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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

October 22, 1926

This week's edition of the Tuesday Timeline was especially hard to come up with a decent topic for...mainly because I wanted to come up with a very spooky topic, but had great difficulty finding one. So, I decided to improvise a little bit with this entry. Hopefully you like the topic choice I made, as well as the way that I decided to present it. Believe me, it was definitely a challenge.

But before we get to today's Tuesday Timeline selection, let's see what else was on the short list of the other topics I considered. What happened on this date in history? Well, lots of things. Nothing too scary, mind you. But a lot of things.

362 – The temple of Apollo at Daphne, outside Antioch, is destroyed by fire

1633 – The Ming dynasty defeats the Dutch East India Company in the Battle of Southern Fujian Sea

1746 – The College of New Jersey (later rechristened as Princeton University) receives its charter

1797 – Andre-Jacques Garnerin makes the first recorded parachute jump over Paris from a height of over three thousand feet

1875 – The first telegraphic connection is made in Argentina

1878 – The first rugby match under floodlights takes place in the English community of Salford

1879 – Thomas Edison tests the first practical electric incandescent light bulb (which glows brightly for thirteen and a half hours before burning out)

1883 – The Metropolitan Opera House in New York opens for the first time

1903 – Three Stooges actor Curly Howard (d. 1952) is born in Brooklyn, New York

1907 – The Panic of 1907 takes place which involves the stock market and the Knickerbocker Trust Company – resulting in a depression

1924 – Toastmasters International is founded by Ralph C. Smedley in Santa Ana, California

1934 – The FBI shoot and kill notorious bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd in Ohio

1941 – French resistance member Guy Moquet is executed along with twenty-nine other hostages by German forces following the death of a German officer

1942 – Former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello (d. 2013) is born in Utica, New York

1957 – The first American casualties of the Vietnam War are reported

1962 – John F. Kennedy announces that American planes have discovered that Soviet nuclear weapons are being housed in Cuba, leading to a naval quarantine

1964 – Jean-Paul Sartre turns down the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature

1966 – The Supremes become the first all-girl group to have a number one album on the charts

1976 – The United States Food and Drug Administration bans the use of Red Dye No. 4 after tests showed that the dye caused tumours in the bladders of dogs

1978 – The papal inauguration of Pope John Paul II

2005 – 2005 officially becomes the most active Atlantic Hurricane Season following the formation of Tropical Storm Alpha

2009 – Comedian Soupy Sales dies at the age of 83 in The Bronx, New York

October 22 seems to be a day in which a lot of celebrities were born. So, allow me to wish Doris Lessing, Ann Rule, Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lloyd, Catherine Deneuve, Yvan Ponton, Deepak Chopra, Richard McGonagle, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Torti, Brian Boitano, John Wesley Harding, Otis Smith, Carlos Mencia, Shaggy, Jay Johnston, Shelby Lynne, Spike Jonze, Amy Redford, Saffron Burrows, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Dion Glover, Michael Fishman, Zac Hanson, and Jonathan Lipnicki.

And, just to make all of you feel incredibly old...Jonathan Lipnicki – who you probably know as the little kid from Jerry Maguire – turns 23 today. I know, shocking, right?

But, as great as Lipnicki was in that film, I didn't choose him as the topic of today's blog. In fact, we're going to a date before he, I, and likely 99.9% of you reading this right now were born. And, while the event that I'll be talking about is like the least significant event did lead to a really huge event a few days later. An event which cost one man his life.

Are we nervous yet? Don't be. We're only going back in time four score and seven years ago.

(That's eighty-seven years for all of you still trying to figure that out.)

Today's date is October 22, 1926. And, again, as I state, this date was essentially the catalyst of a tragedy that would take place just nine days later, on Halloween.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. First I want to tell you what prompted me to choose today's date.

As I stated before, I really wanted to keep the Tuesday Timeline freaky, macabre, and horrific for the month of October, but try as I might, I just couldn't find anything that was scary enough to devote an entire blog topic to.

As a result, I thought about taking a different approach. Everyone has heard of the three most said words spoken on Halloween, right? Trick or treat?

So I said to myself, “Self, why don't I do a blog topic that focuses on tricks, rather than treats?”

And, you can't perform the perfect trick without a little bit of magic.

Now anyone who has ever been to a magic show (and I imagine most of you reading this have attended at least one in their lifetimes) knows what to expect. Depending on the level of skill the magician has, the tricks they perform may range from lame to extraordinary. If you hired some clown magician from the Yellow Pages, the tricks may come as a disappointment. But if you have ever seen magic performed by David Copperfield, Criss Angel, or David Blaine, you can't help but not be impressed – well, unless you hate magicians and magic tricks that is.

That's why for today's topic, I thought that I would focus on a person whom many consider to be one of the greatest illusionists ever born.

Born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, our future magician was given the name Erik Weisz. He was one of seven children born to Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and Cecilia Weisz. When Erik was just four years old, his family immigrated to the United States where the first of his name changes took place. The family surname became Weiss, and Erik's name was slightly modified to become Ehrich. But Ehrich's friends just called him “Harry” instead.

The family lived in the community of Appleton, Wisconsin for a time before Ehrich and his father relocated to New York City when Ehrich was nine (the rest of the family would join him once Rabbi Weisz found permanent housing for all of them). It was in New York City that young Ehrich began to entertain the possibility of, well, entertaining people. He got his start as a trapeze artist at the age of nine, and began to develop a love of all things magic. And it was right around this time that the second of his name changes took place.

