The Houdini legend still exists, and indeed, it seems bigger and bigger with each passing decade. But we are not here to talk about Houdini’s life. Instead, we will discuss the truth about how he died.
Thanks to the hugely popular (and mostly fictional) Houdini movie, starring Tony Curtis, a common myth you often hear about how Houdini died when he drowned when he couldn’t escape. Water tanks in a performance, must eventually be pulled out of the tank as depicted in the film.
When Harry Houdini and his entourage arrived at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 1926, the Hungarian born mage and the escaped artist had a fever of 102-104 degrees Fahrenheit. Two days earlie , Houdini took a break in his dressing room before a show in Montreal when a college student named J. Gordon Whitehead approached him. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened from here because the accounts from eyewitness accounts are a bit conflicting. However, the general story seems to be that Whitehead asked Houdini if the claim that he could withstand any punch in the stomach had any truth to it. Houdini assured him that it was right and allowed him to see it for himself.
Whitehead immediately took a few jabs in the middle of Houdini while the magician was still leaning back (he recently broke his ankle during his famous water escape) and supposedly had no chance. Prepare for the Whitehead shots. The punch caused more pain than Houdini predicted, and after a few fists in his gut, he motioned for Whitehead to stop. Although physical pain continued even after Whitehead stopped punching him, not to mention his broken ankle, Houdini emphasized that the evening’s performance must go as planned.
By the time Houdini was heading to his next show in Detroit, his condition had worsened. He had a high fever and although he refused to go to the hospital, he was examined by a doctor before the performance. The doctor diagnosed Houdini’s disease with acute appendicitis and suggested that he immediately go to the hospital for surgery. Houdini refused and went on stage.
He began performing with a number of disappearing actions, culminating in making a woman disappear and evoking a flowering shrub in her place. He did it through the first act, but his condition worsened and he was forced to have his assistant end the program.
After the show ended, Houdini went back to the hotel to rest, but his wife, Bess, said that he was angry that he would not go to the hospital and a doctor was invited to check in. him again. The conclusion was that Houdini needed immediate hospitalization and surgery. Houdini was still not interested in the idea, but after consulting with his own physician, Dr. William Stone, over the phone, he finally agreed to go to Grace Hospital in Detroit to remove emergency appendix.