Houdini’s Last Act

On this day in 1926, Harry Houdini, the most celebrated magician and escape artist of the 20th century, dies of peritonitis at Detroit’s Grace Hospital on Willis. Twelve days previous, Houdini had been chatting to a group of students backstage in Montreal, remarking on his awesome and useful abs. Suddenly, one of the students punched Houdini twice in the stomach without warning; the magician hadn’t had time to prepare, and the blows ruptured his appendix.

Headed for bookings in Detroit, He fell dreadfully ill on the train, but performed at the Garrick Theater, or Whitney Opera House, on Griswold, before being hospitalized. Doctors operated on him, to no avail; the burst appendix poisoned his system, and on October 31 he died. His body was taken to the W. R. Hamilton and Company Funeral Home on Cass Avenue, where the remains were embalmed and stored there in a bronze coffin with a glass lid, which Houdini had wanted to use as a prop for his magic shows. The coffin was then placed in a crate and shipped by truck to Michigan Central Station, where his body was taken by train to New York.

And now for the boo. Decades later, in the exact words of a Grace Hospital employee:

“It was ordinary, common knowledge that the hospital allowed yearly seances by a local group of Harry Houdini followers on Hallow’s Eves in the Grace Central hospital room in which he died– Room 401 . . . I pulled back the bedside curtains of the semi-private room and recorded the notable spot. Strangely enough, when I took the picture of the bed in which Houdini died 50 years before, I distinctly recall the bed neatly made up with the white woven bedspread arranged over top of the pillow. After developing, there is every appearance that the bed had been recently vacated and a newspaper lay on the bedside tray table. Could it have represented a final fulfillment of his promise, a last signal or good-bye?” (Cue eerie music)

And here the Halloween lesson endeth.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.