Harry Houdini Dies, 1926


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.

Houdini performing his Chinese Torture Water Chamber trick.

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.

Black Tuesday, 1929

Today in 1929, on a day now known as Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed, losing $14 billion.

New Yorkers swarm Wall Street during the stock market crash.

How could this have happened?

The Roaring Twenties were defined by dynamism and excess. Skirts were cut shorter. Hair was bobbed. Music was jazzy. And people bought stocks. Lots of them. The stock market expanded, reaching its peak in August 1929. Because of the bull market (a market in which share prices are rising, thus encouraging more people to buy shares), people were really feeling good about the stock market. Economist Irving Fisher even stated:

Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.

Obviously with retrospect we know that this was probably the grossest economic misstatement ever, but the point is that people were feeling extremely confident about the stock market. With that said, there were some economic red flags. For example, many people who wanted to buy stocks had to borrow money to buy them. At the time of the crash, more money was out on loan than the amount of currency circulating in the United States! There were many other factors that contributed to the stock market crash, but people buying stocks with money they didn’t have was definitely an important one.

Share prices began to fall in September and reached panic-inducing lows starting October 24, or Black Thursday. On October 29, stock prices collapsed and over 16 million shares were traded. So many people traded their stocks in desperation that  the stock tickers ran hours behind, using 15,000 miles of ticker tape.

The stock market crash of 1929 is credited as one of the major causes of the Great Depression.


National Women’s Rights Convention, 1850

Because I haven’t talked enough about women’s rights or the lovely state of Massachusetts, I decided to write about an event that combines the two subjects!

Brinley Hall

Today in 1850, the first National Women’s Rights Convention was held at Brinley Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts.

At the convention, there were representatives from eleven states including the newly admitted state of California. Among the 1000 plus guests were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Lucretia Mott, true rockstars in my book.

Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lucy Stone helped organize the convention. On the final evening of the convention, Stone gave a speech that Susan B. Anthony later said converted her to to the cause of women’s rights.

That’s right.

Stone delivered a speech so moving, so epic, that she inspired Susan B. Anthony to become one of the most famous- if not the most famous- suffragettes in the country! Let’s all take a moment to let that sink in.

lucy stone

Curious as to what Stone said in her speech? Here’s an excerpt:

We want to be something more than the appendages of Society; we want that Woman should be the coequal and help-meet of Man in all the interest and perils and enjoyments of human life. We want that she should attain to the development of her nature and womanhood; we want that when she dies, it may not be written on her gravestone that she was the ‘relict’ of somebody.

-Lucy Stone

If I had a time machine and could go back in time to witness any event in history, this might be the one I would choose because many of the most famous figures in abolition and women’s rights (in America) were there.

Alfred Nobel, 1833

On this day in 1833, dynamite inventor and creator of the Nobel Prizes, Alfred Nobel, was born in Stockholm, Sweden. Wondering why the inventor of dynamite would create a prestigious prize for peace? It helps to understand his motivations for inventing dynamite and instituting the Nobel Prizes.

Alfred Nobel

At first, Nobel’s family struggled financially. However, Nobel’s father received the opportunity to manufacture explosives in St. Petersburg, Russia. With this new income, his father was able to send Nobel to private tutors and he became educated in chemistry and fluent in six languages.

At age 18, Nobel studied chemistry in Paris, and he moved to the United States after that. During the Crimean War, Nobel found work at his family’s Russian factory, manufacturing equipment. However, after the war, the family went bankrupt. Nobel began studied and experimented with explosives, dedicating himself to the safe manufacture and use of nitroglycerine.

On September 3, 1864, an explosion at the family’s Swedish plant killed five people including Emil, Nobel’s brother. Emil’s death provided the impetus for Nobel to invent and patent dynamite, a safer alternative to nitroglycerine.

In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died, and a newspaper accidentally posted Alfred Nobel’s obituary- entitled “The Merchant of Death is Dead”- which condemned his invention of dynamite. This insight into how he would be remembered inspired Nobel to change his legacy and use his immense fortune from his 350 plus patents to create the Nobel Prizes to award those who have bettered mankind in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.

Nobel Peace Prize

Marie Antoinette Executed, 1793

On this day in 1793, Marie Antoinette was guillotined for treason.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun

Marie Antoinette was the archduchess of Austria, and she married future king Louis XVI in a diplomatic marriage. She was well-liked at first, though her and Louis’ inability to consummate their marriage for eight years was criticized. She soon began to build up a reputation for her court’s opulence and her affairs with other men.

This is Marie Antoinette at 12 years old. At age 10, her mother arranged for her to marry Louis XVI. At 15, she married Louis and became Dauphine of France.


