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Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz (he later spelled his birth name as Ehrich Weiss) in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, on March 24, 1874. From 1907 on, however, Houdini would claim in interviews to have been born in Appleton, Wisconsin, on April 6, 1874.
His parents were Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss (1829–1892) and his wife, Cecelia (née Steiner; 1841–1913). Houdini was one of seven children: Herman M. (1863–1885); Nathan J. (1870–1927); Gottfried William (1872–1925); Theodore “Theo” (1876–1945); Leopold D. (1879–1962); and Gladys Carrie (born 1882–unknown year of death).
Weiss came to the United States on July 3, 1878, sailing on the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four brothers. The family changed the Hungarian spelling of their German surname into Weiss (the German spelling) and the spelling of their son’s name into Ehrich. Friends called him “Ehrie” or “Harry”.
They first lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as Rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. According to the 1880 census, the family lived on Appleton Street. On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen. Losing his tenure at Zion in 1887, Rabbi Weiss moved with Ehrich to New York City. They lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. They were joined by the rest of the family once Rabbi Weiss found permanent housing. As a child, Ehrich Weiss took several jobs, next becoming a champion cross country runner. He made his public début as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself “Ehrich, the prince of the air”. Weiss became a professional magician and began calling himself “Harry Houdini” because he was heavily influenced by the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and his friend Jack Hayman told him, erroneously, that in French, adding an “i” to Houdin would mean “like Houdin” the great magician. In later life, Houdini would claim that the first part of his new name, Harry, was a homage to Harry Kellar, whom Houdini admired. At high school Ehrich met Gertrude Nathan who was friends with his sister Gladys. When Ehrich was looking to change his name legally to Harry Houdini, Gertrude introduced him to attorneys at the law firm, Jacob Rieger, where she worked as a paralegal after graduating high school.There he changed his name legally from Ehrich Weiss to Harry Houdini.
In 1918 he registered for selective service as Harry Handcuff Houdini.
At the outset, Houdini’s magic career resulted in little success. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as “The Wild Man” at a circus. Houdini focused initially on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the “King of Cards”. But he soon began experimenting with escape acts.
In 1893, while performing with his brother “Dash” at Coney Island as “The Houdini Brothers”, Harry met fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner, whom he married. Bess replaced Dash in the act, which became known as “The Houdinis.” For the rest of Houdini’s performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.
Houdini’s “big break” came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in rural Woodstock, Illinois. Impressed by Houdini’s handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe. After some days of unsuccessful interviews in London, Houdini managed to interest Dundas Slater, then manager of the Alhambra Theatre, he gave a demonstration of escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard, and succeeded in baffling the police so effectively that he was booked at the Alhambra for six months.
Houdini became widely known as “The Handcuff King.” He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. In each city, Houdini would challenge local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, Houdini would first be stripped nude and searched. In Moscow, Houdini escaped from a Siberian prison transport van. Houdini publicly stated that, had he been unable to free himself, he would have had to travel to Siberia, where the only key was kept. In Cologne, he sued a police officer, Werner Graff, who claimed he made his escapes via bribery. Houdini won the case when he opened the judge’s safe (he would later say the judge had forgotten to lock it). With his new-found wealth and success, Houdini purchased a dress said to have been made for Queen Victoria. He then arranged a grand reception where he presented his mother in the dress to all their relatives. Houdini said it was the happiest day of his life. In 1904, Houdini returned to the U.S. and purchased a house for $25,000, a brownstone at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York City.
There’s one of those bright red plaques with a little bit of history on the door but most can’t really get to it because the gate separates the porch entrance. Apparently the historic home is now divided into several rental units.
From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He would free himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in plain sight of street audiences. Because of imitators and a dwindling audience, on January 25, 1908, Houdini put his “handcuff act” behind him and began escaping from a locked, water-filled milk can. The possibility of failure and death thrilled his audiences. Houdini also expanded his challenge escape act — in which he invited the public to devise contraptions to hold him — to include nailed packing crates (sometimes lowered into the water), riveted boilers, wet-sheets, mailbags, and even the belly of a Whale that washed ashore in Boston. Brewers challenged Houdini to escape from his milk can after they filled it with beer.
