Friday, April 24, 2020

Houdini and the 1918 flu pandemic

I'm reviving this post from January 2015 as it certainly has taken on new meaning in this time of Covid-19.

Our friend Leo Hevia has found an interesting nugget of information about Houdini and the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic. Between 1918 and 1920, the flu infected 500 million people across the world and killed 50 to 100 million of them, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Says Leo:

"I just finished reading David Ben's captivating bio of magician Paul Fox [in Magicol No. 188] and encountered an interesting tidbit on Houdini. Fox caught the virus near the end of 1918 and was discharged from the Army in December 1918. In January of 1919, his application for membership in the S.A.M was approved at the 182 regular meeting of the Parent Assembly at Martinka's magic shop on 493 Sixth Avenue, New York. Houdini was there and signed Fox's application card. According to Dr. Wilson of The Sphinx, Houdini had also contracted the flu.
He must have shrugged it off fairly quickly because there is no mention of it in any of the bios I know. The virus mainly attacked healthy young men because their strong immune systems overreacted to the viral infection and would kill them. The young and middle-aged survived better because of their weaker immune systems. Houdini was about middle-aged by then. Could this have saved him?"

So it looks like we can add the 1918 flu virus to Houdini's death-defying escapes. One wonders if Bess also contracted it? She was not as strong as Houdini health-wise, and had bouts with illness her entire life.* Luckily, both Houdinis seemed to come through this frightening time.

* UPDATE: I recently discovered that Bess did contract the flu in early October 1918.



  1. You're welcome John. I might add that it was the young and healthy of both sexes that took the biggest hit from the virus. It wasn't just the males.

    And thanks to David Ben for writing a wonderful biography of an interesting man, and to Margaret Grace, Fox's daughter for assisting Mr. Ben. By the way, on page 31 of this book there is a reproduction of an inscribed photo portrait Houdini gave to Fox dated October 28, 1925.

  2. This post from 2015 just appeared in my list of most viewed this week. I forgot I had done this! Takes on new meaning now.

  3. I've been researching this a bit, as my great-uncle, Jack Trepel, lost his wife Mae in 1919. No cause was cited in newspaper articles, but we have guessed influenza, as she was just 25 at the time and seemed healthy. Jack was mentored by Houdini at a young age, and served as head of the NY S.A.M. for many years. I agree with Leo that many women died as well as men. Theories as to why there was a significantly higher number of men (combined with an unusual spike in cases in younger people) range from the effects of WWI (men were housed closely together in training and in the trenches), to the combined effects of tuberculosis and influenza. For those who want to wade through it, here is a recent medical journal article about the case for tuberculosis factor.

  4. Interesting story. Pandemics of the past have always seemed rather abstract and fixed in their own time, so of course now, one can relate to their true human impact. Thanks for sharing, Leo and John.