As a queen, the French hated her. She was accused of representing Austrian interests above French interests. Furthermore, Marie Antoinette became known as “Madame Deficit” for her reckless spending, and she was blamed for the country’s economic ruin. Her reputation was further tainted by stories such as her conspiring to steal a diamond necklace (false) and her declaring, “Let them eat cake!” when told that peasants were starving from lack of bread (also false).

At 20 years old, Marie Antoinette had just become Queen of France after the death of Louis XV.

The French Revolution began in 1789, and because Marie Antoinette was accused of forcing Louis XVI to refuse every revolutionary’s decision, she was nicknamed “Madame Veto” (apparently, the French only had one joke back then).

After a change of power, the National Convention was in control of France. King Louis XVI was executed in January of 1793. Marie Antoinette was tried on October 14 of the same year and found guilty of treason. She was executed by the guillotine on October 16.

It is said that Marie Antoinette faced her execution with dignity and poise. Her last words were supposedly, “Monsieur, I beg your pardon” after she stepped on the executioner’s foot.

Executioner Henri Sanson guillotining Marie Antoinette.

Happy Columbus Day!

On the second Monday of October we celebrate Christopher Columbus (and by celebrate, I mean we buy mattresses 60% off). However, the more I learn about Chris Columbus, the less I think there is to celebrate.

Does this depiction of Columbus look like a combination of Christopher Walken and James Spader, or is it just me?

For one thing, Christopher Columbus did not prove the that the earth wasn’t flat. The educated people of Columbus’ age believed that the earth was round. In fact, brilliant minds such as Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Euclid wrote about the earth as a sphere way before Columbus came along.

In addition, Christopher Columbus cannot be credited with discovering America because (1) Columbus never sailed to America, he sailed to the Caribbeans, (2) the Americas and the Caribbean were already populated, and (3) there is evidence that Leif Erikson explored Canada centuries before Columbus.

Finally, Columbus subjugated and slaughtered the indigenous people of the islands.

So what are we celebrating on Columbus Day? We’re celebrating a man who did not discover America, did not prove the Earth was round, and was not a nice guy. We’re celebrating a man who is, quite frankly, overrated.

I’m much more excited for Leif Erikson Day.

Racial Segregation in San Francisco, 1906

On this day in 1906, the San Francisco Board of Education ordered Japanese students to move to racially segregated schools.

First-graders, some of Japanese ancestry, at t...

First graders, some of Japanese descent, pledging allegiance to the flag.

Editor’s note: This summer, I wrote an extended essay, or 4,000 word research dissertation, as part of the International Baccalaureate program. I chose to write about history (obviously) and chose the topic of the Supreme Court Case Korematsu v. United States which challenged the constitutionality of Japanese-American Internment during World War II. Not knowing the scope of a 4,000 word essay, I decided to start my research with anti-Orientalist sentiments that existed on the West Coast decades prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the consequent internment of Japanese Americans. I took thousands of words of notes before I had even reached Pearl Harbor. There was no way this information would fit into my essay. My supervisor told me that I could include this information in an addendum at the end of my essay to evade the word count. However, after further research, I realized this would probably only annoy my grader, so I decided to cut it out completely. But today I thought that my addendum should finally see the light of day, as it relates to today’s historical event. So, without further ado, here is my rejected off-topic addendum.

“The anti-Orientalism of California and the West Coast dates back to the time of the gold rush in 1849, when Chinese laborers competed with American laborers for jobs in mining and railroad construction. American resentment toward Chinese laborers fed off of a general white supremacist ideology that dominated America at the time.

The consequent feelings of anti-Orientalism proved to be a problem for Japanese people who began immigrating to America in the 1880s to fill the demand for agricultural workers created by the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Anti-Oriental sentiments were fueled by the increased economic competition for jobs that resulted from the influx of Japanese people.  In addition, many Japanese immigrants could successfully farm along certain areas of the West Coast while some Americans could not, thus further increasing tensions. In fact, some political groups, such as the Native Sons of the Golden West, worked to prevent Japanese immigrants from entering the country or voting once they became citizens.

In 1905, anti-Japanese sentiment reached a fever pitch in San Francisco when the newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, launched a campaign against Japanese people. A week after the Chronicle’s campaign started, both houses of the California legislature unanimously approved a resolution requesting Congress to limit the further immigration of Japanese.  In October 1906, the San Francisco School Board segregated classrooms so that the white ‘children should not be placed in any position where their youthful impressions may be affected by association with the Mongolian race.’

Furthermore, American legislators passed discriminatory laws against Japanese immigrants. For example, the Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that only free white people born in other countries could apply for US citizenship; in 1924, the Naturalization Act was changed so that Japanese-born immigrants could never become naturalized citizens.

It was in this tension-filled state that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.”

My addendum was originally supposed to be an introduction, which explains the cliffhanger at the end. SPOILER ALERT: Things only get worse from there.

Hopefully I’ll be able to write more about what I learned while researching my essay. Though unfair and frustrating, Japanese-American Internment is a fascinating subject.