Many of these challenges were prearranged with local merchants in what is certainly one of the first uses of mass tie-in marketing. Rather than promote the idea that he was assisted by spirits, as did the Davenport Brothers and others, Houdini’s advertisements showed him making his escapes via dematerializing,although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural powers.
In 1912, Houdini introduced perhaps his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full to overflowing with water. The act required that Houdini hold his breath for more than three minutes. Houdini performed the escape for the rest of his career. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture Cell, the escape had nothing to do with his demise. Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood throughout his career. In Handcuff Secrets (1909), he revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestrings. Other times, he carried concealed lockpicks or keys, being able to regurgitate small keys at will. When tied down in ropes or straitjackets, he gained wiggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, moving his arms slightly away from his body, and then dislocating his shoulders.
His straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping out free at the end. However, Houdini’s brother, who was also an escape artist billing himself as Theodore Hardeen, after being accused of having someone sneak in and let him out and being challenged to escape without the curtain, discovered that audiences were more impressed and entertained when the curtains were eliminated so they could watch him struggle to get out. They both performed straitjacket escapes dangling upside-down from the roof of a building for publicity on more than one occasion.
For most of his career, Houdini performed his act as a headliner in vaudeville. For many years, he was the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville. One of Houdini’s most notable non-escape stage illusions was performed at New York’s Hippodrome Theater when he vanished a full-grown elephant (with its trainer) from a stage, beneath which was a swimming pool. In 1923, Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., America’s oldest magic company. The business is still in operation today. He also served as President of the Society of American Magicians (aka S.A.M.) from 1917 until his death in 1926. In the final years of his life (1925/26), Houdini launched his own full-evening show, which he billed as “3 Shows in One: Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums Exposed”.
In 1904, the London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from a special handcuff that it claimed had taken Nathaniel Hart, a locksmith from Birmingham, seven years to make. Houdini accepted the challenge for March 17 during a matinée performance at London’s Hippodrome theater. It was reported that 4000 people and more than 100 journalists turned out for the much-hyped event. The escape attempt dragged on for over an hour, during which Houdini emerged from his “ghost house” (a small screen used to conceal the method of his escape) several times. On one occasion, he asked if the cuff could be removed so he could take off his coat. The Mirror representative, Frank Parker, refused, saying Houdini could gain an advantage if he saw how the cuff was unlocked. Houdini promptly took out a pen-knife and, holding the knife in his teeth, used it to cut his coat from his body. Some 56 minutes later, Houdini’s wife appeared on stage and gave him a kiss. It is believed that in her mouth was the key to unlock the special handcuff. Houdini then went back behind the curtain. After an hour and ten minutes, Houdini emerged free. As he was paraded on the shoulders of the cheering crowd, he broke down and wept. Houdini later said it was the most difficult escape of his career
After Houdini’s death, his friend, Martin Beck, published in his book, Sensational Tales of Mystery Men, that Houdini was bested that day and appealed to his wife, Bess, for help. Goldstone goes on to claim that Bess begged the key from the Mirror representative, then slipped it to Houdini in a glass of water. However, it was stated in the book “The Secret Life of Houdini” that the key required to open the specially designed Mirror handcuffs was 6″ long, and thus couldn’t have been smuggled to Houdini in a glass of water. Goldstone offered no proof of his account, and many modern biographers have found evidence (notably in the custom design of the handcuff itself) that the entire Mirror challenge was pre-arranged by Houdini and the newspaper, and that his long struggle to escape was pure showmanship. In support of this, it has been reported that the sterling silver replica of the Mirror cuffs presented to Houdini in honor of his escape was actually made the year before the escape actually took place (again from “The Secret Life of Houdini”).
