A popular but misleading explanation states that a McGill
student, in an attempt to test Harry Houdini's widely known strength, punched
the magician in his stomach, thus causing his untimely death.
The real story, however,
is a little more complex.
On October 20th, 1926,
Houdini had been visiting McGill University, giving students a presentation on
his recent debunking of a Boston medium. Later on after the presentation at
least two students came to visit him: Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead and Samuel J.
Smilovitz, who decided to sketch Houdini. During the course of the meeting,
Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead decided to challenge Houdini's strength and, without
warning Houdini, delivered about three non-malicious punches to his stomach. It
appears that Whitehead's punch to Houdini's stomach, while not fatal, aggravated
an existing but still undetected case of appendicitis. Although in serious pain,
Houdini nonetheless continued to travel without seeking medical attention.
Houdini was visiting Montreal to perform at the Princess
Theatre and was invited to McGill by the Dean of the faculty of psychology to
talk to students about debunking spiritualism.
A student named Samuel J.
Smilovitch approached Houdini with a sketch he'd made of the escape
artist; Houdini was impressed and invited the young man to come backstage after
one of his shows and do a full portrait. Smilovitch took Houdini up
on his offer, bringing along his friend Jack Price to meet the magician in the
lobby of the Princess Theater the morning of Friday, 22 October.
They all followed Houdini to his dressing room, and a few minutes later another
McGill student named Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead knocked on the door. What then
occurred was later described by Jack Price and included in a book by Sir Arthur
Houdini was facing us and lying down on a couch at the time reading some mail,
his right side nearest us. This first-year student engaged Houdini more or less
continually whilst my friend Mr. Smilovitch continued to sketch
Houdini. This student was the first to raise the question of Houdini's strength.
My friend and I were not so much interested in his strength as we were in his
mental acuteness, his skill, his beliefs, and his personal experiences. Houdini
stated that he had extraordinary muscles in his forearms, in his shoulders and
in his back, and he asked all of us present to feel them, which we did. The first-year McGill
student asked Houdini whether it was true that punches in the stomach did not
hurt him. Houdini remarked rather unenthusiastically that his stomach could
resist much, though he did not speak of it in superlative terms. Thereupon he
gave Houdini some very hammer-like blows below the belt, first securing
Houdini's permission to strike him. Houdini was reclining at the time with his
right side nearest Whitehead, and the said student was more or less bending over
him. These blows fell on that part of the stomach to the right of the navel, and
were struck on the side nearest to us, which was in fact Houdini's right side; I
do not remember exactly how many blows were struck. I am certain, however, of at
least four very hard and severe body blows, because at the end of the second or
third blow I verbally protested against this sudden onslaught on the part of
this first-year student, using the words, "Hey there. You must be crazy, what
are you doing?" or words to that effect, but Whitehead continued striking
Houdini with all his strength.
Houdini stopped him suddenly
in the midst of a punch, with a gesture that he had had enough. At the time
Whitehead was striking Houdini, the latter looked as though he was in extreme
pain and winced as each blow was struck.
Houdini immediately after
stated that he had had no opportunity to prepare himself against the blows, as
he did not think that Whitehead would strike him as suddenly as he did and with
such force, but that he would have been in a better position to prepare for the
blows if he had risen from his couch for this purpose, but the injury to his
foot prevented him from getting about rapidly.
As for Whitehead, information provided by McGill
University's archives suggests the student was never investigated for any
wrongdoing in Houdini's death. As well, a professor of psychology denied that
any punching took place after Houdini delivered his lecture at McGill.
It's possible, however, that the blow took place at a
different time in Houdini's dressing room. In the end, Houdini's widow was
apparently the beneficiary of an insurance policy worth $25,000 that doubled if
the escape artist's death was deemed accidental rather than from an aggressive
action. Her New York lawyers inquired about the Montreal incident, but signed
an oath saying Whitehead had no intention of hurting Houdini.
Despite Price's first-hand
account, much dispute remains over exactly what took place in Houdini's dressing
room that day. Houdini's wife Bess, a nurse named Sophie Rosenblatt, and Bess's
niece Julia Sawyer were also present, and the details of their stories differ.
