This Day in Criminal Justice History: October 31, 1926
Halloween is not a particularly auspicious day in criminal justice history. There’s no scary mass murder or ritual, serial killing that occurred on this date.
Of course, the first Sherlock Holmes book of A. Conan Doyle stories was published in book form on this date in 1892. And Morley Vernon King, the number two man on the FBI’s first-ever “Top Ten” list was arrested on this day in 1951. King had killed his wife in a grisly murder in 1947, and to make matters more mundane on Halloween, King was apprehended at a Philadelphia restaurant shucking oysters.
Those incidents aside, there is a death that happened in 1926 that is more Halloween than criminal justice. Erich Weisz died on October 31, 1926.
But you probably don’t know who Erich Weisz was, but you do know him from his stage name: Harry Houdini. The story of his death at least helps us celebrate Halloween.
Born Erich Weisz in March, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, he would move to Wisconsin as a child. By the age of 20 he had changed his name to Harry Houdini when he launched his professional career as a magician. And it wasn’t long before Houdini became the biggest headliner in vaudeville because of his ability to escape.
Traveling from city to city, Houdini’s claim to fame came about because he had the uncanny ability to escape from handcuffs, chains, and straightjackets – often while hanging upside down in water.
And that’s where there’s a criminal justice connection. During his act, it was usually the local police who would come on stage and snap on handcuffs, verifying that they were secured properly.
The cops would stand by as he was lowered upside down in a tank of water, handcuffed, straightjacketed, and sometimes with chains wrapped around him. His trick was to escape in front of the audience and the police – without drowning. The police could attest to the authenticity of the trick.
Did he die because he couldn’t escape from handcuffs and a straitjacket and he drowned?
Not on your life! He had a remarkable ability to hold his breath long enough to always escape before his lungs exploded.
What killed him was a student socking him in the stomach. That happened in Montreal on October 30, 1926, when two college students came back stage after his performance and catching him unawares punched him before he could tense his stomach muscles. This was another part of his act – a boxer or a strong man would deliver a swift punch to his stomach without ill effects. But he was always prepared for that and his muscles would dissipate the blow. But not that night in Montreal.
He travelled the next day to Detroit where he was hospitalized with peritonitis from a ruptured appendix and he didn’t get the medical treatment he needed.
Before Houdini died at age 52 on October 31, he and his wife, Bess, made a pact with a secret code phrase (“Rosabelle believe”) that if there was any way Houdini could communicate with her after death he would.
For 10 years following his death, Bess held a séance every Halloween, waiting for Houdini to get in touch with her.
It never happened, but even today there are magicians who hold séances for Harry Houdini, the greatest escape artist ever, still waiting for him – or his spirit — to talk to them from beyond the grave.
It’s not scary – it’s just true.