Who killed Houdini?

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.

Postby Guest » 12/10/02 04:29 PM

I wanted to know if there was any information regarding the two sudents or student who, is said to have punched Houdini thereby rupturing his apendix.

I'm looking for names, dates, if any legal action was taken, where they ended up in life, etc.
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Postby Kendrix » 12/10/02 07:42 PM

I think it would be very unlikely to rupture an appendix from a blow to the abdomen. The appendix is just a cylindrical projection from the caecum. It is not fixed to the abdominal wall or any other structure except the caecum from which it arises. I think rupture of the spleen or laceration of the liver(depending on where he was struck) is much more likely. JMHO
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 12/10/02 08:43 PM

According to Houdini biographer Kenneth Silverman, the young man who threw the punches (note that it was more than one) was Wallace (or "Wallie") Whitehead. William Rauscher, in The Houdini Code Mystery (Mike Caveney's Magic Words, 2000) identifies him as J. Gordon Whitehead. I am aware of no other information on the man. The event took place on October 22, 1926 in Houdini's dressing room at the Princess Theater in Montreal, Canada.

I cannot recall reading of any legal ramifications. (Imagine if this took place today?)

Some speculate that Houdini was already ill when he received blows to his abdomen, and the event simply aggravated an already bad situation.

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Postby Guest » 12/10/02 09:29 PM

Actually, I seem to remember that Henry Gordon, a magic author from Canada was on a radio programme in Montreal some years ago and actually got a phone call from someone who was in the room when the punch was thrown. He subsequently had a meeting with this person, I believe.

I am vague on the details but I have Henry's book somewhere describing the matter. I can dig it up if anyone is that interested.

I actually met two people who had seen Houdini. One was Murray the famous escape artist and one was John Mulholland who actually knew him quite well.
Neither of these good people had much good to say about the Great Man.
Murray remarked he wasn't impressed with the performance he saw and said Houdini had a bad reputation of having hecklers beaten up.
Mulholland told me some story about Houdini mishandling the funds of the SAM and he, Mulholland was the only one with guts to complain about it.
I also had some contact once with Maurice Sardina who wrote the book "where Houdini was wrong"
He didn't think much of poor Harry either.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 12/10/02 09:59 PM

There have been spurious stories for years about Houdini having been murdered. The guy who punched him in the gut was ostensibly hired by spiritualists.
Silverman didn't believe it, though it is a tantalizing story.
Really, Houdini was such an idiot: like Mike Skinner, he died because he was stubborn and wouldn't go to a doctor. How can such gifted people be so stupid?
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 12/11/02 12:26 AM

Combine Houdini's ego and stubbornness with what had to be a high threshold for pain (he was performing with an untreated ankle fracture during the period leading up to the punching incident) and it's a recipe for disaster.
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Postby Terry » 12/11/02 06:15 AM

How can such gifted people be so stupid?
Ever hear that "the show must go on"? Wonder if Copperfield was fealing up to snuff before he collapsed during the show in Canada?

I've never been to these gentlemen's level, but I can offer something similar. Years ago, I was involved in bodybuilding on an amateur level. One night I was doing barbell curls with 100lbs. I failed to breathe properly and felt a pop and intense heat above my groin. I had herniated myself. I rubbed the abdominal area and the intestine popped back into place. I then proceeded to pick up the bar and finish my workout.

When you are involved in something that requires intense dedication and committment, nothing stops you from pushing forward. In hindsight, it WAS extremely stupid, but during that time it was the accepted thing to do - "No Pain, No Gain".
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Postby Bill Mullins » 12/11/02 08:30 AM

Originally posted by Richard Kaufman:

Really, Houdini was such an idiot: like Mike Skinner, he died because he was stubborn and wouldn't go to a doctor. How can such gifted people be so stupid?
Didn't Skinner have some emotional/mental difficulties? I don't think it's fair to call someone with his problems an idiot or stupid.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 12/11/02 08:54 AM

