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Harry Houdini Haunts Halloween History in Detroit

Posted on Monday, October 15 2012 in Culture

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Photo Credit: Edinburgh Festival

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  Credit: The Harry Ransom Center

Nearly a century after his untimely death, Harry Houdini continues to haunt Detroit’s Halloween history. The famous 20th-century stuntman and escape artist died in Detroit on Halloween in 1926. Plenty of rumors and mystery surround Houdini’s life, death and even his afterlife. But one thing is clear: Houdini is part of Detroit’s Halloween lore.

As we celebrate the season with cider mills, haunted houses and events such as the Detroit Zoo’s Zoo Boo, let’s take a moment to look back on the myths and facts surrounding Houdini’s time in the Motor City and one of Detroit’s claims to Halloween fame.

The Myths

The rumor that Houdini drowned in a water torture cell on stage in Detroit is false. In fact, he died at Grace Hospital of peritonitis (an abdominal infection) brought on by untreated appendicitis.

Houdini’s last performance did not take place at the Majestic Theatre, as many believe, but at the Garrick Theater on Oct. 24. After fainting on stage Houdini was taken to the hospital where he had his appendix removed.

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Harry Houdini. Credit: BucketList Queen

Twenty years before his death, Houdini claimed to have jumped handcuffed from the Belle Isle Bridge and into the Detroit River through a hole in the ice. Having lost track of the hole, he swam under the ice for nearly ten minutes, surviving on air bubbles until he relocated the hole and escaped to shore. As it turns out, there was no ice on the river during the Nov. 27 stunt.


The Facts

Before coming by train to his performance in Detroit, Houdini was punched in the abdomen by a McGill University student in Montreal. The punch was in response to a claim by Houdini that he could take any punch as a test of his physical strength. This may have precipitated his decline.

Houdini went on stage at the Garrick Theater suffering from severe pain and a fever of 104 degrees. Houdini continued the show even after passing out, until he was eventually taken off stage and transported to Grace Hospital with acute appendicitis.

Houdini died on Halloween. His dying words were, "I'm tired of fighting."

For ten years following Houdini’s death, his wife Beth held an anniversary séance to try to communicate with her deceased husband. She finally gave up on the tradition, concluding that ten years was long enough to wait for any man.


What’s your favorite myth or legend surrounding a Detroit celebrity or historical landmark?