Did Joselyn Whitehead really show up after Smilovitch and Price arrived, or had
Smilovitch brought him along? Was Whitehead really a McGill student, or was he
an amateur boxer (or both)? Was he already known to Houdini (as he presumably
was if, as some rumors report, he had shown up to return some books he had
borrowed from the magician). Did Whitehead really "secure Houdini's permission"
before delivering blows to the magician's stomach, or did he mistake Houdini's
casual response to his query as permission to proceed and strike before Houdini
was prepared? Did Houdini even really boast that he could withstand such
Whatever happened, Houdini
was definitely suffering from severe stomach pains later by mid-afternoon,
although he carried on with that evening's show and struggled through another
performance the next day (Saturday). On the train to Detroit (where Houdini was
scheduled to appear on Sunday) Houdini was suffering mightily from the pain in
his stomach, so a worried Bess telegraphed ahead and arranged for a doctor to be
standing by at their hotel when they arrived. Unfortunately, their train was
late; the Houdinis had no time to check into their hotel and headed straight for
the theatre. The doctor finally caught up with Houdini, examined him in the
dressing room, found him to be running a fever of 104, diagnosed acute
appendicitis, and proclaimed that Houdini should be taken straight to a hospital
by ambulance. Bess allegedly did not hear the doctor's diagnosis, and Houdini
supposedly told the worried theater owner, prophetically, "I'll do this show if
it's my last."
Houdini rushed through his show and was obviously not
performing well, and before the third act began he finally decided that he could
carry on no longer. (Houdini did not collapse on stage, as is often reported;
nor did he have to be rescued from the Water-Torture cell by an axe-wielding
assistant, as portrayed in various film biographies.) Even then, Houdini would
still not seek medical treatment, returning to his hotel before finally Bess
"threw a tantrum" and summoned the hotel physician. The physician called a
surgeon, who examined Houdini and told him that he must be hospitalized at once.
Still, Houdini demurred, calling his personal physician, Dr. William
Stone, back in New York sometime after 3:00 A.M. Only after Houdini
and the other doctors had talked to Dr. Stone did Houdini finally
relent and agree to be taken to Grace Hospital, where he underwent surgery to
remove his appendix that afternoon (Sunday, 24 October). His
appendix was removed by a Dr. Charles Kennedy. Houdini remained in hospital for
a few more days, apparently getting better at one point and then taking a turn
for the worse. In another Canadian connection to all this, Dr. Kennedy
concluded that Houdini's appendix must have ruptured sometime on the train ride
near St. Thomas, Ont.
The odds of surviving such
an infection in the days before antibiotics were small, but Houdini gamely hung
on for another four days before undergoing a second operation on Thursday,
28 October. He seemed to be recovering by the next day, but on Saturday
his condition worsened, and the renowned magician escape artist passed away the
next day at 52. Fittingly, the date was 31 October 1926: Halloween.
Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead was registered at McGill
University in 1926, which places him in the correct time period as Houdini's
appearance at the University. However, he does not appear as a graduate of the
University. Apparently Whitehead later accepted a job as a religious minister
in the U.S. and disappeared into anonymity.
In the aftermath of
Houdini's death, the assumption was made that the blows to his stomach and his
ruptured appendix were related. It seemed a logical conclusion at the time, even
to his doctors, and so the legend began. With the advantage of several decades
of hindsight, however, we now know this explanation to be impossible: no cases
of acute appendicitis caused by physical trauma have since been documented. The
blows to Houdini's stomach may indeed have hastened his death, but in a way
different than commonly believed: he was likely already suffering from
appendicitis at the time Whitehead struck him, and he may have written off his
subsequent stomach pain as being caused by the punches he took rather than the
appendicitis. Had the dressing room incident not occurred, Houdini might have
realized the pain was an indicator that something was very wrong and not delayed
so long in seeking medical treatment.
As a postscript to the accepted story, in March 2007, the authors of the new Houdini
book "The Secret Life of Houdini - The Making of America's First Superhero" announced at a press conference held at the American Jewish Museum in New York City their plan to exhume the body of Houdini to determine whether he had been poisoned. They theorize that sinister elements of the Spiritualist movement may have poisoned Houdini. His symptoms might suggest such a possibility. Since there was never an autopsy, new forensic testing is a method of determining whether this may be true. Houdini's great-grand nephew George Hardeen, according to news reports, has agreed to pursue this investigation. We look forward to learning more about this story in the days ahead. (3/23/2007)