Bill, you misread my post. I said that Houdini was stupid and stubborn. I only said that Mike Skinner was stubborn. Yes, Mike suffered from extreme mental illness, which was kept under control most of the time by medication, but I don't believe that had anything to do with his death--like many people he just didn't like to go to the doctor. And like many people, he died because he didn't go to the doctor. It's a lesson for all of us: if you feel like crap, GO TO THE DOCTOR!
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 12/11/02 08:54 AM

Oh, and this from David Ben:
"Daniel Zuckerbrot has just finished a film about the real cause of Houdini's death. It will be on Discovery Health's channel in the U.S.. Fascinating film, Daniel has much undislosed information in the film."
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 12/11/02 10:18 AM

Sounds like a Canadian Cover-Up to me! :D

(Sounds interesting: do we know the time frame for its release?)
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Postby Guest » 12/11/02 11:12 AM

I am not sure about this "go to the doctor" advice.
As soon as you do that you are done for. They are the ones who usually kill you off.

Anyway, I have more information about this Houdini thing.

It seems that the fellow who contacted Henry Gordon was a well known Montreal lawyer named Sam Smiley. Henry met him in 1980 so it is conceivable although unlikely that he may still be alive. He would be in his late nineties if this were the case. I think Henry has passed away.

It seems that Houdini was giving a lecture at Mc'Gill university and Mr Smiley who had an affinity for drawing sketched the great man during the lecture. He approached Houdini afterwards and asked him to autograph the picture.

Houdini made a deal. If Mr.Smiley would come around to his dressing room the next morning and give Houdini another sketch to keep then Harry would autograph the picture.

The next morning Sam went around to visit Houdini with his friend Jack Price.

Here is the rest of the story in Sam Smiley's words: "at about 11am in walked this tall,sandy haired man, about thirtyish. He was Gordon Whitehead, a McGill divinity student, returning a book Houdini had lent him. Whitehead was also an amateur boxer. After a few words he asked 'Mr Houdini, is it true you can take blows to the abdomen without discomfor, due to your superb condition? Hodini, still looking through his mail, nodded absentmindedly. Without warning Whitehead stood up and delivered several heavy blows to the magician's stomach area."

Smiley recalled "Jack Price and I were shocked. He must have punched him 3 or 4 times. I remember Houdini gasping "that's enough, that's enough'. Jack Price asked Whitehead to leave which he did"

It seems that Houdini pretended to be unruffled and asked Sam to continue drawing. Anyway, I think you all know the rest of the story.

It seems that David Copperfield collapsed in Canada also.

The moral of the tale is that American entertainers should stay where they are. It is too bloody cold up here anyway.
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 12/11/02 12:30 PM

That is essentially the same story related in William Rauscher's book. Rauscher interviewed Smiley (and yes, who has since passed away).

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Postby Guest » 12/11/02 12:50 PM

Just to go off topic a trifle, Rauscher had a hand in the book entitled "The Psychic Mafia". This is a debunking book about the wicked goings on in a place called Camp Chesterfield. I think the same wicked things are still going on which just goes to show how effective exposes are.

By a strange coincidence Henry Gordon whom I mentioned earlier was also a psychic debunker. The funny thing is that all the psychics loved Henry even though they knew he was a debunker and sceptic. I used to be involved in the psychic business and all the psychics used to tell me what a nice fellow Henry was.

They all hated Randi,though. Funny how different personalities get different reactions.
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Postby Guest » 12/11/02 12:58 PM

Bill, you misread my post. I said that Houdini was stupid and stubborn. I only said that Mike Skinner was stubborn.
Actually, it looks like you mis-wrote your post. You wrote:

"Really, Houdini was such an idiot: like Mike Skinner, he died because he was stubborn and wouldn't go to a doctor. How can such gifted people be so stupid?"

The implication is that Houdini was stupid because he wouldn't go to the doctor, so presumably if Skinner wouldn't go to the doctor he's stupid as well. I assume that's why you wrote "people" instead of "person".

