down from cranes or buildings).
Breaking out of jail cells.
Escaping from iron boxes.
One of his most famous escapes was the ‘Chinese Water Torture Cell,’ in which he was suspended upside down in a water-filled tank with his feet locked in stocks.
Houdini was a master of publicity.
His stunts were dramatic and eye-catching, designed to draw crowds and media attention.
He would often perform escapes in public places, like jumping manacled from a bridge into a river or allowing himself to be buried alive and escaping. His skill and audacity made headlines, drawing huge crowds to his shows.
Challenges were crucial to Houdini’s success. He would often set up the challenges himself, controlling the parameters to ensure a successful escape.
He presented these as spontaneous challenges from the audience or local authorities, enhancing his performances’ spectacle and perceived risk.
Houdini did receive authentic challenges, but if one presented a situation he couldn’t handle, he ignored it.
By turning his shows into spectacles and taking control of the narrative, Houdini became not just a magician or escape artist but a captivating figure of mystery and adventure.
The allure of Houdini was about more than his ability to escape; it was about the daring, audacious figure who seemed to laugh in the face of danger, defy the odds, and escape unscathed.
Did Houdini die while performing?
Did Houdini die while performing? No.
Many believe Houdini died performing his famous water tank mystery, the "Chinese Water Torture Cell," because of the movie's final scene.
A dramatic ending to the movie-- but how did Houdini die?
Houdini's Final Days and Death
Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926, but the circumstances leading up to his death began several days earlier.
In the days leading to Houdini's death, Harry Houdini performed in Montreal, Canada. He was backstage nursing a broken ankle from a stunt he had performed on October 11, 1926.
Houdini also reported a fever.
Where Was Houdini Punched?
On October 22, while Houdini was resting in his dressing room after a performance at the Princess Theater in Montreal, Canada, he was visited by a group of students.
One of them, J. Gordon Whitehead, asked Houdini if it was true that he could resist any blow to his abdomen, as rumors suggested.
Houdini replied in the affirmative, but before he could prepare himself for the blows, Whitehead punched him in the stomach.
The unexpected blow caused Houdini considerable pain but he did not seek immediate medical attention, continuing with his planned shows.
As he traveled to Detroit’s Garrick Theater, Houdini’s health rapidly deteriorated.
Despite his doctor’s advice, he performed his final show on October 24 while running a high fever and in considerable pain.
Finally, on October 25, Houdini was admitted to Grace Hospital in Detroit, where it was discovered he had a ruptured appendix.
It's believed that a blow to Houdini's stomach ruptured his appendix, but a recent theory suggests Houdini died of Peritonitis which may have already been ruptured.
Houdini's Final Words
Despite undergoing two operations, his condition continued to worsen, and Houdini succumbed to peritonitis, an inflammation of the tissue that lines the inner wall of the abdomen and covers most of the abdominal organs, resulting from his ruptured appendix.
It’s reported that Houdini’s last words were, ‘I’m tired of fighting.’
Where is Harry Houdini buried?
Harry Houdini was buried in New York State in Queens in the Machpelah Cemetery in 1926.
The Machpelah Cemetery is a Jewish cemetery within the Cemetery Belt in Glendale, Queens, New York.
He is buried with his brother Theodore Hardeen, his mother, father, grandfather, four other brothers, and a sister.
The Society of American Magicians performed a broken wand ceremony on October 31, 1996, the anniversary of the famous magician's death.
Where is Houdini Buried and Bess Houdini buried?
In his will, Houdini had left provisions for a plot for Bess next to him, but because she was not Jewish, her family refused to bury her there upon her death in 1943. Instead, Bess Houdini is interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.
Despite being laid to rest separately, Harry and Bess Houdini’s love story is one of the most enduring aspects of the great magician’s life.
Although Houdini died almost a century ago, his legacy endures as he attempted to communicate from beyond the grave.
After Life and Contacting the Spirits
Despite his penchant for the mystical in his performances, Harry Houdini was a staunch opponent of what he considered fraudulent spiritualistic practices.
Debunking Spiritualism Was Influenced by His Mother
Following the death of his beloved mother in 1913, Houdini began attending séances in an attempt to contact her.
However, he quickly became disillusioned by the methods used by the mediums and began a lifelong campaign to expose them as frauds.
Houdini attended séances in disguise, used his knowledge of magic to understand the mediums’ tricks, and even wrote a book titled ‘A Magician Among the Spirits,’ detailing his experiences and exposing the fraudulent methods used by supposed spiritualists.
