On the third season premiere of The UnXplained with William Shatner on the History Channel, Harry Houdini’s famous underwater packing crate escape takes center stage. It is an escape that other magicians have attempted and failed at many times over the years.
Houdini successfully pulled it off dozens of times over the course of his illustrious career — in fact, he successfully pulled off all of his stunts, from the Chinese water torture cell escape to the suspended straitjacket escape to the buried alive stunt. When he did pass away in 1926, it actually had nothing to do with an escape stunt. Here’s what you need to know about Houdini’s death.
Houdini Died of a Ruptured Appendix
On Halloween of 1926, Houdini died in Detroit’s Grace Hospital from peritonitis, an inflammation of the internal wall of the abdomen, which was a complication from his ruptured appendix. He actually began experiencing pain from his appendix more than a week earlier but did not seek medical attention. In fact, he took the stage the night before he was hospitalized with appendicitis. He reportedly had a 104-degree fever at the time. Houdini was hospitalized after his October 24 performance and never left the hospital.
There is a tale that Houdini’s appendicitis was brought on by being repeatedly punched in the stomach by a McGill University student named Gordon Whitehead when Whitehead was questioning Houdini about his rumored strength. But Snopes has basically debunked this urban legend because “appendicitis following blunt abdominal trauma [is] quite rare.” However, it certainly could be that Houdini delayed seeking medical treatment for his appendicitis because he assumed his abdominal pain was because of the punches and not because of another medical factor.
Houdini’s Underwater Packing Crate Stunt Is Extremely Dangerous
On the season premiere of The UnXplained with William Shatner, the History Channel show examines Houdini’s famous escape from an underwater box. He did it first in New York’s East River where he was handcuffed, shackled, locked up in a large wooden crate, and dropped into the water. He emerged from the water less than a minute later. When the box was hauled up, it was always still locked and the handcuffs were found inside, closed.
“Over the next several years, Houdini would repeat this incredible escape countless times, for audiences all over the world. How did he do it?” said Shatner in the special. “While there are many theories, no one knows for certain how Houdini pulled off his overboard box escape. Even master escape artists, many of whom spent decades studying Houdini’s tricks and techniques, are still trying to figure it out — often with deadly results.”
One such magician was Indian escape artist Chanchal Lahiri, stage name Mandrake, who drowned in June 2019 attempting this very stunt. According to the BBC, the crowd began panicking when Lahiri did not appear after more than 10 minutes in the water. His body was later found about half a mile from the site of the trick.
Another escape artist who attempted his version of the trick was Dean Gunnarson, who was lowered into a Canadian river shackled inside a weighted coffin in 1983. He was underwater for nearly four minutes. When they pulled the coffin out of the water, the paramedics were able to revive him and save his life, according to Gunnarson during the History Channel special.
The UnXplained with William Shatner airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HISTORY.