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Digital Debunking: The Mysterious Death of Harry Houdini

For more than 30 years, Harry Houdini awed audiences with his death-defying stunts that earned him the reputation as the greatest magician and escape artist that had ever lived. His fearlessness, mastery of sleight-of-hand, and panache for the dramatic earned the Hungarian-born illusionist worldwide acclaim. Spectators were left stupefied as Houdini wriggled out of straightjackets, chains and handcuffs, escaped from a sealed milk can filled with water, and clawed to the surface after being buried alive. It is, perhaps, fitting that the incidents surrounding Houdini’s death are equally shrouded in mystery. This begs the question, could modern simulation software shed new light on this nearly 100-year-old enigma?

On October 22, 1926, Houdini was in Montreal to give a lecture at McGill University. He invited several students to visit him in his dressing room at the Princess Theater. Resting an injury sustained from a previous performance, Houdini was reclined on a couch when one of the students, J. Gordon Whitehead, asked him if the rumors were true that he could withstand hard punches to the abdomen. When Houdini confirmed, spectators say Whitehead abruptly struck the magician with four to five violent blows to the stomach. Still seated and without time to prepare, the punches appeared to leave Houdini in considerable pain.

During the next few days, Houdini complained of stomach cramps and discomfort and eventually developed cold sweats and a 104-degree fever. His wife and staff implored him to seek medical attention, but he resisted, instead boarding an overnight train to Detroit to perform at the Garrick Theater. He struggled through the opening night performance and collapsed immediately after the final curtain.

That night, he was rushed to the hospital where doctors removed his appendix, which had ruptured several days earlier. The organ had already poisoned Houdini, causing fatal damage. Houdini died on Halloween, 1926 with the official cause of death listed as appendicitis-caused peritonitis, an inflammation of the membrane lining the inner abdominal wall.

April 30, 1908 – Harry Houdini, handcuffed and locked up in chains, prepares to jump off Harvard Bridge, a 30-foot plunge to the Charles River in Boston, Massachusetts.

Theories abound about potential foul-play in Houdini’s death, many centered around spiritualists who had previously threatened his life. Setting aside these skeptics, even the medical community still questions whether J. Gordon Whitehead’s punch really killed Houdini. The diagnosis was widely accepted at the time, but experts note that cases of “traumatic appendicitis” are exceedingly rare and questioned whether Houdini may have already had appendicitis, with the pain of the punch only masking a more dangerous pre-existing condition.

With modern simulation software, we hypothesized that we could model a punch and the resultant internal organ damage. HUByx by French engineering services company, CEDREM, is a finite element model of the human body enabling the simulation of pressure wave propagation inside the body. Users apply HUByx to aid in the design of personal protections for many kinds of threats like punches, falls, ballistics, and explosions. We leveraged HUByx to virtually model the damage that could be inflicted by a punch to the stomach and determine whether the forces could have ruptured Houdini’s appendix and caused his death.

We ran two simulations, one using a punch force of 10 meters per second (m/s), shown on the left of the animated videos, and the other at 20 m/s, which can be seen on the right of each video. The former is roughly the amount of force an amateur or “Sunday morning boxer” could likely inflict, and the latter is closer to the force one could expect from a trained professional boxer. We ran multiple simulations, first isolating the pressure on the intestines, then showing the effect of the pressure waves on the full body, including the lungs, liver, spleen and other organs.

Simulation 1: Simulation of the thorax showing pressure on the abdominal cavity after punch impact

Simulation 2: Full body simulation shows intestines are not damaged by slower punch, but are damaged by the fastest punch

In the simulation videos, the colors represent pressure evolution measured in Megapascals (MPa), or Newtons per square millimeter. The blue and red regions going back and forth in the organs are the pressure waves rebounding against each surface the pressure collides with. This includes both pressure inside an organ as well as the pressure waves running through the body and between the organs, which can then rebound against the skin or the muscles.

The pressure on the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity, was measured at 1.95 MPa for the amateur punch and 2.26 MPa for the professional boxer’s punch. The stronger punch equates to more than 4,700 pounds of force per square inch.