His crusade against spiritualism brought him into conflict with many, including his one-time friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a firm believer in spiritualism.
The Houdini Code
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Houdini’s battle with spiritualism is what’s known as the ‘Houdini Code.’
Before his death, Houdini left a secret ten-word code with his wife, Bess.
The code was a combination of the word "Rosabelle" inscribed on Bess's wedding ring and the name of the song Bess sang when they first met and a secret magician code with the following words:
"Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray, answer, look, tell, answer, answer, tell."
Each word corresponded to a secret letter, ultimately spelling out ‘Believe.’
This was a final test, a challenge to mediums who claimed they could contact the dead. If a medium could relay this code to Bess from Houdini in the afterlife, it would be considered genuine proof of communication with the departed.
Continued Séance Tradition
Every year for a decade after Houdini’s death, Bess held a séance on Halloween, the anniversary of Houdini’s death, in an attempt to receive the secret message.
Despite numerous attempts, the code was never successfully relayed.
Bess eventually gave up the tradition, famously saying, ‘Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.’
However, the tradition of holding séances to contact Houdini continues to this day among magic enthusiasts, keeping the memory and legend of Houdini alive.
Magician Harry Houdini Fun Facts
Here are some fun facts about Harry Houdini:
Brotherly Bond: Harry Houdini was close with his brother, Theodore, who became a famous magician, Theo Hardeen. Initially, they performed together as “The Brothers Houdini,” but later, Hardeen pursued his own successful career. Even though they were competitors on stage, they remained supportive of each other throughout their lives.
Aviation Enthusiast: Houdini had a keen interest in aviation. In fact, he was one of the first people to fly a plane in Australia. He purchased a French Voisin biplane in 1909 and, in March 1910, made his successful flight in Australia.
Silver Screen Performer: Houdini had a brief but notable career in silent films. He founded his own film production company, the “Houdini Picture Corporation,” and starred in several films like “The Man from Beyond” and “Haldane of the Secret Service.” While his film career didn’t take off as he might have hoped, it is an interesting part of his diverse career.
Publishing Venture: Houdini launched his magic magazine, “Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine” in 1906. The magazine was not just about magic but also a platform for Houdini to expose fraudulent spiritualists. Although it only ran for a year, it was widely read and remains a fascinating part of magic history.
Nicknamed’ Handcuff King’: During the early part of his career, Houdini became known as the ‘Handcuff King’ because of his uncanny ability to escape from any handcuffs he was put into. The moniker stuck with him throughout his career and is still associated with his name today.
A Fight Against Fraud: Houdini spent a significant portion of his later career debunking spiritualists and mediums, going as far as to attend séances in disguise to expose fraud. His crusade was so impactful that he was asked to testify in front of a Congressional committee.
A Unique Library: Houdini had one of the largest private libraries in the world dedicated to magic and the occult. At the time of his death, it contained more than 5,000 books.
An Inventor: Not just a master of escapes, Houdini was also an inventive mind! He held several patents to his name, including one for a unique diving suit design. This patent is a testament to Houdini's fascination with escapes and constant drive to innovate and improve existing concepts.
Houdini's Honors: Harry Houdini's magical prowess didn't go unnoticed. He was inducted into the Society of American Magicians' Hall of Fame not once but twice! His influential presence was also recognized far beyond the magic community. Houdini was named one of TIME Magazine's '100 Most Influential People in History,' cementing his legacy as an icon who shaped the world as we know it.
Interesting 2020 Harry Houdini Discovery
One of Houdini's most famous escapes was his Chinese Water Torture Cell.
In this escape, Houdini was lowered upside down in a transparent tank filled with water, and he introduced the escape at Circus Busch in Berlin, Germany, on September 21, 1912.
Recently a water torture cell was discovered in Canada.
The buyer and seller have remained anonymous, but the Water Torture Cell is similar to the original Houdini Water Torture Cell, now owned by David Copperfield.
Read more on the blog Wild About Houdini.
Frequently Asked Questions about Harry Houdini’s Death
Did Houdini get punched?
Yes, Houdini was unexpectedly punched multiple times by a student in his dressing room in Montreal on October 22, 1926.
What Killed Houdini?
While the punches Houdini received may have contributed to his death, the official cause of death was peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix.
What caused Harry Houdini to die?
