The death of the Great Houdini

One of the World’s greatest magicians and a superb showman, Harry Houdini issued public challenges. He made fantastic wagers and performed death-defying feats and one of his greatest boasts was that he could take a blow to his stomach from any man.

In 1926, in Montréal, a McGill student put this claim to the test…

A McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead delivered multiple blows to Houdini's abdomen to test Houdini's claim that he was able to take any blow to the body above the waist without injury.

The eyewitnesses, students Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz proffered accounts of the incident that generally corroborated one another.

Mr. Price told the press that Houdini was reclining on his couch after his performance, having an art student sketch him. When Whitehead came in and asked if it was true that Houdini could take any blow to the stomach, Houdini replied groggily in the affirmative.

In this instance, he was hit three times before Houdini could tighten up his stomach muscles to avoid serious injury. Whitehead reportedly continued hitting Houdini several more times and Houdini acted as though he were in some pain.

In fact, Houdini reportedly stated that if he had time to prepare himself properly he would have been in a better position to take the blows. Even more, Houdini had apparently been suffering from appendicitis for several days prior. His appendix would likely have burst on its own without the trauma.

Although in serious pain, Houdini continued to travel without seeking medical attention.

Though Houdini appeared to recover from the student’s punch, he died within hours as soon as he arrived at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 1926.

During what would be his last performance, he had a fever of 104° F (40° C). Despite a diagnosis of acute appendicitis, Harry Houdini took the stage. He was reported to have passed out during the show, but was revived and continued. Afterwards, he was hospitalized at Detroit's Grace Hospital. Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. on October 31, aged 52.

Houdini's insurance company concluded that the death was due to the dressing-room incident and paid double indemnity.

Harry Houdini's funeral was held on November 4, 1926, in New York, and he was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite.

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