Houdini's Death:

Was it an intentional assault and an accidental death?

Essay by Tom Razzeto    useyourmagic.com

May 28, 2007

Copyright 2007 Tom Razzeto

Summary

Is the following speculative scenario possible?

For over a decade, Houdini publicly exposed fraudulent spirit mediums who, in turn, finally decided to strike back at him in order to protect their business. They hired Whitehead to rough him up in order to get Houdini to leave them alone.

They did not intend to kill him yet the punches resulted in appendicitis. The appendicitis became acute and his appendix later burst, flooding Houdini's abdominal cavity with lethal streptococcus germs. The next day the ruptured appendix was removed but the poison was too much to overcome and Harry died six days later.

While I think that there is a reasonable chance that this is close to what actually happened, it is not provable by what is known at this time.

But the story may still interest you so let's look into it further.

Background

Harry Houdini, the world famous escape artist and magician, died in 1926 at the age of 52 after suffering from complications of appendicitis nine days after four very severe blows to the stomach. He claimed he could take punches from anyone, yet this time, he was caught off guard and was not able to firm up his muscles.

While many people claim that trauma to the abdomen has never been known to cause appendicitis, here is what his attending physician, Dr. Kennedy, said: "It is the only case of traumatic appendicitis I had ever seen in my lifetime, but the logic of the thing seems to indicate that Mr. Houdini died of appendicitis, the direct result of the injury."

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that since the death was attributed to the blows, Mrs. Houdini received a $50,000 insurance payout rather than the $25,000 that the appendicitis on its own would have yielded. The insurance company looked closely into the matter and accepted the expert testimony of the attending physicians. No matter the cause of the appendicitis, if Houdini had received timely medical attention, his appendix could have been removed before it burst and he might have lived.

But is there more to the story?

I think that the punches were possibly an intentional assault and the resulting death was an accident. Whitehead, the young man who delivered the blows, might have been acting on his own or, perhaps, doing a job for a sinister group of fake mediums.

Houdini Publicly Exposes Fraudulent Spirit Mediums

Let's go back to 1913 when Houdini's beloved mother, Cecilia Weiss, died. Harry became quite depressed and he went to several spirit mediums to see if he could communicate with her.

Harry and his wife Beatrice, whom he called "Bess", as a team were quite skilled at faking medium sessions and had done so in their act as early as 1898. They would obtain information about people through sly but non-supernatural means ahead of time and then reveal it during the fake sessions to the astonishment of the audience. Since some mediums added physical tricks such as a floating table or ghost, Harry and Bess also demonstrated these types of things as well.

With his skills as a magician, it appeared to Harry that all the mediums that he visited regarding his mother were frauds taking advantage of grieving people. This upset Houdini and he started to put a lot of time and effort into exposing these mediums publicly. He revealed their secret tricks and wrote books on the subject including, "Miracle Mongers and Their Methods" (1920) and "A Magician Among the Spirits" (1924). Even the playbill for his last act, Sunday, Oct 24th, 1926 at the Garrick Theater in Detroit prominently declared that Houdini would be exposing the tricks of fraudulent mediums.

At the time, there were many spirit mediums making a living doing readings for the general public. Even if some of them were genuine, there certainly were many frauds. The dark world of fake spirit mediums preyed upon the gullible public and counted on word of mouth and repeat customers for their livelihood, sometimes collecting very large fees. Houdini's high profile exposure of their fraudulent methods was hurting their business and Houdini could have easily attracted their enmity. He received death threats daily.

Houdini's pursuit of fake mediums was not conducted single-handedly. He established a group of operatives who would do the basic ground work for him. Then, when the trap was set, Houdini would, while wearing a disguise, go to a seance with a reporter and an undercover policeman. At a moment when trickery was being hidden by darkness, Houdini would have the lights turned on revealing the fraud and announce, "You're under arrest!" They would respond in surprise, "Who are you?" He would then dramatically pull off his disguise and announce, "I am Houdini!"

Yes, there is little doubt that the general public was well aware that Harry Houdini did not believe in spirit-communication and that his actions were directly hurting that business.

All of That and Still the Plot Thickens

In the book, "The Secret Life of Houdini", William Kalush and Larry Sloman hypothesize that the spiritualists had motive to kill Harry and might have had him poisoned. In March 2007, they were pursuing his exhumation to test his body for poison. We must keep in mind that since Harry's appendix burst, his abdominal cavity was flooded with streptococcus germs. While I am not a doctor, it seems reasonable that this condition can be confirmed by an autopsy, even after more than eighty years. I consider it highly unlikely that they will find proof of an intentionally administered poison.

Nonetheless, the research of Kalush and Sloman discovered revealing letters between Dr. Crandon, a wealthy Boston doctor, and his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes novels and the most visible spokesman for spiritualism.

