Welcome to Bob King's Houdini Tribute

Houdini's Death

Houdini Houdini Houdini died of peritonitis resulting from appendicitis
in Detroit, Michigan,
at Grace Hospital in room 401
at 1:26 P.M. on October 31, 1926, Halloween.
He is buried at Machpelah Cemetery,
82-30 Cypress Hills Street, Queens, New York.
His entire family is buried there, mother, father, sister and brothers -
but not his wife Bess.
A plot next to Harry was planned for her,
but she couldn't be laid to rest there, because
Machpelah is a Jewish cemetery, and Bess was Catholic.
Bess Houdini died on a train in California enroute to NYC,
and is buried at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery,
Stevens and Bradhurst Avenues, Hawthorne, New York.

Thanks to Elliott from Stamford, CT, for the next six GREAT photos
Huge Photo of Houdini's grave site
Houdini Grave Site
Houdini Grave Site - Close Up
Houdini's Headstone
Houdini's Grave - Close up of SAM logo
Houdini's Grave - Close up of Weeping Woman Statue

Houdini's Funeral - 229k MPG
Houdini's last venue - Close-up - The Garrick Theatre, Detroit, MI
The Garrick Theatre - Big
Garrick Theatre - Postcard
Garrick Theatre - Seating Layout
Thanks to Scott Michaels from findadeath.com for obtaining the next six photos
Houdini's last venue - The Garrick Theatre, Detroit, MI
Advertisement for Houdini's last shows at Garrick
Grace Hospital, Detroit, MI
Copy of Houdini's Death Certificate
W. R. Hamilton, Co. prepared Houdini's body
Knickerbocker Hotel - site of Bess's 1936 Seance to Contact Houdini

Grace Hospital, Detroit, MI - circa 1976
Grace Hospital, Detroit, MI
Room 401 - actual room where Houdini died
Dr. Charles S. Kennedy, Houdini's surgeon, and Houdini's brother (Hardeen)
Houdini's Body Arrives at Grand Central Station, New York
Thanks to Fred Sneathern for obtaining the next photo
Houdini's Body in Casket
Houdini's Funeral
Machpelah Cemetery, Queens, NY
Machpelah Cemetery - Location Map
Thanks to Mick Hanzlik for obtaining the next photo
Houdini's grave site - Recent David Medd Photo
Houdini's Grave Site - Monument
Houdini's Grave Site - Monument Closeup
Bess and Theo (Hardeen) at Houdini's Grave
Houdini's Destroyed Monument Bust
Houdini's Death - News Headline
Houdini's Death - Newspaper clipping 1
Houdini Death - Newspaper clipping 2
Thanks to William "Wild Bill" Cutter for obtaining the next photo...
Houdini Death - Newspaper clipping 3
Houdini's Brother Theo (Hardeen) Inherits Secrets
Bess Attempts to Contact Houdini Each Year on Halloween
Saint, Bess and Hardeen
Bess Houdini on train in CA - near death
Thanks to Ginny Michaels for the next photo
Bess Houdini's grave site

Thanks to Tony Parisi, NY, for the next photos
taken at the November 21, 2002, broken wand
ceremony at Houdini's grave.

Broken Wand Ceremony 1
Broken Wand Ceremony 2
Broken Wand Ceremony 3
Broken Wand Ceremony 4
Broken Wand Ceremony 5
Broken Wand Ceremony 6
Broken Wand Ceremony 7
Broken Wand Ceremony 8
Broken Wand Ceremony 9
Broken Wand Ceremony 10
Broken Wand Ceremony 11
Broken Wand Ceremony 12



Recollections of Houdini's final show at Detroit's Garrick Theatre

E. O. Maple, a Detroit businessman, remembered Houdini as "calm and careful, but he did nothing that required unusual physical exertion. You may be sure that he was quite shrewd in concealing pain," Maple said, "but it seemed to me that throughout the program, and especially the latter part, he was a sick man."

