According to The New York Times, March 24, 1874 is the birthday of Erich Weiss. The paper was not so prescient as to cover the birth of the child who would one day become the foremost performer of his time and, for our money, for all time.
The Times pegs today as Houdini’s birthday in retrospect, through its obituary published on November 1, 1926 – a day after the magician’s death in Detroit.
Much of the article was likely prepared in advance of his death; perhaps during ten days he endured the certainly inhuman pain of the virulent infection wracking his body.
We owe a debt to the unnamed author of the piece identified as a “Special to The New York Times” likely written by a freelance reporter for the paper. He or she included new – at least to us – anecdotes about Houdini and his rise to world fame.
The paper describes his final performance at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit:
Looking back on that last performance, the large audience now realizes that the famous magician did his tricks under a great strain. He felt the grip of bonds he had never tested, the snap of a lock not forged by human hands. He was worried for one of the few times in his career and was plainly not up to his best form in some of his tricks.
The article cites “statements made by the physicians, the playful punches he received in Montreal were the direct cause of Houdini’s death, for one of the blows caused the appendix to burst, saturating his system with poison.”
Considering the article is dated October 31, 1926, and Houdini passed at 1:26 pm that day, the doctors would have been forced to make this determination within minutes of the great magician’s demise. It is doubtful the writer received the information from formal medical records.
The Transcript of Certificate of Death from Wayne County, Michigan lists Houdini’s birthday as April 6, 1874, the place of birth Appleton, Wisconsin, and the time of death as 1:30 pm. See the document here.
The obituary does not identify the Houdini’s birthplace. The Death Certificate correctly identifies the treating facility as Detroit’s Grace Hospital; while the obituary refers to “Gray Hospital” – perhaps evidencing a miscommunication between a writer in Detroit and editor in New York City.
Check out the full article in the archives of The Times for more about the life and death of Houdini. We enjoyed Houdini’s recounting of an apparently impromptu spirit writing experiment for then Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt was dumfounded.
“Is it really spirit writing?” [The future President] asked.
“Yes,” I replied with a wink.
For all of his ego and sensationalism, he changed so much in our parochial world of Magic as well as the larger, real world of celebrity and fame. We wonder what Magic would have been without Houdini. No doubt, Houdini wondered the same himself.
The obit ends with a fitting insight into the man and concept that was Houdini.
Friends of the showman said yesterday that he had developed a dislike for being called by his first name, Harry. He always wished to be called Houdini and disliked the prefix, Mr.