GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Halloween is all about the horrifying and the haunting, the wicked and the wacky, embracing all things spooky and mysterious.
In the early 20th century, no one was more mystifying and mysterious than Harry Houdini — a magician that defied the odds and wowed crowds with his escape acts.
In a way, it’s fitting that the world-famous magician died on Halloween in 1926, in Michigan of all places. It’s even more fitting that his death, like so many of his illusions, still contains a shroud of mystery.
BORN TO PERFORM
Houdini’s real name is Erik Weisz. He was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1874 before migrating to the United States with his family and eventually settling in Wisconsin.
Weisz was born to be a performer. As a young kid he performed on the trapeze for local circuses, eventually travelling to New York City and performing in vaudeville shows. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Weisz became a professional magician in 1891, taking the name Harry Houdini as a nod to two of his favorite performers, French magician Jean Eugene Robert Houdin and American magician Harry Kellar.
Houdini first started his act in small venues, focusing on card tricks. But he continued to raise the stakes, eventually performing death-defying stunts. For Houdini, the higher the stakes, the bigger the crowds.
In a letter, Houdini is quoted saying, “I knew, as everyone knows, that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death.”
“The Handcuff King” as he became known could escape from any predicament leading up to one of his most popular stunts: The Water Torture Cell. The tank was a steel and glass cabinet filled to the brim with water.
Ever the showman, Houdini would describe the cabinet and allow a member of the audience to pick where the cell would be placed on stage to show there was no trick door. Then, he would invite another member of the audience to come up and inspect the cell, offering up $1,000 if they could find any flaws that could help Houdini escape.
Then came the stunt. With his feet clamped in stocks, Houdini was lowered into the cell upside-down, with the stocks acting as a lid. Houdini’s assistants would draw the curtains and standby with an axe at the ready, just in case. An orchestra would play a song called “Asleep in the Deep” as attendees achingly watched the seconds tick by, waiting for the magician to emerge valiantly.
While some of Houdini’s tricks are still a mystery, the Water Torture Cell was eventually solved, requiring extreme strength, flexibility and showmanship.
However, it wasn’t a death-defying feat that killed Houdini. It was his body — one that he used to his advantage and relied upon to perform many of his tricks. And though we know the cause of death, the famous magician’s death isn’t entirely solved.
A BLOW TO THE GUT
By 1926, Houdini was a household name. He had performed a one-man show on Broadway including some sleight-of-hand and his iconic escapes. The show had done so well that he decided to take his act on the road.
That’s how the legend ended up in Montreal on Oct. 22.
There are several differing accounts of what happened that day, but the widely accepted story is that Houdini was resting on a couch while having his portrait sketched by a student at Montreal’s McGill University.
The legend goes that the student asked to test Houdini’s iron stomach, one that the magician would often brag about, claiming he could absorb any blow above the waist. Houdini allegedly agreed, but the student struck him with three quick blows before the magician could tighten his abdomen to protect himself.
Houdini survived the blows but was in considerable pain. Ever the showman, the tour continued. He arrived in Detroit on Oct. 24 and took the stage for the final time.
Despite being diagnosed with acute appendicitis and a 104-degree fever, he still performed, struggling through his routine at the sold-out Garrick Theater and collapsing shortly after the final curtain. Houdini had his appendix removed the next day, but an infection had already set in. He died on Halloween with his wife and two brothers at his side. He was 52 years old.
The official cause of death was peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. The question is whether the punches in Montreal caused Houdini’s appendix to rupture or if it was unrelated — or if Houdini mistakenly thought his severe stomach pain was from the punches instead of a serious medical problem.
His death also sparked a lot of controversy. Many biographers and super fans have researched whether something nefarious happened to Houdini, including whether the McGill student was actually a hired gun.
It made sense that Houdini could be a target. He wasn’t loved by all, including many “spiritualist” performers. Besides turning his grand illusions, Houdini’s other hobby was exposing mediums — who would conduct fake seances to connect with the dead — something the magician believed “cruelly played on the hopes of those who had lost loved ones.”
Aside from regularly exposing spiritualists during their performances, he testified before Congress to support a bill to regulate mediums and fortune tellers. While theories abound, there was no formal investigation and many biographers concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to piece together a criminal plot.
Still, as recently as 2007, Houdini’s grandnephew called for the body be exhumed and tested for traces of poison. However, the magician’s descendants didn’t follow through the proper channels and the petition was eventually dropped.
GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Houdini’s death shocked the nation, making headlines in some of the world’s biggest newspapers. His body was brought back to New York City and was laid to rest Nov. 4 at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, drawing giant crowds for one last time.
While Houdini was outspoken against psychic performers, he wasn’t a cynic. He became infatuated with communicating with the dead after his mother died, partially fueling his rage against the so-called “flimflammers.”
Houdini and his wife, Bess, believed that they could connect with each other’s spirits and vowed that when one of them died, the other would try to connect with the spirit world, including a pre-arranged code as a test to weed out the liars.
Ever year on Halloween, Bess would hold a séance to try and connect with her late husband. On Oct. 31, 1936, after 10 different tries, she threw in the towel, reportedly telling the crowd, “10 years is long enough to wait for any man.”
— Correction: A previous version mistakenly referred to Houdini’s grandnephew as his grandchild. We regret the error, which has been fixed.