Detroit and the Death of Harry Houdini

Written by Tonya Blust | My Michigan Blog

When Harry Houdini stepped onto the stage in Detroit’s Garrick Theatre on October 24, 1926, he was about to begin the last performance of his career — and his life. Two days earlier, the famed magician and escape artist had been reclining in his dressing room before a show in Montreal when a college student named J. Gordon Whitehead knocked on the door.

Houdini frequently told fans that he could withstand any punch, and Whitehead asked if the boast was true. Houdini said it was, and gave Whitehead permission to throw a few jabs. However, Whitehead started hitting while Houdini was still lying down; the magician didn’t have time to tense his stomach, so the punches inflicted more damage than Houdini expected. In pain, the magician motioned Whitehead to stop. Houdini managed to complete his performance, but he was in extreme physical distress as he headed toward his next destination-Detroit.

The Garrick Theatre in Detroit would be Houdini’s last performance. The building was torn down just a few years later in 1929.

By the time Houdini and his crew arrived in the Motor City, he was running a fever of 102 degrees and suffering from appendicitis. He refused surgery, though, and showed up for his performance at the Garrick Theatre. By that time, Houdini’s temperature had reached 104 degrees, and he passed out while performing his act. Eventually, Houdini acknowledged that he needed medical attention, and was rushed to Detroit’s Grace Hospital, where doctors discovered that he had peritonitis (an inflammation of abdominal tissue), likely caused by a ruptured appendix. Though Houdini held out hope that he would recover, his injuries eventually got the best of him, and he died at 1:26 p.m. on October 31. He was 52 years old. His body was taken to Queens, New York, where he was buried in Machpelah Cemetery.

For years afterward, Houdini’s wife, Bess, held seances on Halloween in an attempt to contact her husband. Perhaps not surprisingly, especially given the fact that, in life, Houdini had insisted spiritualism was a fraud, she had no luck. To this day, fans of the paranormal gather every Halloween to commune with Houdini’s spirit.
So far, he hasn’t shown up.

Antique postcard of Grace Hospital in Detroit. The building was torn down in 1979.

Photograph via

Houdini started life as Erik Weisz and immigrated to the United States from Hungary when he was four years old. He adopted the name “Harry Houdini” in homage to two of his heroes: an American magician named Harry Kellar, and a French magician named Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Houdini was best known for his daring escapes from sticky situations. One of his standards was the “Chinese Water Torture Cell” trick in which his feet were locked in stocks and he was immersed upside-down in a glass container filled with water. A curtain prevented panicked audiences from seeing his struggle to escape, but escape he did, every time.

The Garrick Theatre no longer stands but was located at 1122 Griswold Street, near the current site of the David Stott Building. Likewise, Grace Hospital, where Houdini died, is no longer part of the Detroit landscape, having been demolished in 1979.

Whatever happened to J. Gordon Whitehead, the man who inadvertently caused Houdini’s death? After the incident, Whitehead dropped out of college and became a recluse, eventually dying of malnutrition in 1954. He’s buried in an unmarked grave in a Montreal cemetery. Some conspiracy theorists insist Whitehead was hired to kill or injure Houdini by the spiritualists whom Houdini had debunked, but no proof exists that this was the case.

Left to right: Mother Cecilia Weisz, Houdini, and wife Bess. (Photo: Library of Congress [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)

Photograph via