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Response to Demeter (Reply #71)

Sun Apr 29, 2012, 10:21 AM

72. Death



Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix. Eyewitnesses to an incident at the Princess Theater 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. The following is Price's description of events:

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.

Houdini reportedly stated that if he had had time to prepare himself properly, he would have been in a better position to take the blows. He had apparently been suffering from appendicitis for several days prior and yet refused medical treatment. One source states that his appendix would likely have burst on its own without the trauma. Although in serious pain, Houdini continued to travel without seeking medical attention.

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 a diagnosis of acute appendicitis, 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. in Room 401 on October 31, aged 52. In his final weeks, he optimistically held to a strong belief that he would recover, but his last words before dying were reportedly, "I'm tired of fighting".

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.

Houdini's funeral was held on November 4, 1926, in New York, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance. He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite. A statuary bust was added to the excedra in 1927, believed to be the only graven image in a Jewish cemetery anywhere. In 1975 it was knocked over and destroyed. Temporary ones were placed there until 2011 when a group who came to be called The Houdini Commandos from The Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA placed a permanent bust with the permission of Houdini's family and the cemetery. To this day the Society holds a broken wand ceremony at the grave site in November. Houdini's widow, Bess, died on February 11, 1943, aged 67, in Needles, California. She had expressed a wish to be buried next to him but instead was interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, New York, as her Catholic family refused to allow her to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Houdini's death is descripted in 30th episode of 1000 Ways to Die.




Proposed exhumation

On March 22, 2007, Houdini's great-nephew (the grandson of his brother Theo), George Hardeen, announced that the courts would be asked to allow exhumation of Houdini's body. The purpose was to investigate the possibility of Houdini being murdered by Spiritualists, as suggested in the biography The Secret Life of Houdini. In a statement given to the Houdini Museum in Scranton, the family of Bess Houdini opposed the application and suggested it was a publicity ploy for the book. The Washington Post stated that the press conference was not orchestrated by the family of Houdini. Instead, the Post reported, it was orchestrated by authors Kalush and Sloman, who hired the PR firm Dan Klores Communications to promote their book.

In 2008 it was revealed the parties involved never filed legal papers to perform an exhumation.

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