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.