Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Doctor's report reveals the physical Houdini

Not long ago the Smithsonian Institution Archives posted a very interesting article about Houdini's visit to the lab of Dr. Aleš Hrdlička, curator of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, in the Spring of 1926. Dr. Hrdlička was convinced Houdini possessed measurable physical abnormalities that aided in his escapes, and conducted a full psychical examination of Houdini.

Now thanks to a request by David Byron, the Smithsonian has posted Dr. Hrdlička's actual examination chart, which gives us a remarkable snapshot of the physical Houdini in the last year of his life.

The chart tells us Houdini's standing height was 5' 5.276" (165.8 cm), and 3' 01" (91.7 cm) while seated. There has been a bit of a movement in recent years to shrink Houdini (to as low as 5' 1"), but this proves he really was the height he and his early biographers claimed.

He had "medium blue eyes" with brown flecks around the pupils. His hair is noted as being "wavy", black "now about 5/6 gray", and thinning over the top. His grip is asymmetrical and his toes are "prehensile through training."

The report also reveals that Houdini's left wrist is at 50% strength compared to his right and in "traction." If this is from the break he suffered while making The Master Mystery and The Grim Game seven years earlier, it appears this injury had become chronic.

But most surprising is that Houdini's upper rear teeth are noted as "all in poor condition" from the "bicuspids and backward, all." It's also noted that his tongue is "coated in back." We all know Houdini was no fan of surrendering himself to doctors until forced to do so (an attitude which hastened to his death). Perhaps this extended to the dentist as well? Or maybe dentistry, and people's attitudes toward dental hygiene and upkeep, just wasn't what it is today.

CLICK HERE TO READ "Harry Houdini Escapes the Smithsonian II: Magic by Numbers"

Thanks to David Byron for the alert and help translating some of the chart information.

11 comments:

  1. My vote is for 'dentistry wasn't what it is today'. In fact, Dentistry 20 years ago wasn't what it is today! So the condition of his teeth isn't surprising.

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    1. I think you're probably right about that, Dean.

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  2. I wonder how they missed the false teeth.

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    1. Did Houdini really have false teeth, Kevin? I know Patrick has talked about a bridge (that might have been used to hide picks), but I'm not sure where he got that from. I've never heard or read that before. Do you know the source? I just wonder if this isn't a magic urban legend.

      Or maybe the bad teeth are what were under the bridge?

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  3. Couldn't help to crunch the needles to pretend he was going to swallow them.

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  4. I remember how surprised I was when I first read that Houdini had blue eyes. For some reason, I'd always assumed his eyes were brown. I thought it was just me at first, but now I'm noticing that the majority of actors who play Houdini in films seem to have brown eyes (Tony Curtis is the one example I can think of where they were actually blueish.) What's up with that?

    Interesting article.

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    1. Eye colour just isn't usually as great a consideration when casting as other factors, such as: sex, height, ethnicity, general weight and build, bank-ability, talent, charm, chemistry with fellow actors, and of course willingness to go through the research, the gruelling physical training, and probably doing some stunt-work.

      Hell, most actors who play Houdini barely even resemble him at all - in height, build, facial features, or otherwise. Tony Curtis was probably the closest so far, in all aspects. Michael Weston, who played him in "Houdini & Doyle," is also blue-eyed and is probably the second-closest in terms of having any facial features resembling Houdini's [though he actually looks more, to me, like Tony Curtis than Houdini! Heh!].

      I think, for Houdini at least, the eyes ARE a more important factor than is often considered. His piercing blue eyes were a major part of his charisma and power - both in life, and beyond the grave, as you can see by looking at any of his photos where he's staring into the camera.

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  5. Hm, very interesting. And Houdini's teeth might be a reflection both of the dentistry of the time (was fluoride even in the water systems of most places, yet? I wouldn't think so), and also Houdini's general lack of self-care (outside of diet and training). I'm sure I read that he'd often wear greasy, ill-fitting clothing (perhaps clothes that hadn't seen the wash in a while), and that Bess was constantly after him to put on clean underwear. Maybe he forgot to brush his teeth a lot, and I dunno, perhaps back then you only saw the dentist if you needed a tooth pulled, so there was no tooth-scraping, cleaning, rinsing or other interventions to stop major tooth decay.

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  6. I imagine that Houdini was probably lucky to even have teeth as an adult back in those days. Not only that but I'm reading a biography at the moment and he actually loosened a few by trying to hang by a rope while trying one of his stunts.

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  7. I missed this when first published - FASCINATING!

    I imagine his poor teeth are from a combination of accidents while performing, his admitted sweet tooth [nothing rots a tooth like sugar!], and from generally poor self-care as mentioned, which, as he was so absorbed in his constant creative pursuits, is totally understandable. I can also relate as someone with ADHD. When I hyperfocus or "get into the zone" with a particularly absorbing creative or research endeavour, oftentimes, all self-care falls out the window, even eating and going to bathroom in a timely manner! Task-switching is also difficult sometimes. Anyway, Houdini's sure lucky he had Bess (and all his staff) to help keep his life and himself chugging along okay.

    I've seen so many different descriptions of Houdini's height [some really absurd - 5'1", really? Come on!] that it's really nice to see an authoritative account of what it really was, at the end of his life. [It's possible, given his premature aging, that he may have shrunk down in height slightly by age 52. Maybe in his youth he was closer to 5'6" or just over. I could very well be wrong, though. I don't know how long it takes people to "succumb to gravity" over a lifetime, or at least when it becomes noticeable.].

    I wonder what "medium blue eyes" means though. Just a lighter blue that's not quite blue-grey? Cool to know there were brown flecks in the inner part of the iris.

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    1. Of course, my own eyes didn't notice that I had *not* missed this post, and had in fact commented in 2013 with some of the same thoughts. X-D

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