There is a popular myth that Harry Houdini died on stage because he couldn’t escape a Chinese Water Torture Cell and drowned. This is ridiculous! Houdini could escape anything!
Well, except peritonitis.
On Halloween day in 1926, Harry Houdini (né Erik Weisz) died of peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdomen’s lining, caused by a ruptured appendix. As the story goes, Houdini, was chatting with some college students in his dressing room after a lecture on October 18, 1926. A student named J. Gordon Whitehead asked Houdini, who was reclining on a couch due to an ankle injury, if it was true that punches in the stomach did not hurt. Houdini replied affirmatively. Then, Whitehead punched Houdini multiple times in the stomach, Houdini wincing with each blow. Finally, Houdini gestured that he had had enough. He explained that he was not able to prepare himself for the blows.*
Houdini began to have terrible stomach pains but he still performed that evening and twice the next day. Then, Houdini went to Detroit to perform. At the theatre before his first performance, Houdini had 104-degree fever and was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. He performed anyway, but his assistants had to finish some of his tricks for him.
Without the insistence of his wife Bess, Houdini probably would not have been treated at all, but finally his appendix was removed on the 24th of October and he had a second operation on the 28th. Although he first appeared to be recovering, Houdini’s condition worsened and he died on Halloween. He was actually transported to his home of New York in a casket he used for his Buried Alive trick, which was to be his feature trick in the upcoming season.
Of course the order of events makes it seem that Whitehead’s punches caused Houdini’s death, especially because he was punched on the right side of the stomach where the appendix is located. Consequently, that is how the story is generally told. However, there are few cases of appendicitis following blunt trauma, and even then doctors wonder if the relation is causational or correlational.
It is very hard to discern which facts of Houdini’s life (and death) are factual because there are so many myths about him (many of which were perpetuated by him). For example, Houdini claimed that he jumped into a hole carved out of ice on the Detroit River, freed himself of handcuffs, and went back up for air only to discover that the current had moved him away from the hole. He survived by breathing in air trapped between the ice and water and, at the last minute, the spirit of his dead mother guided him to the hole.
It’s a great story but it never happened. The Detroit Free Press published a story refuting Houdini’s claims, noting that the Detroit River was not freezing on November 27, the day that Houdini jumped. So Houdini changed his story, and then he changed it again, and again. Detroit became Pittsburgh, November became December, and so on.
The point is that the real cause of Houdini’s death might not be as exciting as drowning in a Chinese Torture Chamber Cell or even being punched before he was ready.
However, if that is how you wish to tell the story… I think Houdini would absolutely love it.
*Due to conflicting accounts about this scene, it is unclear whether Houdini gave his permission for Whitehead to punch him or if this was the first encounter between Whitehead and Houdini.