"His departure from the stage was very impressive. He looked down at the footlights and said goodbye to the audience, and then walked backward, bowing at each step, as if it were quite an effort."

C. C. Smith, also of Detroit and a long-time Houdini fan, was present at the show, but did not recall anything that set it apart from other programs.

"Houdini's performances or exhibitions were far removed from the commonplace or natural," Smith declared, "and it is my belief and always has been that of all the people I have read about, seen or come in contact with, Houdini was one of two people that have been able to master the power of mind over matter - call it supernatural or what you may."

October, 1926, is brightly vivid in the memory of Mrs. David Gantz, Detroit housewife.

"My husband and I were married that month," Mrs. Gantz told me. "The show was scheduled to start at 8:30 but it didn't begin until after 9 o'clock. Houdini looked very bad, very pale. Several times during the show he touched his side. A young woman who assisted him seemed concerned and nervous about his condition. We could see through his tricks."

Mrs. Gantz said she had no prior knowledge of magic "but we could see through his tricks." The Gantzes were the guests that night of Harry Rickles, Toledo, O.

"I bought six tickets for the opening performance as soon as they were put on sale," Mr. Rickles remembered. "The seats, if memory serves, were on the right side of the orchestra and we were in the fourth or fifth row."

"Everyone was restless and impatient with waiting. It had been announced that there was a delay due to late arrival of personnel and equipment from Toronto, the previous stop. But at long last the show got started."

"From the first curtain, I was terribly disappointed. Harry Houdini who I believe was one of the great masters of his art, muffed and exposed his own tricks. For example, he covered a bare table with a cape and then uncovered it to show a large bowl filled with water and gold fish. He was so clumsy we saw how it was done. His assistant had to help him with a silk flag and streamers because he faltered in taking them from the receptacle. And there were other signs that would make-one who had never seen Houdini before believe he was not so hot."

"Next morning, the newspapers carried the story that he had tried to work with a ruptured appendix and reported that immediately after the performance he was rushed to the hospital for surgery. Not until we read of his death did we realize that he had probably killed himself trying to perform for us."

"That night I saw him give what I believe was his most magnificent, yet poorest performance. I still think he was terrific."


The Strange Truth About Houdini's Death
The 1953 movie Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh did much to create the commonly-held belief that Houdini died onstage attempting to perform the Water Torture Cell illusion.

The sad truth is that Houdini was in the middle of a U.S. tour in the fall of 1926 when he and Bess began to experience severe stomach discomfort. A performer to the core, Houdini refused medical treatment, because that would have meant missing some shows. Quite possibly Houdini was suffering from the onset of appendicitis, and his own stubborn refusal to see a doctor might have spelled his doom.

Houdini was tired, and unusually accident-prone. In Albany, NY, his ankle broke as he was being lifted into the Water Torture Cell. In pain, he continued to perform. A few days later, in Canada, he allegedly was punched in the stomach by a university student who was testing Houdini's well-known ability to withstand blows to the body. That punch may or may not have been the cause of Houdini's ruptured appendix; regardless, Houdini collapsed onstage in Detroit, and was admitted to Grace Hospital, suffering from peritonitis.

Bess was also admitted to the hospital to be treated for her stomach ailments. Every day for nearly a week, she was wheeled into Houdini's room to see him.

On October 31, with his brother Hardeen at his side, Houdini passed away. His last words were, "I'm tired of fighting".

Houdini left an estate of about $500,000 to his wife. To his brother Hardeen, he left his show, his equipment and his magic secrets. Houdini's instructions were that Hardeen should use the equipment, but that it should be burned at Hardeen's death. Luckily for magic historians and collectors, Hardeen sold the show and nothing was destroyed. (Jack Flosso, owner of Flosso-Hornmann Magic Co., remembers seeing Hardeen lining the bottom of his doves' cages with Houdini posters, however.)

Though Houdini officially died of peritonitis, Bess was able to collect double indemnity on his insurance policy, claiming the blow was equivalent to "an accident directly causing the premature demise of Harry Houdini".

