A Strange Death: Harry Houdini on October 31st

Halloween traces its roots to a 2000-year-old Celtic festival that marked not only the separation between harvest and the dark days of winter but a liminal time when the veil between this and the spirit world was lifted.

If Houdini’s spirit was going to return to the world of the living, Halloween seemed like the perfect time. The fact that Houdini had died on Halloween sealed the date. 

Master magician Harry Houdini made a living wowing audiences and escaping from death-defying situations. But this day in 1926 the Great Houdini was unable to cheat death one more time and succumbed to peritonitis resulting from a ruptured appendix at age 52.

“Harry Houdini is famous for his incredible feats of magic,” says historian David C. Ward of the National Portrait Gallery, “all of which required meticulous planning and preparation.”

Houdini started out with card tricks at small venues and progressed to escape acts on the vaudeville circuit, eventually earning the title of “The Handcuff King.” “For him,” illusionist David Blaine noted to The New York Times in October of last year, “sometimes the difficult thing was keeping the handcuffs on.”

As Houdini’s stature as a performer increased, he had to up the ante with new stunts to please spectators. “I knew, as everyone knows,” wrote Houdini, “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.”

Amidst the sensation,” says Ward, “what is not as well known, however, is that Houdini also spent much of his career debunking and exposing charlatans and con-men who used aspects of magic, especially séances with the dead, to dupe a credulous public. Spiritualism had an upsurge after World War I as populations that had suffered horrendous loses sought ways of coping. But Houdini dismissed claims of the supernatural as so much quackery that cruelly played on the hopes of those who had lost loved ones.”

It’s likely Houdini’s appendix would have burst on its own without striking. Houdini still continued to travel while in severe pain, and arrived in Detroit on October 24, 1926 for what would be his final performance. He took the stage at Garrick Theater even with a fever of 104 and a diagnosis of acute appendicitis. When Houdini had surgery to remove his appendix later that afternoon, doctors discovered it had ruptured and that he was suffering from peritonitis. Houdini died of peritonitis seven days later October 31 at age 52.

“Houdini’s death was ironic and tragic in equal measure, ” says Ward. “His escape artistry required him to be in incredible physical condition, able to endure small spaces in a twisted pose and capable of wriggling free from straitjackets, chains and other ingenious restraints. His body was battered and bruised both by the acts themselves and all the training.”

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