Did a punch to the stomach really kill Houdini? Though parts of the urban legend are accurate, it’s not the whole truth. Here are the details:
It was October 18, 1926. Houdini was scheduled to perform at the Princess Theater in Montreal. On the day of the performance, he gave a lecture at McGill University about exposing fraudulent spiritualists and mediums. After the speech, three students visited Houdini backstage.
As the students entered his dressing room, Houdini was lying on a couch reading mail. One of the students, Joselyn Gordon Whitehead, brought up the question of Houdini’s strength and his ability to take a punch in his stomach. Houdini stated that his stomach could resist much, but he did not offer to test the statement. He remained reclined on the couch, having broken his ankle a few days earlier performing his famous Water-Torture Cell Escape.
Suddenly, Whitehead struck several fierce blows into Houdini’s gut. Houdini winced in pain and gestured for the student to stop. He said he’d not been given time to prepare. Had he known the punches were coming, he would have stood up.
By mid-afternoon, Houdini was suffering from severe stomach pains. He made it through that evening’s performance as well as two more shows the next day. On a train to Detroit for a week of new shows, his stomach pain had become insufferable. His wife Bess wired ahead for a doctor who met them in the Detroit theater dressing room. Houdini had a 104-degree temperature.
The doctor urged that Houdini go straight to the hospital. Houdini proclaimed, “I’ll do this show if it’s my last.” By the show’s third act, Houdini could not go on. His assistants finished his act and Houdini finally agreed to go to the hospital. The surgeon determined that Houdini had a ruptured appendix and he was suffering from peritonitis. These were the days before antibiotics and Houdini’s condition was serious. He hung on for four days before undergoing a second operation. Though he seemed to be recovering, Houdini died a few days later on Halloween.
Newspaper reporters wrote that the blows to Houdini’s stomach had killed him. Today, medical experts agree that appendicitis caused by blunt trauma is not possible. Houdini was likely already suffering from appendicitis when Whitehead punched him. (His wife confirmed Houdini was in discomfort for weeks.) Houdini possibly wrote off his pain as a residual effect from the blows thus delaying the medical treatment that might have saved his life. At the time of his death, Houdini was just 52 years old.
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