Saturday, May 23, 2015

Houdini threatened to cancel his 1926 tour after Detroit

In his new booklet, The Houdini Correspondence File, Wayne Wissner provides a collection of Houdini letters which have largely escaped examination. Many come from the final months of Houdini's life, and one letter might add a troubling new dimension to the story of his death.

In an urgent letter, sent from his dressing room at the Van Curler Theater in Schenectady on October 14, 1926, Houdini threatened to cancel his 3 Shows In One tour after his engagement at the Garrick Theater in Detroit. The reason for this was because Houdini discovered a clause in his contract that he found unacceptable.

Following his accident in the Water Torture Cell in Albany on October 11, a clause was brought to Houdini's attention that stipulated should he be struck down with any illness or accident that would necessitate closing the show, he would have to pay the theater $1000 (over $13,000 today) for each day the theater was dark. While lying flat on his back nursing his broken ankle, Houdini dictated a letter to Jules Murray at the Shubert Theatre, saying:

"If that is the case with contracts on the tour, I herewith cancel everything after the Detroit engagement as I positively will not accept any contracts under these conditions."

Houdini sent a copy of the letter to his show manager, L. Lawrence Weber, further stating:

"I am amazed any sensible manager would sign a contract with such a clause in it and I am perfectly willing to leave the road before I would take such a chance. [...] Am perfectly willing to continue if a new clause is inserted but under the present contract I retire gracefully."

Houdini's 1926-27 full evening show was to be a "Coast To Coast" tour. The tour kicked off in September and featured new effects such as Buried Alive and Slicing A Girl in Eight. Presumably, Houdini had signed contracts up through his appearance in Detroit.

I don't think this was a bluff by Houdini. I'm sure he would have walked away from the tour if the contract was not amended. But I expect it all would have been worked out and the show would eventually move on as planned. However, Wayne says that he could find no documentation that a change had been made before the troop reached Detroit.

Ironically, in Detroit the worst case scenario happened. Houdini was struck down with appendicitis and the theater went dark for his entire engagement. One wonders if the Garrick charged Houdini/Weber for the missed days. (The full cause has no "Act of God" allowance.) In light of Houdini's death, this would have been pretty ruthless. But had Houdini recovered from his illness, in which case the theater probably would have enforced the clause, you could bet there would have been a battle royal.

Here's a final, dark thought on all this. We know Houdini stubbornly refused to do anything about the growing pain in his stomach during his final days, and even insisted on taking the stage at the Garrick with a 104 degree temperature. He even returned to his hotel after the show. Could Houdini's reluctance to seek medical attention been, in part, because he knew this $1000 a day fine was hanging over him? Was he trying to make it through Detroit before surrendering himself to the doctors?

Did a contract clause kill Houdini?

Thanks to Wayne Wissner for opening up this new rabbit hole. Wayne is currently offering The Houdini Correspondence File on eBay.

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19 comments:

  1. i saw a movie on the History channel where Houdini's last words were: "I'd rather die than pay the Garrick Theatre $1000 a day!"

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  2. Extraordinarily thought-provoking theory, John. Despite how cavalier Houdini was regarding his health, he wasn't foolhardy when it came to taking safety precautions, so it always surprised me that he was so insistent on giving his show with a bad ankle, but the $1000 clause seems like a very plausible method behind his madness. While the equivalent of $13,000 isn't a drop in the bucket, I can understand why he wouldn't be anxious to forfeit such a large sum. If that truly was his reason for resisting medical attention, that makes the circumstances of his death even more tragic.

    Regardless, I'm still convinced that Houdini, being who he was, had a stubborn belief in his own immortality, and would have gone out in a similar fashion, clause or not. If it hadn't been appendicitis in Detroit in 1926, it would have been something else. I don't think slowing down was in his nature at any age. Recall his diary entry on his 50th or 52nd birthday where he expressed his wish to be doing upside-down strait-jacket escapes at 100? It's just a shame he didn't get even a few more years. Just think what he might have done.

    -Meredith

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    1. Very well said, Meredith. Think you're right on all counts.

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  3. I was just a this grave 5 minutes ago. Nothing has been done to restore it or even clean it up!

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    1. The SAM has yet to begin their latest restoration effort. But from recent photos I've seen, the plot appears to be in pretty good shape.

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  4. Great stuff in the Correspondence book. Yeah, how terrible to think that the 13 grand fine was in the back of his head. Enough to keep going even though he was battered and bruised. I also agree that by this time he had committed the mortal sin of buying into his own legend and believed in his invulnerability.

