Houdini and My Husband
When my husband and I married in June 1937, he was already well known as the physician who took care of Houdini when he died.
On October 24, 1926, Houdini had come to perform at the old Garrick Theatre in Detroit -- a performance that turned out to be the last in his brief, colorful life.
He had traveled to Detroit by train from Montreal where the McGill student, J. Gordon Whitehead, had visited him in his dressing room between performances. In order to test the magician's ability to withstand abdominal blows without injury, Whitehead had punched him repeatedly in the abdomen without giving him time to flex his muscles. Later that day, Oct. 22, Houdini developed severe pain that persisted and intensified. Instead of calling a doctor, he completed his performance and took the train to Detroit for his next engagement.
Not until he collapsed after his first and only show in Detroit was a doctor called. That doctor was a young man who had just opened his downtown office -- my husband-to-be, Dr. Daniel Cohn.
How did it happen that a fledgling physician was called to see the great Houdini when he collapsed in the middle of the night at the Detroit Statler Hotel? My husband had been asked by an older colleague, who was leaving on vacation, to substitute as hotel physician during his absence. Daniel, with few patients of his own, complied with enthusiasm. Neither of them could have guessed that his first patient would be the renowned escape-magician.
My husband found Houdini in excruciating pain and with a high fever. On examination, he diagnosed appendicitis, declared an emergency, summoned an ambulance and called Dr. Kennedy, chief of surgery at Grace Hospital where Daniel had recently completed his residency. Sick as Houdini was, he refused to go to the hospital until Daniel conferred with the magician's own New York physician, Dr. Stone. After Daniel explained the urgency of the case, Dr. Stone persuaded Houdini to follow orders and be admitted to the hospital. Dr. Kennedy performed the operation immediately after Houdini was admitted.
Unfortunately, the magician's stoical capacity to tolerate pain for so long a time turned out to be his undoing. Upon opening him up, Dr. Kennedy discovered a ruptured, gangrenous appendix and pronounced his patient doomed.
Physicians from all over were called in for consultation--outstanding, experienced men with innumerable patients of their own. They had no choice but to agree with the prognosis: without the as yet undiscovered antibiotics -- miracle drugs that we take for granted today -- medical science had no means of saving Houdini's life.
All the famous consultants were busy physicians; my husband who had come to the case by a fluke of fate, welcomed the opportunity to spend night and day at the magician's bedside. During the following week, until his patient died, they developed a close relationship. When Houdini's wife, Bess, finally accepted the fact that she would lose her husband so soon, she thanked Daniel for the time he devoted to making the last days easier for both of them.
In the case history Daniel wrote, he expressed astonishment that Houdini designated his occupation first as author and second as magician. Although he goes down in history as magician and showman, he prided himself more on the books and articles he had written, mostly unread and unknown, even today.
Houdini told Daniel he was born in Hungary and was brought to the U.S. by his mother whom he adored all his life and his father, a rabbi. They settled in Appleton, Wisconsin where he and his siblings were raised.
One evening while talking about his favorite foods, he said, "I have a yen for Farmer's Chop Suey." Farmer's Chop Suey, a dish familiar to most Jewish families, is made of chopped raw vegetables combined with sour cream. Daniel walked to a nearby delicatessen, returned with two portions and while they were eating, Houdini reminisced about his life. "If I die, " he said, "don't be surprised if phony spiritualists declare a national holiday!" His disagreements with spiritualists had taken the form of many public battles.
Houdini's death startled the world. It seemed that he had wrought some sort of magic by leaving the earth on Hallowe'en, the eve of All Saints' Day, October 31, 1926. Daniel was at his bedside when he died, and afterward, his younger brother Theodor Hardeen (who had also changed his name from the family name Weiss) sent Daniel a letter which I keep along with other papers concerning the case. Hardeen wrote:
My dear Dr. Cohn:
In writing this little note of appreciation and thanks for your untiring efforts in behalf of my brother, Harry Houdini, I can but faintly express the deep gratitude of the members of his family.
We know that if it had been possible for medical skill, modern surgery, and post surgical treatment to have saved his life, we would have owed his life to none other than his wonderful corps of physicians and nurses.
In our grief over the passing of our brother, may we again assure you of our deep regard and most heartfelt thanks.
Most sincerely yours, Theodore Hardeen
The New York Life Insurance Company questioned whether abdominal blows could possibly lead to a fulminating streptococcal peritonitis. As a result of all the physicians testifying that this was "the first case of undoubted traumatic appendicitis" they had ever seen, Bess Houdini was awarded double indemnity.
Daniel's fame as Houdini's doctor brought patients to his office in droves. His name appeared in newspapers and newscasts all across the country and abroad. Milbourne Christopher, Houdini's biographer, a prominent magician himself, kept the story alive and mentioned Daniel's name in his popular book, Houdini, the Untold Story.
Daniel was overwhelmed by the widespread publicity and the burgeoning of his medical practice. During our 34 years of marriage, until he died, he was a caring physician to countless patients. Yet for the rest of his life, he marveled at the serendipitous stroke of chance that led him to meet, treat and become close to the renowned magician on his deathbed -- a legendary wonder-worker whose death, occurring on Hallowe'en, seemed to validate the magic of his life.
Editor's Note: Links that might be of interest regarding Houdini's career:
Library of Congress Houdini Prints and Photos - 143 photographs and 29 related items of personal memorabilia that document the career of Harry Houdini, the legendary magician and "Genius of Escape Who Will Startle and Amaze." Collection materials have been drawn from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, and date from 1886 to the years following Houdini's death in 1926.
In her mid-eighties, Ethel Cohn Schatz may be one of the most senior of Senior Women readers. Ethel teaches Journal Writing to seniors as a volunteer at the Center for Healthy Aging in Santa Monica, CA and hopes to submit some pieces about the group she has been teaching and leading for close to 10 years. as a Volunteer. Ethel received training as a Peer Counselor and has been counseling for 15 years, in addition to journaling instruction. The Center for Healthy Aging enhances the quality of life for older adults by improving mental and physical health, and is recognized as a model for the innovative use of older volunteers -- like Ethel.
A former English teacher, she has three children, nine grandchildren, three greats and a fourth due soon. Widowed twice, Ethel is active with keeping her own journal, walking about three miles early every morning, reading, theatre, concerts, enjoying family and friends. Ethel may be reached by e-mail©2000 for SeniorWomenWeb