Houdini’s death was caused by peritonitis stemming from appendicitis, likely aggravated and spread by the blows he received from the punches.
Where did Houdini live in Appleton?
Houdini lived with his family in a small house on 243 Prospect Avenue in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Where is Harry Houdini buried?
The final resting place of Houdini can be found at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, in the United States.
Where did Houdini get punched?
Houdini was punched in the abdomen several times unexpectedly by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, during a lecture performance on October 22, 1926, in Houdini’s dressing room at the Princess Theater in Montreal.
What was Harry Houdini’s legacy?
Harry Houdini was known as the greatest escape artist of all time, and his stunts and illusions have influenced magic performances and popular culture for decades after his death.
Did Houdini have siblings?
Yes, Houdini had six siblings.
How many brothers did Houdini have?
Houdini had four brothers. In the early years, Houdini performed on stage as "The Brothers Houdini" with Theodore Hardeen, "Dash" who also achieved great success as a magician.
What did Houdini escape from?
Houdini escaped various dangerous situations, such as underwater handcuffs, straitjackets, and sometimes from a water-filled tank.
When was Houdini punched?
Houdini was punched in his dressing room at the Princess Theater in Montreal on October 22, 1926.
What were Houdini’s last words?
Harry Houdini's final words were, "I'm tired of fighting."
Is Harry Houdini still alive?
No, Harry Houdini passed away on October 31, 1926.
Harry Houdini, the name itself invokes images of breathtaking escapes, audacious stunts, and enigmatic charm.
From his humble beginnings in Budapest to his meteoric rise in the world of magic and entertainment, Houdini’s life was a testament to resilience, creativity, and an unquenchable thirst for pushing boundaries. Yet, his story transcends the narrative of a successful magician.
The enduring power of Houdini’s mythology stems from the man’s transformation into a symbolic character that encapsulates the mystery, wonder, and daring that magic embodies.
Houdini’s relentless pursuit of innovation, as demonstrated by his remarkable stunts and ingenious escape routines, revolutionized the world of magic. His performances were ahead of their time and introduced the world to a new breed of public entertainment.
At the same time, his use of sensational publicity stunts rewrote the playbook for public engagement in the performing arts.
The influence of Houdini reverberates far beyond the magic circle, touching every facet of popular culture. It is not an exaggeration to say that he shaped the landscape of contemporary magic.
Houdini’s death, a tragic culmination of an extraordinary life, amplified his legend rather than diminished it. Much like his life, the dramatic circumstances surrounding his passing veered into the realm of the mythical, etching his story permanently into the annals of history.
Nearly a century after his death, Houdini’s fame continues to endure.
His legacy resonates powerfully within and beyond the world of magic, from silent film theaters and séance rooms to magic conventions and popular literature. His life story, marked by extraordinary feats and indomitable spirit, continues to captivate, inspire, and mesmerize audiences worldwide.
In many ways, Harry Houdini remains a living, breathing character in the world’s cultural psyche - a testament to the timeless appeal of magic and the enduring power of a story well-told.
Through death-defying escapes and audacious performances, Houdini opened a portal to a world where the impossible seemed achievable, and human capability could always be pushed further. His narrative is one of not just magic but also the endless possibilities of human determination and imagination.
And in that, Harry Houdini’s true magic lies.
We've reached the end of our magical journey exploring the fascinating life of Harry Houdini. I hope you found it as engaging and inspiring as I did in writing it.
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Do you have any questions or comments about Harry Houdini or magic in general? Perhaps you found a particular aspect of his life especially interesting? Or maybe a fact or lesson from Houdini's life resonates with you? I'd love to hear your thoughts and continue the conversation in the comments section below.
Finally, don't forget to check out the recommended articles below for more captivating stories and insights. From the history of magic to profiles of other influential magicians, there's plenty more to discover.
Thank you for reading, and until next time, keep the magic alive!
What to Read Next:
Ryan Joyce is the Executive Director of the Ontario OWOW Magic Festival. Ryan is a professional magician, entertainer and speaker who has performed over 5000+ shows worldwide. He has appeared on Penn & Teller's Fool Us, Canada's Got Talent and every Canadian national television network. He has over 10+ million views on YouTube, Facebook and social media and is trusted by Fortune 500 companies to deliver world-class performance.
Resources & Links
1. Wild About Houdini: This is an excellent blog dedicated to all things Houdini, offering in-depth articles, breaking news, and insightful commentary on the life and career of the world's most famous magician.