March 24, 2015

It Happened on March 24th

Harry Houdini's Birthday, 1974
Harry Houdini publicity photo
Houdini was one of the most sensational performers of all time. Even today, no one has matched his performances, and his name is synonymous with escapism. 

Among Harry Houdini's death-defying stunts were such items as the Chinese Water Torture Cell (where he was suspended in stocks in a tank filled with water), escape from a straightjacket while suspended from a tall building, and escape from his manacles and a crate in New York's East River. He nearly died once when he was attempting to escape from being buried under six feet of dirt without a casket. (He panicked, and lost consciousness just as his hand broke the surface.)

Ironically, what killed him was a unexpected punch from a college student. 

Houdini in 1918
Houdini had publically announced that he could withstand any punch to his stomach. Shortly after a performance in Montreal, Houdini was resting on a couch while being sketched by an art student, when J. Gordon Whitehead, a local student, came in and asked him if the claims were true. Houdini, who wasn't really paying much attention, said that they were, and Whitehead punched him quickly three times in the abdomen before Houdini had a chance to tighten his muscles. 

Houdini had apparently been suffering some symptoms of appendicitis previous to this, and had refused medical treatment, so it's likely that he would have died of a burst appendix anyway. After the punches, he was apparently in pain, but still refused medical attention and continued with his tour. By the time he arrived in Detroit for his next appearance, he had a temperature of 104. He nonetheless performed, although it was said that he passed out for a while during the performance. Immediately after the curtain, he was taken to the hospital. He died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix on Halloween day in Grace Hospital. 

Houdini with his "two sweethearts." He was very devoted to both his wife and his mother.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle Birthday, 1887
Fatty Arbuckle
He was a talented actor, comedian, director, and screenwriter. He was Charlie Chaplin's mentor, and is said to have discovered Bob Hope and Buster Keaton. He was one of the most popular actors of the silent screen, and also one of the best-paid, signing a one-million dollar contract in 1918. He was such a good singer that Enrico Caruso urged him to give up his comedic career and become "the second greatest singer in the world." Sadly, what he's best remembered for is an assault that probably never happened. 

In September 1921, Arbuckle and two friends rented rooms at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, and invited several women to a party in their suite. One of the guests was an actress named Virginia Rappe, who suffered from chronic cystitis, a condition which was aggravated when she drank. She had a reputation for drinking heavily at parties, and then apparently suffering significant pain. She had gone through several abortions in the past few years, which had also affected her health. 

During the party, Rapp became seriously ill and was examined by the hotel doctor. He believed that her problems were primarily caused by her drinking, and gave her morphine to calm her. Two days later she was hospitalized. One day after that she died of peritonitis from a ruptured bladder. 

One of Rapp's companions claimed that Arbuckle had raped her friend. The doctor found no evidence, but Arbuckle was charged. Soon the incident turned into a media frenzy, mostly due to the newspaper chain owned by William Randolph Hearst, who later claimed that the scandal had sold more newspapers than the sinking of the Lusitania
It took the jury just 6 minutes. They spent 5 of them drafting an apology.
It appears that a great deal of the "evidence" against Arbuckle was either manufactured or coerced by the prosecutor, Matthew Brady, a man who planned to run for governor. Arbuckle was tried three times -- the first two resulted in hung juries, and in the third he was acquitted. The jury in the third trial took six minutes to reach their verdict, and five of those minutes were spent composing a statement of apology to Roscoe Arbuckle. 

Since alcohol had been served at the party, Arbuckle was guilty of having violated the Prohibition Act, and was fined $500. Arbuckle had spent seven months and $700,000 defending himself from the charges, and had lost his home and cars in the process. 

Six days after Arbuckle's acquittal, Will H. Hayes, president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America, banned Arbuckle from ever working in American movies again. All showings of Arbuckle's previously produced movies were also banned. Later that year, Hayes lifted the ban, but Arbuckle's career was pretty well finished. He directed a few films under a pseudonym, and succumbed to alcoholism. 

In 1932, Arbuckle was signed with Warner Brothers to star in a series of two-reel comedies under his own name. After he finished them, Warner Brothers signed him for a feature-length film. He said that the day he signed that contract was "the best day of [his] life." He died of a heart attack later that night.

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