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Claim: Escape artist Harry Houdini died from a ruptured appendix caused by his being punched in the stomach by a college student.
Origins: Nearly everyone familiar with world-famous magician and escape artist Harry Houdini has heard the common explanation of his death: A boastful Houdini, trying to impress some college students, explained that by tightening his abdominal muscles he could withstand the hardest blows to his midsection a man could deliver. One of the students present decided to test Houdini's claim and rained blows to the magician's
Although some of the basic facts of this description are correct, the assumption of cause and effect is not.
Despite having broken his ankle while performing his famous Water-Torture Cell escape in Albany several days earlier, Houdini, ever the trouper, kept his engagement at the Princess Theater in Montreal and opened there on
Smilovitch took Houdini up on his offer, bringing along his friend Jack Price to meet the magician in the lobby of the Princess Theater the morning of Friday,
Houdini was facing us and lying down on a couch at the time reading some mail, his right side nearest us. This first-year student engaged Houdini more or less continually whilst my friendDespite Price's first-hand account, much dispute remains over exactly what took place in Houdini's dressing room that day. Houdini's wife Bess, a nurse named Sophie Rosenblatt, and Bess's niece Julia Sawyer were also present, and the details of their stories differ. Did Joselyn Whitehead really show up after Smilovitch and Price arrived, or had Smilovitch brought him along? Was Whitehead really a McGill student, or was he an amateur boxer (or both)? Was he already known to Houdini (as he presumably was if, as some rumors report, he had shown up to return some books he had borrowed from the magician). Did Whitehead really "secure Houdini's permission" before delivering blows to the magician's stomach, or did he mistake Houdini's casual response to his query as permission to proceed and strike before Houdini was prepared? Did Houdini even really boast that he could withstand such punches?
The first-year McGill student asked Houdini whether it was true that punches in the stomach did not hurt him. Houdini remarked rather unenthusiastically that his stomach could resist much, though he did not speak of it in superlative terms. Thereupon he gave Houdini some very hammer-like blows below the belt, first securing Houdini's permission to strike him. Houdini was reclining at the time with his right side nearest Whitehead, and the said student was more or less bending over him. These blows fell on that part of the stomach to the right of the navel, and were struck on the side nearest to us, which was in fact Houdini's right side; I do not remember exactly how many blows were struck. I am certain, however, of at least four very hard and severe body blows, because at the end of the second or third blow I verbally protested against this sudden onslaught on the part of this first-year student, using the words, "Hey there. You must be crazy, what are you doing?" or words to that effect, but Whitehead continued striking Houdini with all his strength.
Houdini stopped him suddenly in the midst of a punch, with a gesture that he had had enough. At the time Whitehead was striking Houdini, the latter looked as though he was in extreme pain and winced as each blow was struck.
Houdini immediately after stated that he had had no opportunity to prepare himself against the blows, as he did not think that Whitehead would strike him as suddenly as he did and with such force, but that he would have been in a better position to prepare for the blows if he had risen from his couch for this purpose, but the injury to his foot prevented him from getting about rapidly.
Whatever happened, Houdini was definitely suffering from severe stomach pains later by mid-afternoon, although he carried on with that evening's show and two more performances the next day. On the train to Detroit (where Houdini was scheduled to begin a two-week run of shows the following day), he was suffering mightily from the pain in his stomach, so a worried Bess telegraphed ahead and arranged for a doctor to be standing by at their hotel when they arrived. Unfortunately, their train was late, and the Houdinis thus had no time to check into their hotel and headed straight for the theatre instead. The doctor finally caught up with Houdini, examined him in the dressing room, found him to be running a fever of 104°F, diagnosed acute appendicitis, and proclaimed that Houdini should be taken straight to a hospital by ambulance. Bess allegedly did not hear the doctor's diagnosis, and Houdini supposedly told the worried theater owner, prophetically, "I'll do this show if it's my last."
Houdini rushed through his show and was clearly not performing well; before the third act began he finally decided that he could not carry on by himself and had his assistants finish some of his tricks for him. (Houdini did not collapse on stage, as is often reported, nor did he have to be rescued from the Water-Torture cell by an axe-wielding assistant, as portrayed in various film biographies.) Even then, Houdini would still not seek medical treatment, returning to his hotel before finally Bess "threw a tantrum" and summoned the hotel physician. The physician called a surgeon, who examined Houdini and told him that he must be hospitalized at once. Still, Houdini demurred, calling his personal physician,
In the aftermath of Houdini's death, the assumption was made that the blows to his stomach and his ruptured appendix were related. It seemed a logical conclusion at the time, even to some of his doctors, and so the legend began. With the advantage of several decades of hindsight, however, we now know this explanation to be dubious. Most modern medical experts assert that appendicitis caused by blunt trauma is impossible and/or unknown in medical history, and while the blows to Houdini's stomach may indeed have hastened the magician's death, that result came about in a way different than commonly believed. Houdini was likely already suffering from appendicitis at the time Whitehead punched him, and he may have written off his subsequent discomfort merely as residual pain caused by those blows, thereby delaying his seeking medical treatment until it was too late. Had the dressing room incident not occurred, Houdini might have realized the pain was actually a symptom of a serious medical condition and not delayed so long in consulting doctors.
Sightings: The 1987 film Planes, Trains and Automobiles includes the following quote: "Hey you could have killed me by punching me in the stomach like that when I wasn't
Last updated: 30 October 2006
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