In 1901, Houdini introduced his own original invention, the Milk Can Escape.In this effect, Houdini would be handcuffed and sealed inside an over-sized milk can filled with water and make his escape behind a curtain. As part of the effect, Houdini would invite members of the audience to hold their breath along with him while he was inside the can. Advertised with dramatic posters that proclaimed “Failure Means A Drowning Death”, the escape proved to be a sensation. Houdini soon modified the escape to include the milk can being locked inside a wooden chest, being chained or padlocked, and even inside another Milk can. Houdini only performed the milk can escape as a regular part of his act for four years, but it remains one of the effects most associated with the escape artist. Houdini’s brother, Theodore Hardeen, continued to perform the milk can (and the wooden chest variation) into the 1940s.
In 1912, the vast number of imitators prompted Houdini to replace his Milk Can act with the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In this escape, Houdini’s feet would be locked in stocks, and he would be lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The mahogany and metal cell featured a glass front, through which audiences could clearly see Houdini. The stocks would be locked to the top of the cell, and a curtain would conceal his escape. In the earliest version of the Torture Cell, a metal cage was lowered into the cell, and Houdini was enclosed inside that. While making the escape more difficult (the cage prevented Houdini from turning), the cage bars also offered protection should the front glass break. The original cell was built in England, where Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called “Houdini Upside Down”. This was so he could copyright the effect and have grounds to sue imitators (which he did). While the escape was advertised as “The Chinese Water Torture Cell” or “The Water Torture Cell”, Houdini always referred to it as “the Upside Down” or “USD”. The first public performance of the USD was at the Circus Busch in Berlin, on September 21, 1912. Houdini continued to perform the escape until his death in 1926.
One of Houdini’s most popular publicity stunts was to have himself strapped into a regulation straitjacket and suspended by his ankles from a tall building or crane. Houdini would then make his escape in full view of the assembled crowd. In many cases, Houdini would draw thousands of onlookers who would choke the street and bring city traffic to a halt. Houdini would sometimes ensure press coverage by performing the escape from the office building of a local newspaper. In New York City, Houdini performed the suspended straitjacket escape from a crane being used to build the New York subway. After flinging his body in the air, he escaped from the straitjacket. Starting from when he was hoisted up in the air by the crane, to when the straitjacket was completely off, it took him two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. There is film footage of Houdini performing the escape in The Library of Congress. After being battered against a building in high winds during one escape, Houdini performed the escape with a visible safety wire on his ankle so that he could be pulled away from the building if necessary. The idea for the upside-down escape was given to Houdini by a young boy named Randolph Osborne Douglas (March 31, 1895 – Dec 5, 1956), when the two met at a performance at Sheffield’s Empire Theatre.
Another one of Houdini’s most famous publicity stunts was to escape from a nailed and roped packing crate after it had been lowered into the water. Houdini first performed the escape in New York’s East River on July 7, 1912. Police forbade him from using one of the piers, so Houdini hired a tugboat and invited press on board. Houdini was locked in handcuffs and leg-irons, then nailed into the crate which was roped and weighed down with two hundred pounds of lead. The crate was then lowered into water. Houdini escaped in fifty-seven seconds. The crate was pulled to the surface and found to still be intact with the manacles inside. Houdini would perform this escape many times, and even performed a version on stage, first at Hamerstein’s Roof Garden (where a 5,500-gallon tank was specially built), and later at the New York Hippodrome.
Throughout his career, Houdini performed three variations on a “Buried Alive” stunt/escape. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1917, and it almost cost Houdini his life. Houdini was buried, without a casket, in a pit of earth six feet deep. He became exhausted and panicky trying to dig his way to the surface and called for help. When his hand finally broke the surface, he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by his assistants. Houdini wrote in his diary that the escape was “very dangerous” and that “the weight of the earth is killing.”
