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By Kimberly Louagie
In the last days of Houdini’s life, he lay in a hospital bed at Detroit’s Grace Hospital, suffering the effects of a ruptured appendix. Surgeons had removed the organ on October 25, 1926, but peritonitis has spread through his body. The infection produced extreme pain and weakness. Hospital workers remarked at how graceful the magician seemed in the face of death. Doctors tried to stop the progress of the infection with a locally developed experimental “serum.” The “serum” worked somewhat, reducing Houdini’s fever to an almost normal temperature. Doctors again operated on October 29, to relieve “paralysis of the bowels.” The second operation failed and Houdini’s temperature and pulse rose to unusually high levels. Soon after Houdini told his wife Bess to “be prepared, if anything happens.” His last words to his brother Theodore were “I can’t fight any more.” Houdini died on Sunday, October 31, at 1:26 pm. [i]
Officials placed Houdini’s body in his bronze buried alive casket, a prop that had been lost in a Detroit warehouse when other equipment had been shipped out of the city after the magician’s final performance at Garrick Theater. The casket with Houdini made its way to the Elks Clubhouse on West Forty-third Street in New York for a funeral on November 4. Over 1,500 mourners packed the Clubhouse and an equal number waited outside. Masons from the St. Cecile Lodge and magicians from the Society of American Magicians (SAM) held special rituals, after prayers and eulogies were given by Rabbi B.A. Tinter and Rabbi Bernard Drachman. Masons laid a lambskin apron and a SAM member placed a broken wooden wand on Houdini’s coffin. People exited the Clubhouse and a fifty car caravan traveled to Machpelah Cemetery in Queens. Houdini’s body was interned in a massive exedra built out of a thousand tons of Vermont granite and decorated with figures carved from Italian marble. On top of the monument sat a giant bronze bust of Houdini, in violation of Jewish custom. The magician had purchased the plot in the Jewish Cemetery in 1904. He had moved the bodies of his half-brother Herman (died of tuberculosis in 1885) and father (died of cancer in 1892) from other graves to the new family plot. He buried his mother there in 1913 after she died of a stroke and built the exedra in her name in 1916. In 1924, Houdini placed the body of his brother William near their mother after he, like Herman, died of tuberculosis. [ii]
A few days after the funeral, Bess obtained a court order to open Houdini’s safe deposit boxes and locate his Last Will and Testament. The magician’s attorney, Bernard M. L. Ernst, had prepared the Will on July 30, 1924. The next year, on May 6, Houdini added a codicil (an appendix). Bess asked Ernst to file the 13-page document with the New York County Surrogate’s Court on November 11, 1926. The Will went to probate, the judicial process by which the Court determines the validity of the document. The Court found the Will genuine and approved Bess as its Executrix. [iii]
Houdini included twenty-three clauses in his Will. He gave $500 to each of his assistants—Franz Kukol, James Vickery, and James Collins—and $1,000 to SAM. He requested that some of his estate be turned into cash and invested in “mortgages on improved real property” and paid out to family members over time. One sixth of the estate would pass to Bess and each of Houdini’s remaining siblings—Nathan, Theodore, Leopold, and Carrie. As each family member died, the money would be redistributed among the survivors and to some in-laws and nephews. He allowed money to transfer to William’s (William died in 1924) and Theodore’s families. He further stipulated that money reach Theodore’s children only if they “shall have been confirmed according to the Jewish law and traditions (Orthodox or Reformed.)” [iv] Over and above the promised cash, Houdini gave his magician-brother Theodore his “theatrical effects, new mysteries and illusions,” then valued at $533. [v] Houdini asked that the magic apparatus be “burnt and destroyed upon [Theodore’s] death.” [vi]
Houdini elaborated extensively on the conditions by which his physician-brother Leopold was to receive benefits. Upon this brother’s death, Houdini requested that Bess withhold inheritance money from Leopold’s wife Sadie. The wording of the Will embodied a deep seated resentment toward Sadie (Glantz) Weiss. It is likely that Houdini believed she (and Leopold) had contributed to his mother’s death. [vii] Sadie married Leopold in 1916, ten days after she divorced Leopold’s (and Houdini’s) older businessman-brother Nathan. Cecilia was already dead three years before the marriage of Sadie and Leopold. Although a suspected extra-marital love affair may have started during Cecilia’s life, it is unlikely that it hastened her death. Houdini added several sentences identifying Sadie’s “indiscretion.” He called her Leopold’s “present wife” and “the divorced wife of my brother Nathan . . . .” Section eighteen openly showed the magician’s disapproval. It reads, “[i]t is my express desire, intention and direction that no part either of the principal or income of my estate shall ever directly or indirectly go to SADIE GLANTZ WEISS . . . .” [viii]
