The Mystery of Harry Houdini’s Death

Written By: Terri Pressley

In an age where forensic medicine appears capable of solving nearly any crime, it seems that they are now prepared to take on one of the greatest mysteries of all time: The death of Harry Houdini. Although reports at the time of his death indicate that Houdini died from complications of a ruptured appendix, but it has long been speculated that he was actually murdered.

Born Erich Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. One of seven children born to a Jewish rabbi and his wife, Erich moved with his family as a child to Appleton, Wisconsin, where he later claimed he was born. When he was 13, Erich moved with his father to New York City, taking on odd jobs and living in a boarding house before the rest of the family joined them.

It was there that he became interested in trapeze arts. Houdini held several jobs as a young boy one of which was as a locksmith's apprentice, which might account for his unusual ability to pick just about any lock known to man. In 1894, Erich launched his career as a professional magician renaming himself Harry Houdini, the first name being a derivative of his childhood nickname, "Ehrie," and the last an homage to the great French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Though his magic met with little success, he soon drew attention for his feats of escape using handcuffs.

In 1893, he married Bess, who would serve as Houdini's lifelong stage assistant. At first, Houdini's magic career was not very successful. His biggest claim to fame in the early years was his wife, fellow performer Wihelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner who performed in ‘The Floral Sisters’ at Coney Island. The couple married three weeks after falling in love at first sight.

Houdini's big break came in 1899 when he met Martin Beck, a legendary showman. Beck intrigued by Houdini's handcuff trick suggested that the magician focus his act on escaping from various traps. This hook worked moving Houdini from near obscurity to performing at the top vaudeville houses in the U.S. However, it was his trip to Europe in 1900 that would finally land the magician front and center.

Houdini was the toast of Europe. He traveled through England, Scotland, Germany, France, and even Russia. In each place he stopped, he would challenge the local police to restrain him. Time after time, authorities would handcuff, shackle, and jail the magician only to watch him escape with what appeared to be little effort.

Upon his return to the states, Houdini continued his escapist tricks, freeing himself even from ropes, chains, and straightjackets, oftentimes while hanging from a rope in plain sight of his audience. However, by 1908 his audiences began to dwindle primarily due to the large number of imitators who had emerged. This is when he developed his famous escape from a water filled milk can. With the possibility of death now a part of the act, audiences flocked back to see if Houdini could avoid the grim reaper.

It was in 1913 that he introduced his most famous act, the Chinese water torture cell. Here he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass and steel cabinet full of water. To perform this trick, he had to hold his breath for more than three minutes.

After the death of his beloved mother, Houdini became obsessed with debunking self-proclaimed psychics and mediums. His training in magic was the key to exposing frauds who previously had successfully fooled scientists and academics. It is here where the mystery surrounding Houdini's death seems to begin.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, former friend of Houdini, apparently believed that the magician was able to perform death-defying stunts because he was, himself, a powerful medium and that the reason he went around debunking others was in order to hide this fact. Doyle supposedly held information that indicated that his former friend would be killed "for hiding the truth."

As far as unlikely friendships go, it hardly gets more unlikely than that between Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and legendary illusionist Harry Houdini. Born fifteen years apart into dramatically different families, one the educated product of a proper Scottish upbringing and the other the self-made son of a Hungarian immigrant. When they met in 1920, something extraordinary began.

The pair’s unique friendship, sometimes macabre, sometimes comic, and fundamentally human, underpinned by their shared longing for lost loved ones and their adventures in the world of Spiritualism — at the time, a world with unmatched popular allure.

The notion of illusion as a central part of Spiritualism turned out to be a central binding element for Houdini and Conan Doyle — one bringing to it the skepticism of a man making a living out of illusions and the other finding in it a saving grace of sorts.

A famous quote by Houdini: “Spiritualism is nothing more or less than mental intoxication; Intoxication of any sort when it becomes a habit is injurious to the body, but intoxication of the mind is always fatal to the mind.” Houdini even called for a law that would “prevent these human leeches from sucking every bit of reason and common sense from their victims.” Still, when his father died, the 18-year-old Houdini sold his own watch to pay for a “professional psychic reunion” with the departed.

Conan Doyle, at first, seemed only interested in Spiritualism for its narrative potential, rather than “to change people’s hearts and minds,” as Sandford puts it. But after his father died when the author was 34 and, mere months later, his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given only a few months to live, Conan Doyle fell into a deep depression. Shortly thereafter, in 1893, he applied to join the Society for Psychical Research, a committee of academics aiming to study Spiritualism “without prejudice or prepossession.” Eventually, he gave up his lucrative literary career, killed off Sherlock Holmes, and dedicated himself wholly to his obsession with Spiritualism.