Houdini’s second variation on Buried Alive was an endurance test designed to expose mystical Egyptian performer Rahman Bey, who claimed to use supernatural powers to remain in a sealed casket for an hour. Houdini bettered Bey on August 5, 1926, by remaining in a sealed casket submerged in the swimming pool of New York’s Hotel Shelton for one hour and a half. Houdini claimed he did not use any trickery or supernatural powers to accomplish this feat, just controlled breathing. He repeated the feat at the YMCA in Worcester MA on September 28, 1926, this time remaining sealed for one hour and eleven minutes.
Houdini’s final Buried Alive was an elaborate stage escape that was to feature in his full evening show. The stunt would see Houdini escape after being strapped in a strait-jacket, sealed in a casket, and then buried in a large tank filled with sand. While there are posters advertising the escape (playing off the Bey challenge they boasted “Egyptian Fakirs Outdone!”), it is unclear whether Houdini ever performed Buried Alive on stage. The stunt was to be the feature escape of his 1927 season, but Houdini died on October 31, 1926. The bronze casket Houdini created for Buried Alive was used to transport Houdini’s body from Detroit back to New York following his death on Halloween.
In 1906 Houdini started showing films of his outside escapes as part of his vaudeville act. In Boston he presented a short film called Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt. Georg Hackenschmidt was a famous wrestler of the day, but the nature of their contest is unknown as the film is lost. In 1909 Houdini made a film in Paris for Cinema Lux titled Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris (The Adventures of Houdini in Paris). It featured a loose narrative designed to showcase several of Houdini’s famous escapes, including his straitjacket and underwater handcuff escapes. That same year Houdini got an offer to star as Captain Nemo in a silent version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the project never made it into production. Note: It is often erroneously reported that he served as special-effects consultant on the Wharton/International cliffhanger serial, The Mysteries of Myra, shot in Ithaca, New York, because Harry Grossman, director of The Master Mystery also filmed a serial in Ithaca at about the same time. Houdini had nothing to do with “Myra”, which treated spiritualism as real, something he never would have approved of. The actual consultants on the serial were pioneering psychic investigator Hereward Carrington and magician Alistair Crowley.
In 1918 Houdini signed a contract with film producer B.A. Rolfe to star in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery (released in January 1919). As was common at the time, the film serial was released simultaneously with a novel. Financial difficulties resulted in B.A. Rolfe Productions going out of business, but The Master Mystery led to Houdini being signed by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures, for whom he made two pictures, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920).
While filming an aerial stunt for The Grim Game, two biplanes collided in mid-air with a stuntman doubling Houdini dangling by a rope from one of the planes. Publicity was geared heavily toward promoting this dramatic “caught on film” moment, claiming it was Houdini himself dangling from the plane. While filming these movies in Los Angeles, Houdini rented a home in Laurel Canyon. Following his two-picture stint in Hollywood, Houdini returned to New York and started his own film production company called the “Houdini Picture Corporation”. He produced and starred in two films, The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). He also founded his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation (FDC), gambling on a new process for developing motion picture film. Houdini’s brother, Theodore Hardeen, left his own career as a magician and escape artist to run the company. Magician Harry Kellar was a major investor.
Neither Houdini’s acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, complaining that “the profits are too meager”. But his celebrity was such that, years later, he would be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 7001 Hollywood Blvd).
As of 2007 only The Man From Beyond had been commercially released on DVD. Incomplete versions of The Master Mystery and Terror Island were released by private collectors on VHS. Complete 35 mm prints of Haldane of the Secret Service and The Grim Game exist only in private collections. Haldane of the Secret Service was screened in Los Angeles in 2007.
In April 2008 Kino International released a DVD box set of Houdini’s surviving silent films, including The Master Mystery, Terror Island, The Man From Beyond, Haldane of the Secret Service, and five minutes from The Grim Game. The set also includes newsreel footage of Houdini’s escapes from 1907 to 1923, and a section from Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris (although it is not identified as such).
