What was Houdini's cause of death?

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Richard Stokes
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What was Houdini's cause of death?

Postby Richard Stokes » June 21st, 2020, 7:00 pm

I recently read in the UK Spectator a review of Adam Begley's new book Houdini: The Elusive American.

My understanding is that Houdini died after complications from peritonitis. And the traditional explanation is that this was caused by an unwelcome punch to his abdomen:

"It is true that a few days before his death he was winded off-guard by a mistimed blow. But Begley proves it couldn’t have ruptured his appendix and caused the peritonitis that killed him. So how did the story gain currency? Easy, says Begley. Houdini’s widow put it about in the hope of making good on a double indemnity clause in his insurance policy."

What do forum members think of this theory?

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Richard Kaufman
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Re: What was Houdini's cause of death?

Postby Richard Kaufman » June 21st, 2020, 8:38 pm

Ken Silverman, in his definitive Houdini bio, could not find a doctor who believed that a few blows to the abdomen could have led to the problem with the appendix that caused Houdini's death.
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Re: What was Houdini's cause of death?

Postby DanZ » June 21st, 2020, 9:48 pm

As Richard points out the idea that it wasn't a punch that killed Houdini is not news. Back in the early 2000s I did a film on Houdini's death (and life but mostly death). In the end I tried to get my name removed as write and director because I felt the final result had been butchered, but it had lots of interesting content including extensive interviews with Ken Silverman and perhaps more to the point of this question with Dr. Robert Albo.

While I wouldn't put Albo forward as an expert on Houdini he was indubitably an expert on sports medicine and knew a lot about what happens to the human body when it is hit. According to Wikipedia he was a medical doctor, and later a surgeon (and professor of surgery). For over 40 years he was team physician to various sport teams. When I interviewd him he was, I believe, head team physician for the Oakland Raiders football team. He dismissed in no uncertain terms that an appendix could rupture because of some punches. He illustrated the nature of the appendix receiving a blow using a partially inflated balloon, that deformed but didn't break under the impact.

I do believe that he also said (but my memory may be off on this) that if the appendix was already infected, the punches might have irritated it further and peerhaps even caused it to start leaking.

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Re: What was Houdini's cause of death?

Postby Diego » June 22nd, 2020, 11:33 am

Dr. Albo's opinion carries a lot of weight, with his knowledge and experience. I wonder if doctors whose practice includes boxers, (or UFC fighters) would feel any different than Dr. Albo? Many feel that it was also Houdini's refusal to STOP what he was doing, to seek medical attention, doing a show regardless with high fever, etc., that he delayed needed examination and treatment, contributed to his death.

Richard Stokes
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Re: What was Houdini's cause of death?

Postby Richard Stokes » June 22nd, 2020, 7:41 pm

Thanks for these responses. What about the Double Indemnity theory? Does Silverman mention this? And did his widow receive any insurance pay-out for premature death? By the way, I'm surprised that anyone would be willing to risk insuring Houdini given how dangerous his escapades appeared in the public eye.

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Re: What was Houdini's cause of death?

Postby houdinisghost » June 23rd, 2020, 7:18 am

The blow did not rupture Houdini's appendix. Houdini decided to allow Gordon Whitehead to punch him in the stomach while he lay on his dressing room couch. The punch caused a compression of Houdini's peritoneal cavity which forced fecal matter to breach the membrane that separates the appendix from the intestine. Houdini instantly felt the effects of a traumatic appendicitis -- terrible pain and nausea -- but he covered them up and went on visiting with the students. If the fecal material had worked its way out of the appendix, the appendicitis attack would have been over. Houdini then performed two more shows in Montreal. As he got on the train to take the show to Detroit, Houdini tolld Max Malini and Max's son, Ozzie, "I let a college kid punch me in the stomach and he caught me wrong and it's killing me." Houdini's appendix burst on the train. New York Life paid double indemnity to Bess Houdini. Houdini also had life insurance with other companies which also paid double indemnity. I have the entire New York Life file on Houdini's case. It makes Houdini the poster boy for the reality of traumatic appendicitis. By the way, The Begley book is a cheap hack job with no original research. And Silverman's book may be the best of the bunch, but, it is not "definitive." As Stanley Palm discovered when he proofread the Silverman book, Ken had no concept of Houdini's stage performances. Silverman looked at this photo of the "Sea Monster" Houdini escaped from in Boston and identified it in his book as a "sea elephant." http://www.houdinisghost.com/seamonster.html

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Re: What was Houdini's cause of death?

Postby Richard Stokes » June 26th, 2020, 3:57 am

I have another question on Houdini regarding his knowledge of the methods of spiritualists. I'll create a new post.

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