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  5. This info really provides an entirely new angle regarding the days prior to his death. I suspect this was the underlining reason why he refused to go to the hospital for fear of the hefty penalty it would ensue.

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    1. Yeah, I really think it needs to be considered as part of the overall story. It's a pretty mind-blowing revelation.

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  6. Yeah I don't think so, money or not it means squat when your dead. Houdini would go if he thought he had to...... Houdini wasn't stupid...

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    1. But did he know his life was in danger? The doctors that night misdiagnosed him with a condition that wasn't life threatening. It wasn't until they operated the next day that they discovered the appendicitis. Only the doctor at the Garrick claimed that he diagnosed appendicitis, and he said he gave Houdini a choice to going to the hospital or not. I sometimes wonder if he also misdiagnosed Houdini, but was not about to admit that to the papers after that fact.

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  7. When HH arrived in Detroit, a physician found signs of appendicitis. After the show, the in house doctor at the hotel in Detroit diagnosed it as appendicitis and summoned Dr. Kennedy. He told HH it was serious, who still had to call his personal physician in N.Y. to get a third opinion before he finally caved in and went to the hospital. That sounds like a man in denial.

    It's possible the first doctor HH saw in Detroit may have misdiagnosed the symptoms and later lied to get out of a jam. Not likely though. You don't have to be a physician to know that someone with a high fever and serious stomach pains is very likely suffering from appendicitis, or at the very least head for the emergency room.

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    1. The hotel house doctor diagnosed appendicitis? I thought the house doctor, who was a kid filling in for the regular doctor at that hour, called Dr. Kennedy and Kennedy diagnosed a ruptured or inflamed colon (something like that -- I'm typing off the top of my head). It was the punch being the source of the pain that threw the doctors off. That is why they didn't schedule surgery right away. No one knows what Houdini's own doctor told him over the phone, but whatever he said did the trick.

      Are you getting this from the Kalush book, Leo? I think I'm recalling Silverman, but Kalush might have more up-to-date info (but the Kalush book can be a little slippery with facts).

      I definitely agree he was in denial.

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    2. Okay, you made me pull out my Silverman. Nothing in there about the house doc diagnosing appendicitis. As to Kennedy, it says:

      "After learning of the stomach punches, he speculated that Houdini had either a ruptured intestine or a clot in the large blood vessels feeding it. He urged him to enter Grace."

      Kalush might have more, but that's also the book that says Houdini was murdered, so... :p

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    3. Actually, Kalush has less info. He mentions all three doctors, but doesn't say anything about what they diagnosed. Nor does Christopher.

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  8. Yes, you're right, the in house hotel doctor summoned Kennedy but no mention that he diagnosed appendicitis. I misread the Silverman book and saw something that wasn't there. Oh dear. It was the first doctor who diagnosed HH's symptoms as appendicitis when HH arrived at the train station in Detroit. The pain was so bad that a wire was sent from the Detroit bound train to have the physician ready at the station.

    You had to pull out Silverman? It should be right next to you at all times. I don't believe hotels have in house physicians anymore. They went the way of the bellboy and the actual bell that used to be on the counter in the lobby.

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    1. Understandable. It's hard to keep all this straight. And while the Detroit doctor -- Leo Dretzka -- was supposed to meet them at the station, the train was late and he met them at the theater.

      I was actually wondering where I got the info that Dr. Dretzka diagnosed appendicitis at the theatre. This also doesn't appear in any of the respected bios -- it only appears in Brandon! Egad! But I recalled THIS POST where I wrote that it appears in one of Houdini's obituaries (probably Brandon's source). I think he was quoted, but now I'm not sure. So I have to be careful about that one.

      I normally do keep a copy of Silverman right here beside my computer. It's my Bible! :) But it somehow slipped onto my reference shelf in the bedroom.

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  9. John--did you catch what Brandon wrote on page 279? When HH arrived at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, he received a letter from Fulton Oursler, and in response typed a note mentioning that he had hoped to go to Toledo and have a séance with Ada Bessinet.

    Was HH's tunnel vision that bad?

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    1. Interesting. It just shows that I don't think he realized he was in any real trouble. I think he thought all this pain was from the punch, and working through pain was normal for him. The fever should have alarmed him, but...denial isn't uncommon in circumstances like this.

      Remember he also sent a similar note on his deathbed.

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