In 1909, Houdini became fascinated with aviation. He purchased a French Voisin biplane for $5000 and hired a full-time mechanic, Antonio Brassac. Houdini painted his name in bold block letters on the Voisin’s sidepanels and tail. After crashing once, he made his first successful flight on November 26 in Hamburg, Germany. The following year (1910), Houdini toured Australia. He brought along his Voisin biplane and made the first powered flight over Australia on March 18 at Diggers Rest, Victoria (near Melton), north of Melbourne. Colin Defries preceded him, but he crashed the plane on landing.
Following his Australia tour, Houdini put the Voisin into storage in England. He announced he would use it to fly from city to city during his next Music Hall tour, although Houdini never in fact flew again (for no documented reason).
A celebration of the centenary of Houdini’s first flight was held at Diggers Rest in 2010. The event included the dedication of a new monument, a Houdini-Centenary air-show, magic performances, and the display of a one-third scale model of Houdini’s Voisin.
In the 1920s, after the death of his mother, Cecelia, he turned his energies toward debunking self-proclaimed psychics and mediums, a pursuit that would inspire and be followed by later-day conjurers. Houdini’s training in magic allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. None were able to do so, and the prize was never collected. The first to be tested was medium George Valentine of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. As his fame as a “ghostbuster” grew, Houdini took to attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was the Boston medium Mina Crandon, also known as “Margery”.
Houdini chronicled his debunking exploits in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits. These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle, a firm believer in Spiritualism during his later years, refused to believe any of Houdini’s exposés. Conan Doyle came to believe that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist medium, had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities and was using these abilities to block those of other mediums that he was ‘debunking’ (see Conan Doyle’s The Edge of The Unknown, published in 1931, after Houdini’s death). This disagreement led to the two men becoming public antagonists.
Before Houdini died, he and his wife, Bess, agreed that if Houdini’s spirit came back to earth, he would utter “Rosabelle believe” as a secret codeword to prove that it was actually him. This was a phrase from a play that Bess performed in when the couple first met. Bess Houdini, the magician’s widow, held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini’s death, but Houdini’s spirit never appeared and communicated the passphrase. In 1936, after a last unsuccessful séance on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, she put out the candle that she had kept burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death, later saying in 1943 that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” The tradition of holding a séance for Houdini continues by magicians throughout the world to this day; the Official Houdini Séance is currently organized by Sidney Hollis Radner, a Houdini aficionado from upstate New York. Yearly Houdini Séances are also conducted in Chicago at the Excaliber nightclub by “necromancer” Neil Tobin on behalf of the Chicago Assembly of the Society of American Magicians; and at the Houdini Museum in Scranton by magician Dorothy Dietrich who previously held them at New York’s famous Magic Towne House with such magical notables as Houdini biographers Walter B. Gibson and Milbourne Christopher. Walter B. Gibson was asked by Bess Houdini to carry on the tradition. Before he died Walter passed on the tradition to Dorothy Dietrich.
Unlike the image of the classic magician, Houdini was short and stocky and typically appeared on stage in a long frock coat and tie. Most biographers peg his height as 5’5″, but descriptions vary. Houdini was also said to be slightly bow-legged, which aided in his ability to gain slack during his rope escapes. In the 1997 biography Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss, author Kenneth Silverman summarizes how reporters described Houdini’s appearance during his early career:
|“||They stressed his smallness—”somewhat undersized”—and angular, vivid features: “He is smooth-shaven with a keen, sharp-chinned, sharp-cheekboned face, bright blue eyes and thick, curly, black hair.” Some sensed how much his complexly expressive smile was the outlet of his charismatic stage presence. It communicated to audiences at once warm amiability, pleasure in performing, and, more subtly, imperious self-assurance. Several reporters tried to capture the charming effect, describing him as “happy-looking”, “pleasant-faced”, “good natured at all times”, “the young Hungarian magician with the pleasant smile and easy confidence”.||”|
Houdini made the only known recordings of his voice on Edison wax cylinders on October 29, 1914, in Flatbush, New York. On them, Houdini practices several different introductory speeches for his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell. He also invites his sister, Gladys, to recite a poem. Houdini then recites the same poem in German. The six wax cylinders were discovered in the collection of magician John Mulholland after his death in 1970. They are part of the David Copperfield collection.
