Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. on October 31, 1926 in Room 401 at Detroit’s Grace Hospital, aged 52. In his final days, he optimistically held to a strong belief that he would recover, but his last words before dying were reportedly, “I’m tired of fighting.” Eyewitnesses to an incident at Houdini’s dressing room in the Princess Theatre in Montreal gave rise to speculation that Houdini’s death was caused by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered a surprise attack of multiple blows to Houdini’s abdomen.
The eyewitnesses, students named Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz (sometimes called Jack Price and Sam Smiley), proffered accounts of the incident that generally corroborated one another. Price describes Whitehead asking Houdini “if he believed in the miracles of the Bible” and “whether it was true that punches in the stomach did not hurt him”. He then delivered “some very hammer-like blows below the belt”. Houdini was reclining on a couch at the time, having broken his ankle while performing several days earlier. Price states that Houdini winced at each blow and stopped Whitehead suddenly in the midst of a punch, gesturing that he had had enough, and adding that he had had no opportunity to prepare himself against the blows, as he did not expect Whitehead to strike him so suddenly and forcefully. Had his ankle not been broken, he would have risen from the couch into a better position to brace himself.
Throughout the evening, Houdini performed in great pain. He was unable to sleep and remained in constant pain for the next two days, but did not seek medical help. When he finally saw a doctor, he was found to have a fever of 102 °F (39 °C) and acute appendicitis, and advised to have immediate surgery. He ignored the advice and decided to go on with the show. When Houdini arrived at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan, on October 24, 1926, for what would be his last performance, he had a fever of 104 °F (40 °C). Despite the diagnosis, 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. It is not entirely clear what relationship the encounter in the dressing room had on Houdini’s eventual death. As Snopes points out, the relationship between blunt trauma and appendicitis is not clear. One theory suggests that Houdini was unaware that he was suffering from appendicitis. If he had not realized that his stomach pains were symptomatic of appendicitis, he would not have appreciated the potentially critical effect of the blows to his abdomen.
After taking statements from Price and Smilovitz, Houdini’s insurance company concluded that the death was due to the dressing-room incident and paid double indemnity.
- March, 24, 1874
- Budapest, Austria-Hungary
- October, 31, 1926
- Detroit, Michigan
- Machpelah Cemetery
- Ridgewood, New York