Houdini’s Death Officially Laid to Boy’s Blow?

I recently came across the following newspaper clippings that contradict one another and thought they were worthy of sharing. Enjoy!

According to the following newspaper excerpt dated June 13, 1927:


June 13 1927 HH DEATH CAUSED BY BLOWAccording to the LEWISTON GAZETTE Nov. 1, 1926 Lewiston Maine:


Nov 1 1926 HH DEATH NOT CAUSED BY BLOWMcGill University Professor Denies Magician Struck by Student-Secret of Conjurer’ Mystic Performances Sealed in Mystery of Death

MONTREAL.  Nov. 1 Harry Houdini did not die of an injury received on Oct. 22 but was so sick when he came here that he was under care of a trained nurse the two men connected with his Montreal appearance asserted today.

The magicians family in Detroit expressed the opinion that the fatal illness was due to a blow dealt by a McGill University student in testing the magician’s strength.

Abie Wright, manager of the local theatre where Houdini recently appeared, said Houdini was ill when he came to Montreal and forced himself, with great difficulty to go through with his performance.

Dr. William D. Tait, professor of phychology at McGill University where Houdini delivered a lecture before the McGill Union, said there was no encounter between the magician and a student, as reported from Detroit.

So was it illness or accident?  Did the blows aggregate an existing condition?

It was vital his death be ruled an accident as opposed to being caused by a physical ailment in order to collect double.

An interoffice memo from a Mr. Cook to a Mr. McCall summarizing the New York Life Insurance Company case mentions that although there were rumors that Houdini had been suffering from stomach trouble prior to this time we have been unable to verify them and I think it must be conceded from the doctors statements and from affidavits submitted to us that the appendicitis resulted from the blows.

Special Thank You to Pat Culliton (aka Houdini’s Ghost) for Cook to McCall reference.


According to Bernard C. Meyer:

Abdominal trauma has also been cited as a cause of peritonitis when it resulted in the rupture of an already diseased organ or abscess. This raises the possibility that Houdini had been afflicted with an inflamed appendix before he had been punched in the abdomen by Mr. Whitehead. Although there is no record of his having suffered symptoms referable to such a condition prior to the blow, one observer, Doctor William D. Tait, professor of psychology at McGill, who escorted Houdini to the lecture platform on the afternoon of the nineteenth, noted that at the conclusion of his talk he sat down immediately, “as he was suffering great pain from his fractured ankle.” Conceivably, it was his abdomen that was causing his distress and not his ankle, which had been fractured eight days earlier.  This account appeared in the November first issue of the Montreal Daily Star under a headline which read: “Houdini . . . looked ill at lecture.” A newspaper reporter claimed to have seen “the stamp of death on his countenance.” [Houdini: A Mind in Chains, pages 176 – 177].

Does the size of his appendix (“a long affair”) indicate it was diseased?

Special Thank You to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz for the Bernard C. Meyer reference.

11 thoughts on “Houdini’s Death Officially Laid to Boy’s Blow?

  1. Was HH already showing signs of the early stages of appendicitis, or was it caused by Whitehead’s punch? This is a question I don’t think will ever be answered. We know that Bess contracted food poisoning from the dinner she and Harry had with Lovecraft. Did HH get any food poisoning as well? Might that have something to do with it?

    • There are many questions that may never be answered, but that’s what makes HH so fascinating.
      WRT ptomaine poisoning, the late Manny Weltman had this to say:
      Did ptomaine poisoning have anything to do with it? Ptomaine poisoning usually lasts only a few days. Yet all accounts relating to Bess’s health at that time refer to lingering effects, requiring a nurse to be at her side at all times. Could it have been some other type of poisoning that both Harry and Bess were suffering from?
      There is also the letter that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune a few days after his death.
      It was dated, “’New York, October 31, 1926”, and signed by Gertrude Hills. If this letter is true it would answer some questions as to the condition of Houdini’s appendix, which would have been weakened and more susceptible to the blows Whitehead struck in the dressing room that fateful day:
      “Here are the facts of Houdini’s illness, as told to me [Gertrude Hills] by him [Harry Houdini], and the first results of which I [GH] saw when working with him [HH].
      “During the summer he was asked to contribute his services toward raising funds for a charitable cause. He was delighted to do so and promised to perform his ‘straitjacket’ act and to try to beat his own record in escaping from it. In attempting this he injured himself internally so badly that for days he suffered pain in his side. Closely following upon the injury he had an attack of what was diagnosed as ‘ptomaine poisoning’. From this he really never seemed to recover. When he left on his tour he told me that he still felt the effects of the injury and the poisoning.” I said to him: ‘This might be very serious. Suppose you should die from it?’ He replied: ‘No man should regret dying because of a good act; in fact, it’s a privilege.’”

        • Not sure, but we know from Kalush that Houdini mainly stayed home that summer of 1926 after finishing the first leg of his tour which ended in May. And the straitjacket accident (p 495) occurred during the summer before he started his fall tour on September 7 at the Majestic Theatre in Boston.

  2. Oh my–that is an amazing letter you uncovered. Thank you for posting it! Never heard of that straitjacket escape to raise funds for that charity. I don’t recall reading it in any bio.

    I wonder if HH had aggravated the kidney that he damaged in a straitjacket escape back in his earlier days. Supposedly that injury dogged him the rest of his life. He had to sleep with a pillow under his injured side.

    I didn’t know that Weltman had also speculated about the connection between the ptomaine poisoning and HH’s appendicitis.

    • The “chronic kidney disease” was definitely an issue for him. For example: The shock of Houdini’s mother death had been followed with an attack and Houdini was released from his contract and returned to the states.
      Also, Will Goldston believed he sometimes partook of a ‘nip of opium’ to numb the pain of the damaged kidney and other health-related issues he collected over the years.

  3. That is an interesting speculation Joe. Did HH actually submit to the monkey gland operation? Any evidence of this?

    Is that straitjacket accident in Sloman and Kalush’s Secret Life? I noticed the reference to page 495.

    • AFAIK, it is speculation and my reference to page 495 is referring to the Secret Life that briefly mentions the straitjacket accident.

  4. Thanks Joe! Will have to look that up in the S & K book. I wonder if S & K used Gertrude’s letter as the source for that write up.

    • Parts of the letter was used to create the scene in the S & K book, as well as Gertrude Hills story that appeared in the New York Times, November 2, 1926.

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