Friday, March 23, 2012

The biggest myth

Nowadays most people seem to know that Houdini didn't die in his Water Torture Cell. Most are now aware of the dressing room punch, and even those who still think the punch lead to him becoming trapped in the cell are open to hearing the truth.

But let me tell you, this was not case in the 1970s, especially in 1976 when there was a renaissance of interest in Houdini with the 50th anniversary of his death. As a young "Houdini Enthusiast", I can't tell you how many times I had to argue that Houdini didn't die in the USD, and how I was generally disbelieved (even once by a teacher). After all, they had seen it in a movie!

Of course, they were right about that. They had seen it in a movie. The myth of Houdini drowning in his Water Torture Cell (or the "Pagoda Torture Cell", as the movie called it) was born of the 1953 film, Houdini, starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Why the filmmakers decided to give Houdini such a dramatic and wildly inaccurate death is unknown, but it might have been rooted in Harry Cohn's early complaint that the Houdini story "lacked romance and needed a better ending than a punch in the solar plexus." Paramount gave it both.

It didn't help that the 1976 TV movie, The Great Houdinis, also depicted Houdini failing to escape from the cell, but at least they hedged with a freeze frame and voice over stating that he died in Grace Hospital.

However, Hollywood isn't completely to blame. Magicians at the time freely traded on the misconception of Houdini's death. Below are two adverts from 1976 -- one for Charlie Myrick and the other for the great Steve Baker -- that flat out say Houdini died in the Water Torture Cell. I believe even Doug Henning alluded to this during his famous first NBC special.

But, as I said, the myth of Houdini's drowning death is much less prevalent these days, and in the age of the Internet, it's easy enough for anyone to fact check something like this. That's why I now really enjoy items like the adverts above. It's part of the Houdini story -- part of his posthumous history -- that at one time people widely believed he died onstage doing his most famous escape.

What'd I do?


  1. I recall meeting a magician who was trying to impress me with his 'secret knowledge'. And of course the Houdini death in the WTC was one fact he brought up, the other was David Copperfield's twin brother. Pretty sure he missed it on both accounts.

    1. Even though I lived it, it's now hard for me to conceive of a world where you didn't have information at your fingertips. Think about it. There was only one Houdini documentary, The Truth About Houdini, and that only aired twice in the U.S. Sure, you could go out a buy a biography, but how many people would do that for one question? An encyclopedia was really the only thing to turn to. Is it possible these guys didn't know the truth themselves?

  2. Many "names" in magic promoted that myth, even though many knew better.

    The most asked question, by far, at the Houdini Museum for all these years to this day is...
    "How did Houdini die?"

    We are convinced, with much to be revealed yet by us, he was stalked by Whitehead, who was a odd ball religious believer, and wanted to teach Houdini a lesson. The resulting punches concealed from macho Houdini the fact that he already had an appendix problem, which then caused his death. We have taken some heat on this but are sure of this much researched conclusion.

    Next most asked question, but far down...
    "Did they have any children?"

    Houdini expert Dorothy Dietrich answers some other Houdini questions at the end of the month on Travel Channel's Mysteries At The Museum.

    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich
    Houdini Museum, Scranton, PA
    The only building in the world entirely devoted to Houdini.

    1. Janet Leigh said in an interview in Starlog magazine that the producers of the Houdini movie had him die that way because they were concerned about a possible lawsuit from family members of the student who punched him (please note I am paraphrasing from memory as it has been ages since I've seen that issue of Starlog). she is the only person directly involved with the making of the movie who has made any kind of comment about the reason behind this decision.
      Bruce Thomson

    2. Really??? I've never heard that. I was an avid reader of Starlog, but I missed this. Do you happen to remember which issue this was in, Bruce?

    3. The only listing I can find anywhere for her being interviewed by Starlog was issue 132 back in 1988. The magazine ceased publication in 2009 and no one has an index page anywhere. There may have been other issues.
      Bruce Thomson

    4. Hopefully when you address that "most asked question" with your theory, you do so in such a way that the person asking understands that it's hotly debated and the answer is just your theory (researched as it may be), rather than as though it's an established fact, like you do when you discuss it here.

      Intellectual honesty (hey, there's that phrase again) is a great thing.

  3. Magic Magazine October 1995, the Bess issue. David Charvet interview with Janet Leigh: "Obviously, it could not reflect exactly how Houdini died, because some relatives of the young man who hit Houdini and caused his appendicitis were still alive. The family was very much against showing that, obviously. So we had to alter the reason for his accident."

    Interesting to see that she apparently knew something about how Houdini did die. She said that she and Curtis read several books about Houdini prior to filming.

    The next issue is Leigh's story about Whitehead's relatives objecting. She may have been told that during production, but I wonder if it's true.

    Don Bell's book about Houdini's death doesn't mention any living relatives. Bell says Whitehead was living in Montreal in 1952. He died in 1954. Would Whitehead know about the movie production? Would the film-makers have any way to locate him? I wonder if Paramount's legal department simply figured it would be wiser not to portray the punch, even if the movie didn't name Whitehead -- as I'm sure it wouldn't have done.

    1. Once again, you are amazing at finding these things, Eric. Thanks.

  4. John - I just found this post and yes, Janet Leigh told me the above quote (mentioned by Eric.) I do have a tape recording of my entire interview with Janet (via phone) somewhere in my files. She very kind and loved to talk about the film and her part in it. It was obviously one of her favorites.


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