The estate fund came to nothing and, in 1933, the Bankers Trust Company, named by Houdini as the institution to carry out his investments, formally renounced its appointment. Much earlier Ernst told the press that Houdini’s estate was bankrupt. The attorney said Houdini left a $7,110 deficit after debts ate up assets valued at almost $70,000. Newsmen pointed out that Houdini’s most valuable asset, his library valued at $30,000, went to the Library of Congress. Bess honored her husband’s last wishes, sending the collection to Washington in the spring of 1927. [ix]
Houdini expected his inheritance to pay for his wife’s future expenses. She sold their New York City house (and moved to another on Payson Avenue) and her husband’s dramatic library. This collection had been culled from the larger one before Bess sent it to the Library of Congress. Newspaper reports said she sold the dramatic library for an undisclosed amount to businessman Messmore Kendall in 1927. [x] Bess also received $50,000 in life insurance money, but not without a fight. Houdini had signed a policy with the New York Life Insurance Company that promised to pay double indemnity in case of accidental death, a wise move for a man who defied death as a career. The insurance company’s New York manager J. J. McKeon denied the charge that Houdini had been injured by punches just before his death. Early rumors had circulated about a newspaper reporter who struck the magician in his dressing room. Other reports said that a student had hit the magician while giving a lecture at McGill University. McKeon and others (including the Detroit Garrick Theater manager Abbie Wright) believed that Houdini died naturally. Bess countered the initial investigation and brought forward three affidavits from people who had either witnessed a man hit Houdini or talked to Houdini about the attack. These people testified that Houdini had invited some students to his dressing room as a courtesy after he spoke to them and others about medium fraud at McGill University. They said one of the students asked Houdini if he could withstand any blow to the body. Houdini agreed to let the student hit him as proof of his physical stamina. Witnesses said that the blows observably injured the magician. New York Life’s insurance report eventually agreed and concluded that a McGill student ruptured the magician’s appendix with blows to the abdomen. [xi]
Houdini ended his Will with a provision that his body be “embalmed and buried in the same manner in which [his] beloved mother was buried upon her death . . . ” [xii] The magician’s body was placed next to his mother, his head resting on a black sack with letters she had written him while alive. He invited Bess, Nathan, Theodore, and Carrie, but not Leopold, to join him in the family plot upon their deaths. Machpelah Cemetery would not release information on which of family members made their final resting place in the Houdini plot. Bess’ family buried her at the Catholic Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester County, New York, after her death in 1943.
[i] Kenneth Silverman, Houdini!!!
The Career of Ehrich Weiss (New York: HarperPerennial, 1996), 410-412.
[ii] “Houdini Buried In Family Plot,” and “To Bury Houdini In Stage Coffin,” in Radner Collection, dated November 5, 1926; “Houdini’s Body Gets Here Today,” in Radner Collection, dated November 2, 1926; Silverman, 178.
[iii] Joel B. Miller, Report to the Magic Collectors’ Association, n.d.
[iv] Harry Houdini Last Will and Testament, July 30, 1924, 5.
[v] Houdini, Last Will and Testament, 1; “Deficit of $7,110 in Houdini Estate,” New York Times May 14, 1932.
[vi] Houdini, Last Will and Testament, 1. Theodore did not destroy Houdini’s collection. He passed it to his protégé Sidney Radner.
[vii] Bernard C. Meyer, Houdini. A Mind in Chains (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1976), 35-36.
[viii] Houdini, Last Will and Testament, 10.
[ix] “Houdini Left $7,110 Deficit,” New York Sun May 13, 1927; “Deficit of $7,110 In Houdini Estate,” New York Times May 14, 1932; “Congress Library Gets Houdini’s Books,” New York Times May 7, 1927. Houdini initially willed his collection of books and other materials related to Spiritualism, occultism, and psychical work to the American Society for Psychical Research. He later added a codicil redirecting this collection to the Library of Congress. He explained that he would not support an organization that associated with J. Malcolm Bird. The Society had appointed Bird, an adversary of Houdini’s, as one of its researchers.
[x] “Houdini’s Library Is Sold,” New York Herald June 1927.
[xi] “Find Houdini Was Not Hurt,” New York Times December 23, 1926; “Injury in Montreal Is Denied,” New York Times n.d.; “Blow Killed Houdini, Claim,” Zit’s Theatrical Newspaper March 5, 1927; “$50,000 for Mrs. Houdini,” New York Herald July 1927. Newspaper reporters did not give the names of the people Bess used as eyewitnesses. It is almost certain that Julia Sawyer, Houdini’s niece and assistant, was one of the witnesses. Ruth Brandon in The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (Random House, 1993) writes that Bess received payments from several insurance policies totaling an estimated half a million dollars.
[xii] Houdini, Last Will and Testament, 10.