Although the story of how he ended up with his stage name varied depending on the source. He either named himself after magician Harry Kellar, or he named himself after Jean-Eugene Robert Houdin. Either way, Ehrich Weiss soon became known professionally as “Harry Houdini”. And Houdini would later become one of the world's premier magicians.

Of course, Houdini had to start at the very bottom. He began his career in 1891, when he was just seventeen years old. His act comprised of mostly card tricks at that time. In 1893, he and his brother Theodore (nicknamed “Dash”) began performing at Coney Island as “The Brothers Houdini”, and it was at one of these performances that he met his future wife, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner. A year later, Houdini and Rahner married, and she took Dash's place in the act.

In 1899, Houdini was discovered by manager Martin Beck after Beck was impressed by Houdini's handcuffs act – an act in which Houdini demonstrated that he could escape any set of handcuffs that were strapped onto him. Beck advised Houdini to drop the card tricks and focus on escape magic to continue to build his audience. He was booked solidly on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit and by the turn of the century, he was already getting booked at some of the top vaudeville houses all over the country. He even began taking his handcuffs act all over the world, performing in various cities all over the world, challenging local officers to lock him up in jail, promising that he could find a way out. Certainly, Houdini was challenged by naysayers and disbelievers, and in one instance, he actually launched lawsuits against someone who accused him of bribing people to make his tricks happen. Houdini ended up winning that suit after he successfully opened the judge's safe in the courtroom – or, so the story goes, anyway.

But the tricks and illusions that made Houdini a star were elaborate productions that likely inspired Copperfield and Blaine to become magicians themselves. Everyone knows about the famous 1912 “Chinese Water Torture Cell” act, where Houdini would be strapped inside metal stocks and then dunked inside a glass cell that was filled with water. The trick would become a staple in Houdini's act for the rest of his life, and is easily his most well-known (and most duplicated) trick. But he also had other tricks in his arsenal, including the Milk Can Escape, the Mirror Challenge, the Overboard Box Escape, and a couple of adaptations of the “Buried Alive” stunt.

In all cases, people were genuinely worried that Houdini would accidentally kill himself doing one of his escape illusions, and some were expecting to read the news about Houdini passing away as a result of a trick gone wrong. But Houdini always made sure to take the proper safety precautions in every single one of his illusions.

But in the end, all it took was one punch for Houdini's career to take a sudden, permanent halt.

And, that's where today's Tuesday Timeline date comes into play. October 22, 1926 was the beginning of the end for Harry Houdini.

On that date, Houdini was performing in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, at the Princess Theatre. And it was here that the final nail in Houdini's coffin was delivered.

But to be fair, it was nobody's intent to see Harry Houdini die. It was simply a freak accident brought upon by a myth that one fan of Houdini's believed.

Inside of Houdini's dressing room at the Princess, Houdini was greeted by a student of McGill University, J. Gordon Whitehead. Whitehead had arrived with fellow students Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz to meet with the magician when Whitehead reportedly asked Houdini a rather strange request.

Having heard that Houdini was able to withstand repeated punches in his stomach, Whitehead actually asked Houdini if he could punch him to see if what he had heard was true!

And, believe it or not, Houdini offered his consent!

So, Whitehead delivered a series of quick blows to Houdini's abdomen before Houdini cried uncle and made Whitehead stop. As the eyewitnesses later explained, Houdini had actually winced in pain with each punch. At the time, Houdini was also reclined on a sofa inside of the dressing room with his ankle bandaged up after he had broken it during a previous performance. This likely caused more pain for Houdini as the broken ankle made it nearly impossible for him to safely brace himself.

That evening, Houdini performed at Montreal's Princess Theatre as planned, but he was in excruciating pain the whole time. Still, Houdini had the belief that the show always went on, so he pressed through the pain.

Over the next two days, Houdini could not sleep because the pain was too great, but he didn't seek any medical treatment for his ailment. But after two days, Houdini did visit a doctor who told him that he had been diagnosed with appendicitis (brought upon by the punches that he received two days earlier), but although the doctor advised him to admit himself into the hospital so that they could remove his appendix, a stubborn Houdini refused. The people of Detroit, Michigan were waiting for him to perform, and he didn't want to let them down.

That night, Houdini performed what would be his last performance ever. And it was not a good night for him at all. With a fever of 104 degrees and him being in constant pain, I honestly don't know how he could have lasted an entire performance. He even reportedly passed out from pain in the middle of the show, and yet he still insisted on finishing the show. Immediately after the conclusion of the show, Houdini was rushed to hospital in Detroit...but it was too late.

One week later, on October 31, 1926, Harry Houdini was dead at the age of 52. The cause of death? Peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix...which was caused by the series of blows delivered by a McGill student nine days earlier on October 22.

Houdini was survived by his wife Bess – who would pass away in 1943 of a heart attack – and when his funeral was held in November 1926, reportedly 2,000 mourners were in attendance – showing the real impact that Houdini had on everybody.

The real tragedy in all of this is that a series of unfortunate accidents lead to the tragedy. Had Houdini not broken his ankle, he might have been able to better protect himself against the blows. Had Houdini told Whitehead not to punch him in the stomach, he most certainly would have lived beyond 1926. Had Houdini not been so stubborn and got his appendix taken out before it killed him, he would have lived many more years.

It's almost kind of ironic in a way that a man who reportedly risked his life to perform death-defying stunts and illusions would be brought down by a single series of punches to the gut.

And that deathblow was delivered on October 22, 1926.

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