Houdini’s Appendix


Harry Houdini was probably the most famous escape artist, magician, and stunt performer of all time. He was short at five feet, five inches, stocky and bow-legged, with a sharp chin, bright blue eyes and curly black hair. He usually appeared in a long coat and tie, and was one of the cockiest performers ever to appear on stage. He died at age 52 from a ruptured appendix, reportedly caused by being punched in the stomach. At that time, doctors thought that the appendix was a worthless appendage. Today we know how important it really is.

Early Life and Career
His real name was Erik Weisz and he was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. He came to the United States at age four, when his father accepted a job as a Rabbi in Appleton, Wisconsin. Two years later, his father lost his job and the family moved to New York City. As a child, he was always more athletic than everyone else. At age nine he gave public performances swinging on a trapeze, and he became a champion cross country runner.

At age 17, he turned his talents as a magician into a professional act and changed his name to Harry Houdini after the French magician, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. He did not get any recognition until he started to escape from seemingly-impossible situations. At age 20, he married a fellow stage performer Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner who also became his life-long stage assistant. At age 25 his handcuff escape acts became so popular that he had a very successful tour of Europe. He would ask the local police to strip him naked, tie him up and lock him in their jails. He returned from his European tour a very rich and famous man.

While tied with straitjackets, handcuffs, chains and ropes, he escaped from large crates, milk cans, and the belly of a dead whale. His most famous escape was from a locked steel and glass chamber while he was hung upside down with his head under water, unable to breathe for more than three minutes. His brilliance was that he continued all his life to invent new acts that frightened the many people who came to see him. He almost died while escaping from a six-foot deep pit. While trying to dig himself out of the sand, he had to call for help and be dragged from the pit after he passed out. In another escape, he stayed underwater in a sealed casket for one and a half hours.

How Houdini Died
Houdini had broken his ankle during a performance. A few days later, on October 22, 1926, he was lying on his couch in his dressing room, looking at his mail, when two McGill University students came to visit him. A third student, J. Gordon Whitehead, came in and asked Houdini if he was strong enough to withstand a punch in his belly. He hit Houdini with all his might four times in the belly. Houdini winced with each punch and stopped Whitehead from hitting him a fifth time, stating that he had no opportunity to prepare himself because he did not expect Whitehead to strike him with such hard blows.

That evening, Houdini was in such great pain that he gave a poor performance, but he refused to see a doctor. Two days later, his temperature was 102 °F. His doctor told him that he had acute appendicitis and needed surgery immediately. He chose to perform his scheduled show and arrived at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, with a fever of 104 °F. He gave the worst performance of his life. He missed cues and in the middle of the third act, he told his assistant to lower the curtain. He had to be carried back to his dressing room, but he refused to see the doctor. The next morning his wife rushed him to the hospital where he had his already-ruptured appendix removed. On October 31, 1926 with his wife and brother at his side, he died.

Houdini’s Killer
Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead was the 31-year-old McGill University medical student who punched Houdini. He was not invited into Houdini’s dressing room, but snuck in, allegedly to return a borrowed book to another McGill student who had been invited to visit Houdini. Whitehead was a very strange and troubled person. He was not charged with Houdini’s death. He died as a recluse and hoarder in 1954, at age 59, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Montreal, Canada.

What is the Appendix?
When you eat, food passes down your esophagus, into your stomach, through about 20 feet of small intestine, through five feet of large intestine, and then to the outside. The appendix is a small structure shaped like your finger, ranging from one to nine inches long (average length five inches). It is located where the small intestine enters the large intestine.

Houdini refused the recommendation of his doctor to have his appendix removed. Today, appendicitis can sometimes be cured with antibiotics, but at that time, doctors had no antibiotics and a ruptured appendix could spread germs through the belly to kill a person. Today, you want to keep your appendix unless it is at high risk for bursting. Up until a few years ago, doctors thought that the appendix was a worthless organ. They used to remove healthy appendices whenever they did any surgery in the belly. Now we understand that the appendix appears to have an important function in maintaining the colony of healthful bacteria in your intestines.

Healthful Bacteria in Your Intestines Help You Absorb Food
You have more than a hundred trillion bacteria in your intestines, more bacteria than you have cells in your body. They live in your intestines because every time you eat, you feed these bacteria. They eat the same foods that you do. In return, the bacteria feed you. You cannot absorb food. Before food can get into your bloodstream, it must first be separated into carbohydrates, fats and proteins. However you can not absorb these components either. Carbohydrates must be broken down into single sugars, fats into fatty acids and protein into single and chains of amino acids. If you can‘t break down food into single sugars, fatty acids and chains of amino acids, you can’t absorb them. Your intestines make many of the enzymes that break down foods, but some foods cannot be broken down in your intestines. The bacteria repay you for giving them a place to live by breaking down some of the unabsorbed foods so you can absorb and use them. If it were not for the bacteria in your intestines, much of the food that you eat would pass right out of your body without being absorbed.

Plant-Eating Mammals Have the Largest Appendices
We have learned about the beneficial functions of the appendix by looking at different mammals. Mammals that eat the most plants have the largest appendices. Bacteria provide the enzymes necessary to digest plants so that they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. When an animal gets an infection in the intestines, the invading bacteria can replace the good bacteria that help them absorb foods. Having a large appendix provides a large storage area to keep the good bacteria so that they can return to the intestines after the animal’s immunity has controlled the infection.

How Your Appendix Helps You and Can Save Your Life
Your normal good intestinal bacteria protect you from other harmful bacteria growing in your intestines. If you suffer an infection with bad bacteria, the bad bacteria can replace your good bacteria and make you sick to cause diarrhea and fever. You can also lose the good bacteria when you take antibiotics of any sort.

A leading theory to explain the value of the appendix was proposed by William Parker, a surgeon at Duke University. The good bacteria remain in the appendix after you develop diarrhea or have taken an antibiotic and the bad bacteria have replaced them in your intestines. Then, the good bacteria can return to your intestines from the appendix to help you be healthy again (Journal of Theoretical Biology, December 21, 2007; 249(4):826–831). If your appendix has been removed, it will take far longer for the good bacteria to return to grow and live in your intestines. The appendix is also an endocrine organ that makes IGA antibodies that kill germs that invade your intestines.

Harry Houdini
Born: Erik Weisz
March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926