Houdini’s brother, Theodore Hardeen, who returned to performing after Houdini’s death, inherited his brother’s effects and props. Houdini’s will stipulated that all the effects should be “burned and destroyed” upon Hardeen’s death. Hardeen sold much of the collection to magician and Houdini enthusiast Sidney Hollis Radner during the 1940s, including the Water Torture Cell. Radner allowed choice pieces of the collection to be displayed at The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. In 1995, a fire destroyed the museum. While the Water Torture Cell was reported to have been destroyed, its metal frame remained, and the cell was restored by illusion builder John Gaughan. Many of the props contained in the museum such as the Mirror Handcuffs, Houdini’s original packing crate, a Milk Can, and a straitjacket, survived the fire and were auctioned off in 1999 and 2008.
Radner archived the bulk of his collection at the Houdini Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, but pulled it in 2003 and auctioned it off in Las Vegas on October 30, 2004.
Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix. Eyewitnesses to an incident in Montreal gave rise to speculation that Houdini’s death was caused by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered multiple blows to Houdini’s abdomen to test Houdini’s claim that he was able to take any blow to the body above the waist without injury.
The eyewitnesses, students named Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz (sometimes called Jack Price and Sam Smiley), proferred accounts of the incident that generally corroborated one another. The following is Price’s description of events:
Houdini was reclining on his couch after his performance, having an art student sketch him. When Whitehead came in and asked if it was true that Houdini could take any blow to the stomach, Houdini replied groggily in the affirmative. In this instance, he was hit three times before Houdini could tighten up his stomach muscles to avoid serious injury. Whitehead reportedly continued hitting Houdini several more times and Houdini acted as though he were in some pain.
Houdini reportedly stated that if he had time to prepare himself properly he would have been in a better position to take the blows. He had apparently been suffering from appendicitis for several days prior and yet refused medical treatment. His appendix would likely have burst on its own without the trauma. Although in serious pain, Houdini continued to travel without seeking medical attention.
When Houdini arrived at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 1926, for what would be his last performance, he had a fever of 104°F (40°C). Despite a diagnosis of acute appendicitis, Houdini took the stage. He was reported to have passed out during the show, but was revived and continued. Afterwards, he was hospitalized at Detroit’s Grace Hospital.
Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. in Room 401 on October 31, aged 52.
After taking statements from Price and Smilovitz, Houdini’s insurance company concluded that the death was due to the dressing-room incident and paid double indemnity.
Houdini’s funeral was held on November 4, 1926 in New York, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance. He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite. To this day the Society holds a broken wand ceremony at the grave site in November. Houdini’s widow, Bess, died on February 11, 1943, aged 67, in Needles, California. She had expressed a wish to be buried next to him but instead was interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, New York, as her Catholic family refused to allow her to be buried in a Jewish cemetery out of concern for her soul.
On March 22, 2007, his great-nephew (the grandson of Houdini’s brother Theo) George Hardeen announced that the courts would be asked to allow exhumation of Houdini’s body. The purpose was to look for evidence that Houdini was poisoned by Spiritualists, as suggested in The Secret Life of Houdini. In a statement given to the Houdini Museum in Scranton, the family of Bess Houdini opposed the application and suggested it was a publicity ploy for the book. The Washington Post added to the furor by “revealing” that the press conference was not orchestrated by the family of Houdini, but by Secret Life authors William Kulash and Larry Sloman, who hired the PR firm Dan Klores Communications to promote the book. In 2008 it was revealed the parties involved never filed legal papers to perform an exhumation.