Harry Houdini, the most celebrated magician and escape artist of the 20th century, dies of peritonitis in a Detroit hospital. Twelve days before, Houdini had been talking to a group of students after a lecture in Montreal when he commented on the strength of his stomach muscles and their ability to withstand hard blows. Suddenly, one of the students punched Houdini twice in the stomach. The magician hadn’t had time to prepare, and the blows ruptured his appendix. He fell ill on the train to Detroit, and, after performing one last time, was hospitalized. Doctors operated on him, but to no avail. The burst appendix poisoned his system, and on October 31 he died.
Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, the son of a rabbi. At a young age, he immigrated with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin, and soon demonstrated a natural acrobatic ability and an extraordinary skill at picking locks. When he was nine, he joined a traveling circus and toured the country as a contortionist and trapeze performer. He soon was specializing in escape acts and gained fame for his reported ability to escape from any manacle. He went on his first international tour in 1900 and performed all over Europe to great acclaim. In executing his escapes, he relied on strength, dexterity, and concentration—not trickery—and was a great showman.
In 1908, Houdini began performing more dangerous and dramatic escapes. In a favorite act, he was bound and then locked in an ironbound chest that was dropped into a water tank or thrown off a boat. In another, he was heavily bound and then suspended upside down in a glass-walled water tank. Other acts featured Houdini being hung from a skyscraper in a straitjacket, or bound and buried—without a coffin—under six feet of dirt.
In his later years, Houdini campaigned against mediums, mind readers, fakirs, and others who claimed supernatural talents but depended on tricks. At the same time, he was deeply interested in spiritualism and made a pact with his wife and friends that the first to die was to try and communicate with the world of reality from the spirit world. Several of these friends died, but Houdini never received a sign from them. Then, on Halloween 1926, Houdini himself passed on at the age of 52. His wife waited for a communiqué from the spirit world but it never came; she declared the experiment a failure shortly before her death in 1943.