Houdini's involvement on a panel reviewing Dr. Crandon's wife, the most famous medium at the time who went by the name of Margery, prevented Scientific American from awarding her with a monetary prize for demonstrating genuine spirit-communication and damaged her reputation.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. It seems, according to the authors, that Dr. Crandon was adopting young boys from England and they were apparently disappearing. Somehow Houdini found out about this and, using his existing contacts, got officials to start an investigation. Crandon found out about this and wrote to Doyle, in England. He stated that he knew Houdini was the one behind the investigation.

Crandon's intense hatred for Houdini was repeatedly demonstrated in his letters. Did Dr. Crandon become desperate to protect some sinister operation and take action against Houdini?

The two authors also claim that Doyle's wife, also a medium, brought Doyle a message stating that Houdini was an "enemy" and needed to be "dealt with".

Did Someone Hire Whitehead to Assault Houdini?

Houdini's very public anti-spirit-communication activities went on for over a decade. When it got to the point were some of them were getting arrested, these criminals might have asked themselves, "What can we do about this guy, Houdini?"

Their solution may have actually suggested itself. It was commonly known that Harry frequently invited members of the public to punch him in the stomach. He was in excellent shape and could take punches from an average man as long as he was ready with firm muscles.

Perhaps these crooks decided to rough Harry up a bit to get him to back off. After all, in their minds Harry could make a fantastic living as a magician and escape artist and he could just as well leave them alone.

The actual punching incident seems like a thinly veiled assault. Did Whitehead want to hit Harry when he wasn't ready in order to really hurt him? And since Houdini publicly asked people to hit him, Whitehead would be able to use that fact as a legal defense against assault charges. In this scenario, the assault becomes hidden as part of a stunt, a demonstration of Houdini's strength.

Whitehead struck Houdini in Montreal. Starting in 1982, Don Bell, a Montreal resident, put in over twenty years researching the death of Houdini and wrote the book, "Who Killed Houdini" (2004). His work focuses on Whitehead and you may find it of interest.

Conclusion

So what do we actually know regarding the death of Houdini? I think that it is almost certain that he truly died of streptococcus peritonitis, just like the doctors said, the result of the burst appendix. And I think that it is most likely true that his appendicitis was indeed caused by the blows to the stomach. But that is as far as the evidence can take us.

It is very important to clearly state that the intentions of Whitehead, innocent or hostile, and his connection to the fake mediums, Crandon or Doyle, if any, is complete speculation. I wonder if anyone will ever learn more about that in the future. Perhaps new evidence will be discovered in old letters or documents.

But the circumstances sure do make me wonder.

That concludes this essay. Thanks for taking the time to read it!

Have a magical and mystical day!

Tom Razzeto    useyourmagic.com    April 25, 2007

If you enjoyed this essay, then you might enjoy some of my other work:

   Here is the full Houdini essay, "The Houdini Afterlife Experiment - Did It Work?"
     http://www.useyourmagic.com/essays/houdini.html

   Spiritual audio books for children and grown-ups: Use Your Magic!

   An inexpensive ESP board game: ESP Mind Power!


Sources and End Notes:

On Nov 1, 1926, the New York Times reported on Houdini's life and death. In this article, we learn about his fatal struggle with his ruptured appendix. The doctors state that the punches were the direct cause of Houdini's appendicitis which progressed to the point of rupture which resulted in fatal complications of streptococcus peritonitis. The burst appendix was surgically removed six days before Houdini died.

Note:

The article describes the blows as playful but other accounts describe them as severe. It is likely that there were two or more occasions when Houdini was punched while he was in Montreal.

Also Note:

The article states, "Dr. Leo Kretzka, a prominent physician, made a hurried examination and told the patient there were symptoms of appendicitis. He left it to Houdini to decide whether it would be advisable for him to appear that evening at the Garrick Theatre for the opening night of the show. Houdini would not disappoint his admirers."

It continues, "At his hotel after the performance the pain increased. The house physician and the best Detroit could furnish were called. Houdini was taken to Gray Hospital and the following afternoon underwent an operation for appendicitis."

And finally it states, "Streptococcus peritonitis, which developed soon after the operation last Monday (Oct 25, 1926), seriously complicated the case. This is a particularly virulent form of poisoning, and few cases are known to the medical profession where persons suffering from it have recovered."

If he had the appendix removed before it burst, he might have lived.

Article: http://www.intervalmagic.com/houdinimuseum.org/articles/1926_11.01.html


The National Institute of Health reports in Dec 2005 a study done in Turkey which states:

Occasionally, appendicitis and trauma exist together, which causes an interesting debate whether the trauma has led to the appendicitis. We aimed to evaluate our patients with traumatic appendicitis and to discuss their properties in the light of the literature.