One macabre sidebar: in the summer of 1926, a few months before he died, Houdini heard about a magician who had sealed himself inside a box and had been lowered into water, where he allegedly stayed for over an hour, submerged, before coming up out of the water and the box, triumphant. Houdini purchased a bronze coffin and had himself locked into it and submerged in a hotel swimming pool for an hour and a half before the coffin was pulled out of the water and opened to reveal a smiling, healthy Houdini. Houdini took the coffin on tour with him in the fall, displaying it in the lobbies of the theaters he played. He jokingly instructed his wife to use the coffin should anything happen to him while on tour. Sadly, it was in that very coffin that Houdini's body was returned to New York for burial.


Houdini probably did *not* die because of a student's forceful punch, though the condition that caused his death may have been aggravated by that punch.

In fact, Houdini died of acute peritonitis (an infection of the abdominal lining--in this case a streptococcus infection) secondary to inflammation and rupture of the appendix. Though it is commonplace to attribute the burst appendix to the blow delivered by the student in Houdini's dressing room, it is likely that Houdini was already suffering from the appendicitis when that blow was delivered. This is likely because [a] appendicitis, which is an infection, is not known to be caused by blunt trauma; and [b] it is quite likely that Bess and others desired to connect Houdini's unexpected demise with the "accident" of the blow to the abdomen, so that the insurance company would pay double indemnity on Houdini's life insurance policy. (It is also possible that Houdini's "adopted birthday" of 06 April 74 and Theo Weiss' adopted birthday of 29 Feb 76 were also contrived for purposes of bypassing the citizenship process, and were possibly perpetuated for insurance purposes. [See Kenneth Silverman, _Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss_, (NY: HarperCollins, 196), pp. 410-413 for details of the circumstances of Houdini's demise.]


Houdini was punched by a freshman named Whitehead at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on 22 October 1926. Houdini had lectured on spiritualism at the school three days earlier by invitation of the head of the psychology department. According to court affadavits from Houdini's neice, Julia Sawyer, and from Sam Smilovitz, a student who was present at the incident, Houdini invited Smilovitz to his dressing room after some of the fellows fraternity brothers came to Houdini's performance at the Princess Theater and showed the mage a portrait of him that Smilovitz had drawn during the lecture.

Smilovitz showed up on the morning of the 22nd in the company of another student, Jacques Price, and drew another portrait while Houdini made (self-centered) small-talk. This situation was interrupted by the arrival of Whitehead, who had come to return a book that Houdini had loaned him. (Silverman points out that although some biographies identify the freshman as J. Gordon Whitehead, the only Whitehead listed in the school's yearbook among the freshmen is Wallace "Willie" Whitehead). After barraging Houdini with a variety of questions, Whitehead asked Houdini whether he could indeed withstand blows to the abdomen. Silverman provides the play by play:

Houdini ignored the question and, Smilovitz sensed, tried to divert attention from his abdominal muscles by having the students feel his forearm and back muscles instead. His dodge did not satisfy Whitehead, however, who asked again. . . . When Houdini again referred to the strength of his arms and back, Whitehead asked, "Would you mind if I delivered a few blows to your abdoment, Mr. Houdini?"

Houdini accepted the challenge. . . . Hovering over [the reclining] Houdini, elbow bent, Whitehead began punching him in the stomach. . . . After the second punch, the other student, Jacques Price, cried out in protest. . . . Whitehead socked Houdini two or three more times. . . . Then Houdini "made an arresting gesture with his hand and mumbled almost inaudibly, 'That will do.'" [Silverman, _Houdini!!!_, pp. 407-410

This series of blows apparently exacerbated an already existing but undetected case of appendicitis, and after his performance on 23 October, Houdini travelled to Detroit, where he offered yet another full performance, though feverish and in agony. He finally entered Grace hospital for emergency surgery on 25 October. He died on Halloween of 1926, at 1:26 pm, in that hospital, and his remains were then shipped to New York City for burial at Machpelah Cemetary.

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Copyright 1998-2013 by Robert R. King