On this day…in 1926 and 1993

Harry Houdini, the most celebrated magician and escape artist of the 20th century, died of peritonitis in a Detroit hospital, in 1926.

Twelve days before, Houdini had been talking to a group of students after a lecture in Montreal when he commented on the strength of his stomach muscles and their ability to withstand hard blows. Suddenly, one of the students punched Houdini twice in the stomach. The magician hadn’t had time to prepare, and the blows ruptured his appendix. He fell ill on the train to Detroit, and, after performing one last time, was hospitalized. Doctors operated on him, but to no avail. The burst appendix poisoned his system, and on October 31 he died.

Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, the son of a rabbi. At a young age, he immigrated with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin, and soon demonstrated a natural acrobatic ability and an extraordinary skill at picking locks. When he was nine, he joined a traveling circus and toured the country as a contortionist and trapeze performer. He soon was specializing in escape acts and gained fame for his reported ability to escape from any manacle. He went on his first international tour in 1900 and performed all over Europe to great acclaim. In executing his escapes, he relied on strength, dexterity, and concentration—not trickery—and was a great showman.

In 1908, Houdini began performing more dangerous and dramatic escapes. In a favorite act, he was bound and then locked in an ironbound chest that was dropped into a water tank or thrown off a boat. In another, he was heavily bound and then suspended upside down in a glass-walled water tank. Other acts featured Houdini being hung from a skyscraper in a straitjacket, or bound and buried—without a coffin—under six feet of dirt.

In his later years, Houdini campaigned against mediums, mind readers, fakirs, and others who claimed supernatural talents but depended on tricks. At the same time, he was deeply interested in spiritualism and made a pact with his wife and friends that the first to die was to try and communicate with the world of reality from the spirit world. Several of these friends died, but Houdini never received a sign from them. Then, on Halloween 1926, Houdini himself passed on at the age of 52. His wife waited for a communiqué from the spirit world but it never came; she declared the experiment a failure shortly before her death in 1943.

On this day in 1993, the 23-year-old actor River Phoenix, who appeared in such films as Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho, dies of a drug overdose outside a Hollywood nightclub.

At the time of his death, Phoenix was considered one of the most promising actors of his generation and had received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in 1988’s Running on Empty.

Phoenix, who was born River Jude Bottom on August 23, 1970, had an unconventional childhood. His parents were members of a religious cult and worked as missionaries in South America. Phoenix began acting professionally as a teenager and made his big-screen debut, along with Ethan Hawke, in 1985’s Explorers. Phoenix gained fame in 1986’s Stand by Me. Based on a Stephen King novel, the film was directed by Rob Reiner and co-starred Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman and Wil Wheaton. Phoenix went on to appear in such movies as The Mosquito Coast (1986), which co-starred Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren; A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), in which he played the title role; and Little Nikita (1988), with Sidney Poitier. Also in 1988, Phoenix appeared in Running on Empty, about a family on the run from the FBI for an anti-war bombing the parents had participated in years earlier. The movie was directed by Sidney Lumet and co-starred Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti. Phoenix, who played the couple’s teenage son, lost the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award to Kevin Kline for A Fish Called Wanda.

Phoenix played the young Indy in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and later starred in the acclaimed independent films My Own Private Idaho (1990), which was directed by Gus Van Sant and co-starred Keanu Reeves, and Dogfight (1991), with Lili Taylor. Phoenix also appeared in the 1992 thriller Sneakers with Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier. In the early hours of October 31, 1993, Phoenix collapsed from a drug overdose outside the Viper Room, a night club partially owned at the time by the actor Johnny Depp and located on the Sunset Strip.

Phoenix’s younger brother Joaquin is also an Academy Award-nominated actor; his movie credits include Gladiator (2000), Walk the Line (2005) and We Own the Night (2007).

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