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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Harry Houdini's Last Performance

Dateline October 24, 1926 – It was on this day that illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini gave his last performance in 1926 at Detroit’s Garrick Theater. He was to die of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix room 401 of Grace Hospital on Halloween at the age of 52.

Harry Houdini was a sensation in the early part of the last century. Born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874, he emigrated with his family to America in 1878, at first settling in Appleton, Wisconsin where his father was a Rabbi. In 1887 the family moved to New York where the young Ehrich Weiss (both names having been Americanized) performed at the age of 9 as a trapeze artist. In 1891 began his career as a magician, calling himself Houdini in honor of famous French Magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.

At first he wasn’t very successful and had to double as “The Wild Man” at the circus. While he concentrated on card tricks at first, Houdini eventually began to add escape acts to his repertoire. He was also a master of publicity, challenging police in every city he performed in to see if they could lock him up in a way he could not escape. No one ever could. It took years before Houdini found success, but once he hit, he hit it big. For a while he was the highest paid performer in Vaudeville and the toast of society on every continent, feted by both royalty and high society.

One of Houdini’s claims led to his downfall. He was known as being able to withstand any blow to his stomach. While performing in Montreal, he was asked by a McGill University student if this was true. Houdini said it was, but before he had time to contract his muscles, J. Gordon Whitehead hit him with a series of body blows. Apparently Houdini had been suffering from appendicitis for several days, but had not sought medical attention. While doctors say his appendix would have burst without the punches, certainly the punches didn’t help matters. While in severe pain, Houdini still didn’t seek medical attention and traveled to his next date in Detroit. Despite rinning a fever of 104 °F and a a diagnosis of acute appendicitis, ‘the show must go on,’ as the slogan goes. He performed, with one report saying he passed out and was revived at one point during the show. After the show, he allowed himself to be taken to Detroit’s Grace Hospital, where he died of peritonitis 7 days later.

This article first appeared on Stones Detroit, where I place some of my posts about Detroit, my home town.