In any case, I think that 'stupid' and 'idiot' are pretty strong, pejorative words to use to describe someone - particularly someone who is no longer around to defend himself. It would probably be a little more reasonable to say that he was short-sighted, or just stubborn.

-David L.
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Postby Guest » 12/11/02 01:05 PM

I think in Michael Skinner's case neither "stupid" or "stubborn" would be correct words.

When people are mentally ill they are not stupid or stubborn. They just can't think straight. Judgement is impaired and if there is no one around to help a downward slide is inevitable. Even if there is someone around to offer help the assistance is often refused by the sick person.
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Postby Guest » 12/11/02 02:02 PM

Card Trickster,

Thank you for making very important points regarding mental illness. It is often very difficult for those with such problems to get help, and even more difficult for their loved ones to get them help when they refuse.

This is off the topic of magic, but FYI, a great book dealing with the subject of getting help for menally ill folks who don't seem to want it is "I'm Not Sick, I Don't Need Help" by Dr. Xavier Amador.

-David L.
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Postby Pete McCabe » 12/11/02 05:36 PM

It is not just unusually stupid or stubborn people who refuse to take sound medical advice. A scientist did a study of people with glaucoma. These patients were told they must use eye drops three times a day or they would go blind.

58 percent of these people suffered permanent vision damage from failing to follow this treatment regimen.

They're not all stupid and stubborn, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 12/11/02 05:48 PM

How would you explain the behaviour of those other 42 percent of the people, knowing they would go blind if they didn't use their eye drops: "ignorant" would be a word that comes to mind, whatever the underlying emotional cause for such ignorance.
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Postby Pete McCabe » 12/11/02 07:03 PM

Actually, 42 percent of the people followed the regimen and kept their eyesight. The 58 Percent refers to the ones who didn't and suffered permanent damage to their vision.

It's possible they just didn't believe what the doctors told them. Lots of people are taught a variation of the "what the hell do scientists/doctors/etc know" meme, typically by parents who don't know a hell of a lot about science.

It's possible that they're unable to mentally comprehend how dire their situation is. Denial is an incredibly powerful force.

It's possible that it is just a hell of a lot harder for humans to change their behavior.

I suppose these may all add up to ignorance in the end.
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Postby Dave Egleston » 12/11/02 10:37 PM

Houdini had a bad reputation of having hecklers beaten up.

That's not one of the methods Ortiz used in his book - being discussed on another thread

One of the few magicians I can call a friend was Mr Skinner - and I agree 100% with mr Kaufman - We lost a true gentleman when Mr Skinner passed away - and it was because of stubborness from what I was told -

But anyways - this is one of the most interesting threads we've had - Is there any date for the Discovery film to be broadcast?

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Postby Terry » 12/12/02 06:03 AM

Have to agree with Richard on the ignorance thing. In 1998, my uncle started having intense stomach pains. We harped on him to go to the doctor. June 2001, they removed a tumor from his colon. Afterwards, he admitted we were right and he should have seen a doctor. February 2002, we buried him.

If you are not feeling right, GO TO A DOCTOR! If you don't trust the one you have, seek out another. Don't let personalities cloud your judgement.

Because cancer is in my family, I am getting a colonoscopy in Jan/Feb and the Doc has very little personality. He is very direct and to the point. Course if your job was looking up bumholes all day... :D
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 12/12/02 09:17 AM

Well, Terry, if he's very direct and to the point, he should do a good job looking where the sun don't shine!
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Postby Lisa Cousins » 12/12/02 12:24 PM

While everybody except David Ben waits for the Zuckerbrot revelations regarding this infamous dressing-room scene, two observations.

There is the tenacious claim that Houdini had made boasts about the strength of his stomach muscles and how he could withstand any punch. When did he ever do that? He never performed such feats, and I've never come across an instance of him making such a claim, even in private life. Yet that story is one of the clinging myths surrounding his death. Is it just a metaphorical way of saying that Houdini's personality was provokingly full of bluster and challenge, and somebody finally became insanely provoked?

