When I tell someone I’ve written a book about Harry Houdini for the Yale Jewish Lives series, usually the first thing they say is, “I didn’t know Houdini was Jewish.” Well, he was; in fact, his father was a rabbi. The next thing I’m asked is whether it’s true that Houdini died after being punched in the stomach. The short answer is yes. The long answer—truth being harder to package than legend—is no.
In the fall of 1926, age 52, Houdini went on the road, barnstorming as always. This final tour started badly and went downhill from there: his wife Bess came down with food poisoning, and he himself broke a bone in his ankle while performing a particularly arduous trick. He persevered, ignoring the pain.
And then, on Friday morning, October 22, in his dressing room at the Princess Theatre in Montreal, he was punched hard in the stomach by an excitable McGill student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who wanted to test the theory that Houdini was capable of withstanding hard blows to the abdomen. A week later Houdini was dead. So yes, he died after being punched in the stomach.
But what was the cause of death? Houdini was already feeling unwell the day before Whitehead’s punch landed, and he felt worse the next day—though of course he continued to perform. After his Saturday evening show he could barely manage to change into his street clothes. But he had another engagement the next day in Detroit, so he boarded a night train as planned.
The Detroit doctor who examined Harry in his dressing room in the Garrick Theater on Sunday afternoon determined that acute appendicitis was most likely to blame for Harry’s abdominal pain and 102-degree fever. Instead of going to the hospital as the doctor recommended, Harry told the theater manager that the show would go on—it was sold out, as usual. He made it through his act, just barely, and afterwards again refused to go to the hospital. Instead he went to his hotel, where the house physician took one look at him and called the hospital’s chief of surgery and asked him to come to Houdini’s suite. The surgeon arrived at three o’clock in the morning and told the magician to go straight to the hospital. What did Houdini do? He telephoned his doctor in New York to ask for a second opinion.
It wasn’t until the next afternoon, Monday, October 25, that he was operated on. The surgeon saw at once that the patient’s appendix had burst, spilling bacterial pus into the abdominal cavity, a condition known as peritonitis. In the days before antibiotics, peritonitis was basically a death sentence. Houdini lived for another six days, dying early in the afternoon of Sunday, October 31, 1926. The official cause of death was diffuse peritonitis, the result of a burst appendix.
J. Gordon Whitehead’s sucker punch did not cause the appendicitis. The case for “traumatic appendicitis”—appendicitis brought on by injury—is dubious at best: “No causal link has … been found between trauma and appendicitis,” according to a surgeon’s recent review of Houdini’s case, “and the fact that these two events occurred within days of each other must be seen as coincidence.” Appendicitis is caused by bacterial infection, not a punch to the stomach. As for the idea that Whitehead’s fist might have ruptured the organ, the timeline rules it out: not even Houdini could survive nine days with a burst appendix.
Why does the cause of death matter? Because at the time of his death, Houdini was on an anti-Spiritualist crusade. He was spending about half his time debunking Spiritualism (the idea that the living can communicate with the dead) and exposing spirit mediums as frauds. Angry Spiritualists had prophesied his death—and when he died on Halloween, they quickly claimed credit for his demise. Was J. Gordon Whitehead an agent of the Spiritualists? Conspiracy theorists thought so. Others insisted that Whitehead’s fist was guided to its target by an angry spirit hovering in the Princess Theatre dressing room.
Houdini was intensely competitive. He always had to be first, always had to win. He would have hated the idea of the Spiritualists gloating over his death—which is what he’d warned they would do “if, by chance, I start to cross Fifth Avenue … and don’t get to the other side.” For his sake let’s remember that he died as a result of a bacterial infection … and his own epic stubbornness.
Adam Begley is the author of Updike and The Great Nadar. He was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, and for many years the books editor of The New York Observer.