It’s almost impossible to overstate how famous magician and escape artist Harry Houdini was. He died almost 100 years ago, and he is still the most famous magician who ever lived. One of the reasons why his fame has endured for over a century is the boost he received from the 1953 movie, Houdini, in which Tony Curtis played the title role.
The most riveting scene in the movie is the final one, which depicts how Houdini died. Houdini builds a spectacular “Pagoda Torture Chamber,” a tank that somewhat resembles a phone booth filled with water. His wife, knowing how dangerous the trick is, begs him not to do it and he agrees not to. However, during his next show, the rowdy audience demands he perform it, as it had been advertised for the show. Harry unfortunately acquiesces. His feet are locked in stocks and he is plunged head first into the tank. He hangs upside down underwater. However, Houdini struggles and loses consciousness underwater. The tank is smashed open with an axe, flooding the stage with water. Houdini is revived, but it is too little, too late. The dying Harry vows to his weeping wife that he will come back from beyond the grave.
There is only one problem. None of it is true. Houdini successfully performed the “Chinese Water Torture Cell” (its actual name) hundreds of times and it had nothing to do with his death. His actual death was less dramatic, but more mysterious. We will probably never know the full truth.
Backstage before a show in Montreal, Houdini was visited by a couple students. One of them asked him if it were true that he could withstand punches to his stomach. Houdini replied in the affirmative and the student suddenly delivered several blows to his abdomen—before Houdini could prepare for them. Houdini suffered great pain for the next two days. When he finally saw a doctor, he had a high fever and acute appendicitis. He declined surgery (which may have saved his life). He did one more show, during which he passed out. His appendix had ruptured, and he died a week later (on Halloween!) of peritonitis.
The exact connection (if any) between the punches and the appendicitis is not known. It is regarded not medically possible for an appendix to rupture from such blunt force trauma, but the blows may have been a factor in his decline. For example, pain from the blows might have made Houdini unaware he was suffering from appendicitis, thus delaying him from seeking medical treatment.