Harry Houdini was America's 'first superhero'

To this day, Houdini enthusiasts are at odds over what killed him

Posted: Friday, December 22, 2006

LOS ANGELES - When the magician and escape artist Harry Houdini died 80 years ago, he was as famous as screen stars Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin.

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For most of 20 years, Houdini had been repeatedly in the nation's headlines with seemingly miraculous escapes from being shackled to confined in a box to immersed in water. He also astonished theater audiences by walking through walls and making an elephant disappear.

The 80th anniversary of his death on Oct. 31, 1926, was marked this year with the publication of the biography "The Secret Life of Harry Houdini, The Making of America's First Superhero," by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.

Houdini was a commanding figure with piercing eyes, full lips and shock of black hair. It was only natural that women would fall for him. "He had what women wanted: He had power, and he didn't have to go by the rules of everybody else," Kalush said. "He was an attractive man."

It seemed only natural that Houdini's death in 1926 would become shrouded in mystery. To this day Houdini enthusiasts are at odds over what killed him.

While in Montreal for appearances, a mysterious young man punched him in the abdomen with four or five powerful blows. A few days later, he was reading a newspaper in the lobby of his Detroit Hotel when three muscular young men approached. One of them delivered a savage blow through the paper to Houdini's belly. He was barely able to get through the night's performance.

Houdini was hospitalized against his will, and after two abdominal operations, he died on Halloween 1926.

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