Anniversary Post: Houdini’s Last Performance

Harry HoudiniOn this day in 1926, Houdini gave his last performance. There is so much myth surrounding Houdini, that I find him almost intolerable as a subject. Indeed, in my second novel, I spend a great deal of time savaging him. Consider that Houdini’s act was always being performed in two places: wherever he was and then wherever his younger brother Hardeen was. And given that I’m not much of a fan of the big stage illusion shows, Hardeen did the only thing of the two of them that I’m really impressed with: plain view straitjacket escape. He was the one who saw that it was even more impressive if the audience could see the performer.

None of this is to take anything away from Houdini. He was a trailblazer, and certainly less boring than Thurston or Blackstone. And I was very interesting to hear a voice recording of Houdini from 1914. He had a far better voice than I expected. The style of that time was very much over the top, and here he sounds rather modern — nuanced. It certainly would have been interesting to see his act.

Everyone knows the standard, but incorrect, story of Houdini’s death: he was being visited by a fan before a show. The fan asked him if it was true that Houdini could take a punch to the stomach. And before allowing Houdini to get ready, the fan punched him, causing Houdini to suffer internal injuries. Houdini insisted on performing that night, but was rushed to the hospital afterwards. But it was too late and Houdini died. Du-du-daa!

It is true that the fan punched him in the stomach. But that was two days earlier. He did suffer great pain. It is probable that the punch did not cause Houdini’s medical problems, but they may have covered them up — making Houdini think the pain was from the punches and so no big deal. Regardless, after two days, Houdini did see a doctor who told him that he had appendicitis and needed surgery right away. Houdini brushed the doctor off, and gave his performance on the 24th — his last. After it, he went to the hospital where he died a week later.

This seems like madness, but it makes a certain amount of sense. As I know from own father, men of previous generations were hard. As it was, Houdini had a broken ankle through all of this, which he performed with. He was a man who was used to pain. And he had not only survived, he had flourished. He was one of the most famous men in the world. He was extremely wealthy, but like most men of his upbringing at that time, I’m sure that not working was unthinkable. So he died as he lived. It’s still kind of sad.

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