The Life and Death of Harry Houdini

Magician's Bravado May Have Played Role in Halloween Demise

Listen: Biographer Kenneth Silverman describes Harry Houdini's last days in a 1996 commentary.

Listen: Listen to an attempt to contact Houdini by seance in 1978, originally broadcast on <I>All Things Considered</i>.

Escape artist Harry Houdini in handcuffs, photographed on Feb. 27, 1918.

hide captionEscape artist Harry Houdini in handcuffs, photographed on Feb. 27, 1918.

Bettmann/Corbis

Houdini from the NPR Archives

Bob Lund, director of American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Mich., leads special seance in an attempt to contact spirit of magician Harry Houdini.

Listen  'All Things Considered,' 1977: Houdini Followers Remember his Death
Some 50 years after his death, Houdini's followers continue to try make contact.

Listen  'Weekend Edition Sunday,' 1994: A Profile of the Magician and Escapist
NPR's Liane Hansen visits the Houdini collection at the Library of Congress.

The great magician Harry Houdini left this life nearly 80 years ago on Halloween. Some say Houdini's premature death was caused in part by his reputation for bravado and superhuman strength.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, as Ehrich Weiss, he grew up in the Midwest and in New York City. Young Weiss tried his hand at many things, gravitating eventually toward the life of an escape artist and conjurer. He publicized his shows by successfully escaping from hundreds of local jails. Houdini had himself manacled and thrown into rivers, bobbing to the surface unchained within minutes. By the time of his death, Houdini was known around the world for his stunts on the stage and off, a master of cunning and endurance.

Kenneth Silverman wrote about Houdini's life in the book, Houdini: The Career of Ehrich Weiss. He recalled Houdini's last days in a 1996 commentary for All Things Considered. Read an excerpt:

Around noon on Oct. 22, 1926, Houdini was in his dressing room at a Montreal theater. Lying on a couch, he chatted with three students from McGill University. One of them, a ruddy six-footer, asked if it was true that Houdini could take the hardest punches to his stomach.

"Would you mind if I delivered a few blows to your abdomen?" he asked.

Houdini's escapes were gut-wrenching. He had kept his little Hercules physique tuned for them by years of running, swimming and acrobatics, but he was now 52, and for more than a week he had limped through his 2-1/2 hour program in a splint and leg brace, says Silverman. His ankle had snapped during an Albany performance of the water-torture cell escape, as he was being hoisted upside-down on a pulley.

Yet he accepted the student's challenge, as he had so many others. Hovering over Houdini, elbow bent, the student began forcibly punching him in the stomach. The shots caught Houdini as he started to rise off the pillows bolstering him.

According to later sworn testimony, another student protested, "Hey there, you must be crazy. What are you doing?"

At that evening's performance, Houdini retired to his couch during intermissions in a cold sweat. After the show, he was unable to dress himself. He completed his Montreal engagement the next evening, then with his assistants caught a late-night train to begin a run in Detroit.

On board, though, he experienced severe stomach pains. He managed in the morning to reach a Detroit hotel, but for a half hour he shook with chills. Still, he was determined to go on for opening night. At curtain time, his temperature was 104. When he left the stage after act one, he fell down. He revived, gave the rest of his show, and collapsed again.

The next afternoon, Oct. 25, Houdini's appendix was removed at Grace Hospital. It had ruptured and produced peritonitis. Doctors gave him an experimental serum, and four days later operated again. But the sepsis had taken over his system.

"I can't fight anymore," he told his brother. He died at 1:26 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 31.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: