Saturday, October 22, 2016

90 years ago: The beginning of the end

It was 90 years ago today that Harry Houdini was playing at the Princess Theater in Montreal, Canada. He had lectured a few days earlier at McGill University, where he boasted about his ability to withstand blows to his stomach. He even took a blow from a student as a demonstration.

On October 22, Houdini invited two McGill students, Sam Smilovitz (aka Smiley) and Jacques Price, to visit him at the theater. The boys arrived around 11:15 AM. Houdini was nursing a broken ankle, caused by an accident in the Water Torture Cell, so he reclined on his small dressing room couch and read mail while Smiley, an art student, sketched him. Smiley recalled that Houdini was kind, affable, and seemed to be trying "to impress upon us the he was 'one of the boys.'" He also recalled that Houdini appeared to be a man "much in need of a long, carefree vacation."

As Smiley sketched, Houdini spoke. He told them that even though he found film production "highly interesting," he would not return to it. He said that in a year or two he would write a book containing many of his secrets, but would withhold publication for a long time.

That's when a third student named J. Gordon Whitehead was shown into the dressing room. Whitehead was tall (six-foot-one) and spoke, as Smiley recalled, with "an exaggerated Oxford accent." He wore a blue gabardine coat that seemed too small for him. Whitehead was there to return a book Houdini had loaned him. Houdini invited him to have seat with the other boys.

The talkative Whitehead began peppering Houdini with questions. Eventually he asked Houdini his opinion of the miracles mentioned in the Bible. Houdini declined to comment on "matters of this nature." Whitehead then asked if it was true he could withstand blows to his abdomen without injury, a question Smiley said "came out of a clear sky." Houdini said that it was.

Whitehead rose up and started hitting Houdini in the stomach. He delivered several blows that Smiley described as being "terribly forcible, deliberate, well-directed." Eventually Houdini waved him off saying, "That will do."

After the bizarre incident, the boys settled back and Smiley finished his sketch, which Houdini signed and dated for him. Looking at the image, Houdini is reported to have said, "You made me look a little tired in this picture. The truth is, I don't feel so well."

Later that afternoon, Houdini's niece and show assistant Julia Sawyer found him in pain the dressing room. Houdini explained that he had been struck in the stomach by a student before he had a chance to stand and get ready for the blow, "possibly because of a misunderstanding."

Nine days later Houdini would die on Halloween from complications of a ruptured appendix.

Here are collection of links related to Houdini's final days:

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