I have also heard the story that the attacker was clearly disturbed by Houdini's well-publicized anti-spiritualist views, and that before throwing a punch he asked "How do you explain the miracles in the Bible?" If the attacker was indeed a divinity student, that lends some credence to this claim.

Whenever the undisclosed information becomes disclosed, somebody with cable needs to remember to put an update here for the benefit of us Luddites.
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Postby Matthew Field » 12/12/02 12:33 PM

OK. I admit it. I killed Houdini.

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Postby Terry » 12/12/02 02:22 PM

Well, Terry, if he's very direct and to the point, he should do a good job looking where the sun don't shine!
Probably!! But can you imagine the conversations he has with his wife?
"And how was your day dear?"
"Just kept meeting one a$$hole after another..."
:D :D :D
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 12/12/02 04:08 PM

Originally posted by Lisa Cousins:
Whenever the undisclosed information becomes disclosed, somebody with cable needs to remember to put an update here for the benefit of us Luddites.
A Luddite who uses a PC (Mac?) to connect to the Internet and communicate via email?

And I thought I was confused!
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Postby Guest » 12/15/02 07:21 PM

Originally posted by Matthew Field:
OK. I admit it. I killed Houdini.
Matt Field
Perhaps we should ask John Edwards to ask Houdini himself?
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 12/15/02 07:55 PM

I suppose that part of a lively forum's charm are the unexpected, digressive turns it takes. These tangents are apparently interesting. Or are they? In this thread, we went from talking about Houdini, his ego, his death-inducing episode, to veering off to discuss doctors, idiotic behavior (?), premature death, hospital care, and Mike Skinner's tragic end...Hmmmmmmm...

Of course, somehow we always seem to return to the subject. This is probably a good thing. However, would this happen if we were ALL sitting in the world's largest Starbucks (seats 2000), sipping a mocha, and jaw-jacking by the numbers?

I do notice, however, that the sudden turns and abrupt veering often results in triggerng visceral remarks and reactions. These are the times when we are likely to blurt absurdities and crack out of turn--somewhat in the manner of Trent Lott...

Then fur flies...

Of course, my comments are an example of veering and hiccupping...are they not?

Is everybody's fur still intact?
Is there enough room for all of us to go back to square one?

Dare I say it?
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 12/15/02 09:25 PM

An image of Houdini's death certificate can be found here:

http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/Stage ... certif.jpg

I am curious about the documentary mentioned by David Ben (via Richard) and the "cause" of Houdini's death. Does the documentary address the "cause" in terms of the instrument of death (diffuse peritonitis streptococcus, per the certificate)? Or the events that led to the ruptured appendix that resulted in said instrument?

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Postby Kendrix » 12/17/02 04:27 PM

If you notice, there was no autopsy performed. It looks like the medical examiner only used operative findings. I think it would be highly unusual if there was a possibility the M.E. thought his death was due to trauma from another individual and no autopsy was performed. I would bet he was already ill from a ruptured appendix and may or may not have been struck in the abdomen prior to his collapse. People always try to relay the start of an acute illness with "something they did wrong". These events may have nothing to do with what is wrong with them.
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 12/17/02 11:03 PM

Dr. Kennedy was not an M.E. but HH's attending doctor, so no autopsy was required. No "foul play" was ever considered or there would have been an inquest, correct? I'm just curious what other "cause" could come to light given the official record (beyond conspiracy theories involving vindictive "Spiritualists"). I can't wait for this documentary (though it's clear that I have to, dang it).

Right now, I think you are correct: the guy was sick and ignored the symptoms until after it was too late. The punch may have contributed and perhaps accelerated the inevitable, but I would find it difficult to believe that Whitehead was "sent" to Houdini's room for nefarious reasons.