Yet, despite their passionate and diametrically opposed views on Spiritualism, the Conan Doyle and Houdini had something intangible but powerful in common. Walter Prince, an ordained minister and a member of the SPR in the 1920s, put it this way:

“The more I reflect on Houdini [and] Doyle, the more it seems that the two men resembled each other. Each was a fascinating companion, each big-hearted and generous, yet each was capable of bitter and emotional denunciation, each was devoted to his home and family, each felt himself an apostle of good to men, the one to rid them of certain beliefs, the other to inculcate in them those beliefs.”

According to the traditional account of his death, Houdini died from complications from a ruptured appendix on Halloween, 1926. The cause however, is the subject of much speculation. Some believe that the organ actually burst due to a blow to his stomach by a university student who wanted to see if Houdini's muscles were as strong as he claimed.

Despite this, Houdini hobbled onstage and performed his water torture escape attempt. Houdini died several days later on Halloween after performing in several more shows while in pain and with a high fever.

Most medical experts agree that it is highly unlikely that a blow to the stomach would have caused the appendix to rupture spontaneously. However, some do believe that it is possible that the appendix was already inflamed at the time of the incident and that Houdini assumed the subsequent pain to be from the blow, never realizing he had a medical problem therefore he never sought medical assistance before the appendix ruptured.

Other accounts, however, suggest that Houdini was poisoned. His relentless debunking a powerful group of psychics known as the "Spiritualists," of which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a member had enraged many members. There is evidence that suggests that the group could have poisoned the magician's food with arsenic or some other deadly substance.

In an odd twist, Houdini’s wife was a patient in the same hospital. She was treated for food poisoning.

A new biography of the legendary performer suggests that Houdini worked as a spy for Scotland Yard, monitored Russian anarchists and chased counterfeiters for the U.S. Secret Service.

“The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero” will be released on Halloween — the anniversary of Houdini’s death. Researching new information on the elusive superstar eventually led authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman to create a database of more than 700,000 pages.

The biography lays out a scenario where Houdini, using his career as cover, managed to travel the United States as well as the world while collecting information for law enforcement. The authors made the link after reviewing a journal belonging to William Melville, a British spymaster who mentioned Houdini several times.

Melville, while at Scotland Yard in the early 20th century, helped launch Houdini’s European career by allowing the performer to demonstrate his escape skills. Houdini, at a demonstration arranged by Melville, slipped free from a pair of Scotland Yard handcuffs as an audition for a London theater owner.

The book suggests that Melville’s compliance was a quid pro quo arrangement in which Houdini worked as a spy. A similar situation occurred in Chicago, where Houdini’s career took off after a publicity stunt aided by a local police lieutenant, the book said.

Some 81 years after his death, Houdini's great-nephew is seeking to exhume the magician's body to determine if he was indeed poisoned. With no autopsy performed at the time of death, there appears to be room for skepticism regarding the actual cause. New York lawyer Joseph Tacopina is assisting in the clearing any legal hurdles to the exhumation of the body on behalf of Houdini's family.

A team of top-level forensic investigators is prepared to conduct tests to solve this mystery. The team includes internationally known forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden as well as Professor James Starrs. Starrs is the forensic pathologist who studied the disinterred remains of gunslinger Jesse James and "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo. Baden chaired panels that reinvestigated the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. This noted investigative team has already noted one oddity in Houdini's death certificate; a notation that Houdini's appendix was on the left side, rather than the right of his body.

Oddly enough, the exhumation plan is receiving support from a rather unlikely source, that of Anna Thurlow. Ms. Thurlow is the great-granddaughter of the medium Margery who supposedly conjured up a spirit named Walter who put a curse on Houdini. Medium Mina Crandon — stage name "Margery" — was famous at the time. She exhibited amazing talents in some of her séances and was on the brink of winning a prize in a contest sponsored by Scientific American magazine when Houdini began a campaign to discredit her. He duplicated some of her tricks on stage and published a pamphlet describing how some she performed many of her acts. Conan Doyle was a supporter of Crandon and clashed with Houdini about this.

"With people that delusional, you have to question what they're capable of,"' Thurlow is quoted as saying. "If there's any circumstantial evidence that Houdini was poisoned, we have to explore that."

Whether or not the exhumation finally takes place, one thing is certain. The speculation may never be put to rest regarding the life of a man who was himself, mystery personified.

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