Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Answer Is in the Appendix

Today -- Halloween -- is the eightieth anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini, who was perhaps the world's most famous entertainer during the early 20th century. Houdini was a magician and escapologist, a significant enough figure that he plays a major role in Ragtime (the novel, the 1981 movie, and the 1998 musical play) along with Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, and Evelyn Nesbit. (Isn't historical fiction a wonderful thing?)

Houdini and I share one thing in common: We both lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, during our early childhoods. Small world, isn't it? (And, contrary to rumor, we were not living there at the same time.)

There is a widely believed report that Houdini died from blows to his stomach that caused peritonitis. The way the story goes, some college students visiting him backstage in Montreal asked if it was true that he could tighten his stomach muscles in such a fashion that he could not be hurt by even the strongest blows. When he responded that it was true, one of the McGill University students hit him four times just to the right of his navel. Houdini asked that he stop and said he was not really prepared. When Houdini died a few days later complaining about stomach pains, word quickly spread that the indirect cause was the incident in his dressing room.

Snopes.com debunks this story in an article updated as recently as yesterday:

In the aftermath of Houdini's death, the assumption was made that the blows to his stomach and his ruptured appendix were related. It seemed a logical conclusion at the time, even to some of his doctors, and so the legend began. With the advantage of several decades of hindsight, however, we now know this explanation to be dubious. Most modern medical experts assert that appendicitis caused by blunt trauma is impossible and/or unknown in medical history, and while the blows to Houdini's stomach may indeed have hastened the magician's death, that result came about in a way different than commonly believed. Houdini was likely already suffering from appendicitis at the time Whitehead punched him, and he may have written off his subsequent discomfort merely as residual pain caused by those blows, thereby delaying his seeking medical treatment until it was too late. Had the dressing room incident not occurred, Houdini might have realized the pain was actually a symptom of a serious medical condition and not delayed so long in consulting doctors.
The article goes into greater detail than this, and makes for an interesting read. The coincidence of Houdini dying on Halloween has always been a bit spooky. This helps make it a bit more grounded in reality and divorced from the supernatural.

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