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Postby GAMOLO » 12/20/02 03:39 PM

In Dave Price's huge pictorical History (the $60 volume with great stone litho plates reproduced) he emphatically endorses the line that Bess & Houdini purposedly exaggerated the accidental injury (by punch in the stomach in the dressing room story) because Houdini's insurance policy contained the usual "double" death benefit payment if by accident.
As probate later showed, like most entertainers, Houdini spent virtually whatever he earned....and if engagements ceased for long....there would be little reserves. Save for those insurance proceeds, Bess was left with essentially no cash reserves.
Like all vaudville performers in the mid 1920's, the future was uncertain...live theater was dying, and unless one could transition into radio or films, what with the costs of unions and transporting shows becoming prohibitive simultaneously with the venues drying up, one's future looked bleak. Houdini was just as concerned as everyone else, and that explains why he tried everything imaginable (e.g., films, 3 in show, etc.).
A really fascinating question is.... had he lived, say, for another ten active performing years... into the Great Depression years (1929-onward) would he have been able to "re-invent" himself into a viable/bookable/popular/top$$$headliner....the way some other vaudville entertainers (notably comedians) did? No magician did...all failed miserably in films/radio. Just like they fail in those mediums today to catch on
(Cooperfield/Calvert/Channing, etc.) Thurston/Blackstone struggled ignobly on in 2nd rate theater circuits...with small one hour shadow versions of their glory 1920's shows....and even then, had to share time usually with a movie or burlesque. The Depression was bleak for magic headliners; only good for Mom & Pop Abbott's magic types. Maybe....like Elvis....the "King" Houdini died at the right time....to ensure his legend.
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Postby Guest » 12/20/02 04:10 PM

I am 100% sure that Houdini would have survived the depression. He was quite a sharp cookie at this survival business.

He always seemed to have an eye of future trends and planned for them. Always one step ahead was Harry.

He always seemed to know when his time was up and the sell by date was approaching. He would change tactics all the time when he saw it coming. This is why he survived so long. The tenacity and grit of the man was incredible.

Only age would have stopped him and even then I am not entirely sure I am right. I suspect he would have become a mentalist or something. Or a famous writer or lecturer. I think he was a bit of scholar in a rough sort of way.

Ruthless fellow too from what I have heard. He was a street fighter. He would have survived.
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Postby Brian Marks » 01/02/03 12:33 AM

I am guessing it was the gunman from te grassy knowl in the kitchen that killed Houdini
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Postby Frank Yuen » 01/02/03 02:03 PM

Colonel Mustard, in the Ballroom, with the candlestick. :D

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Postby Guest » 01/10/03 02:12 AM

Here's an interesting bit I haven't heard discussed. Years ago I went to the local university library and looked up the original newspapers when Houdini died. In one article I read something I haven't seen in books and was wondering if anyone else has comments on it. Houdini had hung on longer than doctors expected and the public was hoping for a recovery. The article says that the doctors decided to administer "an experimental medicine" and Houdini then died within three hours! What was this "experimental medicine?"
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Postby Curtis Kam » 01/10/03 01:42 PM

Wow, Bill, that could put a whole new spin on Richard's "Get Thee to a Doctor" advice. :)
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Postby Grant McSorley » 03/11/03 06:42 PM

Has the Zuckerbrot documentary aired yet? If so, was there anything interested revealed in it or did it just rehash the usual story?
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Postby Kevin Connolly » 03/12/03 10:59 PM

Bill...I'm pretty sure this article was on ebay last week. The headline was something like "Houdini To get new Syrum". I don't think it killed him or accelerated his death. He was really over due from what the doctors predicted early on.

Originally posted by Bill Jackson:
Here's an interesting bit I haven't heard discussed. Years ago I went to the local university library and looked up the original newspapers when Houdini died. In one article I read something I haven't seen in books and was wondering if anyone else has comments on it. Houdini had hung on longer than doctors expected and the public was hoping for a recovery. The article says that the doctors decided to administer "an experimental medicine" and Houdini then died within three hours! What was this "experimental medicine?"
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