Simulation 3: Simulation showing the pressure contour and pressure propagation to other organs

Simulation 4: Pressure propagation shown using smoothed particle hydrodynamics (SPH). Here you can see pressure accumulation behind the sternum

In our simulations, the slower punch showed limited pressure damage to the peritoneum and limited impact from pressure waves to the surrounding internal organs. This might cause some discomfort and even knock the wind out of the victim, but the force of this punch was determined to be unlikely to cause any lasting damage. The faster punch, however, shows some more pronounced pressure forces on the intestines as well as pressure accumulating behind the sternum. The pressure propagates throughout the abdominal cavity, effecting other organs beyond the immediate point of impact. But is this measured pressure enough to cause organ failure or rupture internal organs? We investigated some further medical research to help us interpret our results.

Abdominal organs have various susceptibility to blunt trauma. The intestines are gas filled, squishy tubes, so they tolerate quite a bit of force. You can see the organs deforming to absorb the pressure and then return to their original shape in the simulation animations. The mesentery however, the tissue that acts like a sheet connecting intestines to their blood supply, is fragile. Mesenteric bleeds are possible from blunt trauma, usually car crashes and handlebar injuries. Organs closer to the ribs, like the spleen and liver, are susceptible to damage by getting smashed by the overlying ribs.

An adult male with a normal appendix, especially someone like Houdini who presumably had strong abdominal wall muscles, would not be likely to suffer injury to their appendix while standing and anticipating a punch. The fact that Houdini was reclining with relaxed abdominal muscles makes him more susceptible to injury. Additionally, while standing, the entire body can move backward to further absorb the force of a punch. Being reclined against a hard surface like a couch would impede the body’s ability to react to dissipate the force, providing less “give” and increasing the potential injury risk.

Modern medical literature has identified a handful of post traumatic appendicitis cases in children and some young adults. Some of these have been associated with an appendicolith, a tiny stone present in some people’s appendix. Most of the trauma mechanisms have been seat belt injury or bicycle handlebar injury. Although our research didn’t uncover any cases secondary to a punch, it could be possible that Houdini had an appendicolith appendix stone and the force of a strong punch to the right lower quadrant could have caused injury to the mucosa of the appendix.

The white paper “Appendicitis Following Blunt Abdominal Trauma” by Travis Cobb in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine provided further illustration of the possibility of appendicitis following blunt force trauma. The paper concludes that, while extremely uncommon, it is in fact possible to trigger appendicitis by compressive forces, which deform hollow viscous organs such as the appendix, leading to increased intraluminal pressure. Deceleration forces can stretch and shear the appendiceal tissue causing direct edema or lacerations which lead to edema and facilitate bacterial invasion.

The pressure measured in our simulation exceeded the threshold of force that could potentially deform or lacerate the appendix, which confirms that the punch could have directly led to Houdini’s death. With additional mechanical parameters for organ behavior, such as maximum pressure, stress, and strain thresholds of each organ, it would be possible to further pinpoint the exact force and direction of impact at which the appendix is most likely to rupture.

While it’s still possible that he had a pre-existing appendix issue before the punch, our simulation and supporting medical research confirm the plausibility of trauma-induced appendicitis. J. Gordon Whitehead’s attack and Houdini’s stubborn refusal to cancel a show and disappoint his audience seem to have resulted in his untimely end.

While a punch to the gut may still be unlikely to kill you, we still recommend standing up and flexing in the face of danger, or better yet, just running away.

Guest contribution provided by Edouard Ferry, Engineer at CEDREM. HUByx software by CEDREM is a finite element model of the human body simulating all the bones and organs as well as the internal fluid in between them, enabling the propagation of pressure waves inside the body. HUByx is available to Altair users through the Altair Partner Alliance. To learn more, visit the HUByx product page.

*NOTE: The featured image displayed at the beginning of the post is an undated photo of performer and magician Harry Houdini. (AP Photo).