Method: We retrospectively reviewed the charts of children of blunt abdominal trauma accompanied by appendicitis.

Results: Of 29 cases of blunt abdominal trauma that had required surgical exploration, five were found to have gross findings of acute appendicitis and underwent appendicectomy. Appendicitis was confirmed histopathologically.

Concludion: It should be kept in mind that children managed for severe blunt abdominal trauma may develop appendicitis.

Article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=16299198&dopt=Abstract

Here is the same study reported in the British publication, Emergency Medicine Journal, 2005.

Article: http://emj.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/22/12/874


The British Medical Journal reported in Aug 1978 a case from a Swedish hospital which comments on Blunt Abdominal Trauma (BAT) and subsequent acute appendicitis. Only a few cases are sited but it does mention the case of Houdini.

Article: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/picrender.fcgi?artid=1606735&blobtype=pdf


This is from The University of Maryland Medical Center:

Appendicitis is an inflammation of the appendix that is often caused by an obstruction, but it may be caused by an infection. The appendix is a small sac-like appendage of the large intestine that hangs down on the lower right side of the abdominal cavity. Appendicitis is frequently misdiagnosed, since it mimics other diseases. If untreated, an inflamed appendix can rupture, causing infection of the peritoneal cavity (the lining surrounding the abdominal organs) and even death. Between 5 and 10% of the population develop appendicitis, usually in their teens and twenties.

(Editor's Note: It seems to me that a severe blow the the stomach could result in an obstruction and that could lead to appendicitis.)

Article: http://www.umm.edu/altmed/ConsConditions/Appendicitiscc.html


Here the New York Times reports on June 14, 1927 that Mrs. Houdini received $50,000, rather than $25,000, since Harry's death was ruled an accident. The blows, which caused the death, were part of a demonstration of Houdini's strength.

Article: http://www.intervalmagic.com/houdinimuseum.org/articles/1927_06.14.html


There is a lot of good information in the following article. It states that a severe blow was given on Oct 22. Other reports state the it was not just one blow but four or more.

Among several stories is one that reports that Houdini told his friend and fellow magician, Joseph Dunninger, just before Houdini left on his last, ill fated tour that he had seen his house for the last time.

I found it interesting that a storm came down upon the hotel where Bess' last seance was held in 1936 ... but only upon that hotel. And, since the seance was on the roof, everyone got soaked!

Article: http://www.prairieghosts.com/houdini.html


Since Houdini died in Detroit, the Detroit newspaper had easy access to the attending physicians. They quote Dr. Charles S. Kennedy, "His appendix had ruptured and his system was filled with staphylococcus germs. The rupture apparently occurred the day before. ... It is the only case of traumatic appendicitis I had ever seen in my lifetime but the logic of the thing seemed to indicate that Mr. Houdini died of appendicitis, the direct result of the injury."

The article also reports that, "Houdini told Dr. Kennedy about his disbelief in spiritualism and about the promise he had made to try to communicate with his friends after his death."

Article: http://info.detnews.com/history/story/index.cfm?id=138&category=people


The playbill for his last act, Sunday, Oct 24th, 1926 at the Garrick Theater in Detroit prominently declared that Houdini would be exposing the tricks of fraudulent mediums.

Last playbill: http://www.useyourmagic.com/images/lastplaybill.jpg


This article focuses on Houdini's debunking of spirit-communication.

Article: http://www.foxvalleyhistory.org/houdini/spirits.asp


The following article focuses on the relationship between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It starts off with a description of Houdini performing a remarkable magic trick: walking through a brick wall!

The middle of the article tells of a magic trick with a secret message and a cork ball dipped in paint that Houdini performed for only Conan Doyle and Bernard Ernst, the president of the American Society of Magicians. This story alone makes the article worth reading.

The article also includes details about Houdini's automatic writing session with Mrs. Doyle (Lady Jean) in 1922 and mentions Houdini's debunking of Mina Crandon, the medium known as "Margery".

Article: http://www.prairieghosts.com/doyle_houdini.html


This article focuses on the of the multiple and lengthy investigations of the medium known as "Margery". Some evidence supports Margery while other evidence is damaging. It seems that Houdini was caught preventing the success of certain requested tasks and a photo is shown that purports that thumb prints claimed to be that of a spirit actually belonged to Margery's dentist.

Article: http://www.prairieghosts.com/margery.html


If you enjoyed this essay, then you might enjoy some of my other work:

   Spiritual audio books for children and grown-ups: Use Your Magic!
       useyourmagic.com

   An inexpensive ESP board game: ESP Mind Power!

   Back to my essays

    Have a magical day!

    Tom Razzeto