Monday, October 31, 2011

The Man Who Killed Houdini An Investigation by Don Bell

On October 22, 1926 J. Gordon Whitehead, a thirty-one-year-old McGill University student from Montreal, Canada visited magician and escape artist Harry Houdini in his dressing room at the Princess Theatre and punched him repeatedly in the stomach to test his oft-repeated boast that he could withstand any blow to the abdomen by tensing his muscles. Houdini was caught off guard, before he had a chance to steel himself, some reports say he was lying on a sofa perusing his mail at the time the onslaught of blows began, doing irreparable damage. Nine days later on Halloween the magic died. At age fifty-two the great Houdini was dead of a ruptured appendix and peritonitis. In those days before antibiotics, there was nothing medical science could do to save him.

J. Gordon Whitehead appeared to fall off the face of the earth after the incident and in 1982 journalist Don Bell became intrigued by the man who, whether intentionally or unwittingly, innocently or maliciously, caused the death of the world’s most famous magician. At the time of his death Houdini was on the hit list of many mediums who resented his exposes of their fraudulent activities; the entire third act of his show was devoted to exposing the tricks that went on in darkened seance rooms, and many mediums swore vengeance and prophesied doom would befall Houdini very soon. Mr. Bell wondered if this was in any way related to Houdini’s death—Was J. Gordon Whitehead a believer striking a blow for spiritualism?

Mr. Bell spent twenty years searching for the truth, tracking down surviving eyewitnesses or the descendants of those already departed, elusive documents, and even the only known surviving photograph of J. Gordon Whitehead. Sadly he died in 2003 and did not live to see his book published. The Man Who Killed Houdini is a fascinating real-life detective story that delves into the mind of a disturbed and possibly tormented personality, it’s a must for any Houdini fan and will, I think, also appeal to anyone interested in fully exploring one of the little incidents in history that has often been glossed over in just a paragraph or two in past accounts where the fact that Houdini died overshadowed the circumstances of exactly how and why.

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