Who Killed Houdini?

The legendary escapologist and magician Harry Houdini died under mysterious circumstances on Hallowe'en in 1926 At 52 years old, he was still widely known for his daring risk-taking and for being the fittest man alive

Yet officially, he died from a sudden abdominal infection called peritonitis, caused by a ruptured appendix Quite what caused this is unknown, but suspicion fell upon a student from McGill University called Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead Just nine days before Hallowe'en, Whitehead challenged Houdini to withstand several punches to his abdomen It was a trick Houdini had often performed, but this time would be his last But an autopsy was never carried out on Houdini, and nothing was ever done to establish whether his fatal infection was the result of his violent encounter with Whitehead

So when forensic experts announced they were exhuming Houdini's remains in March 2007, they made their motive clear They wanted to know once and for all whether or not Harry Houdini had really been murdered Suspicion that Houdini was actually murdered arose immediately after his death Newspapers speculated as to whether there had been some foul play in his premature passing The main suspect was, of course, J

Gordon Whitehead This is the only known photograph of him, taken around 1950 According to his biographer, Don Bell, Whitehead was a reclusive and genteel man whose connection with Houdini remains a mystery What we do know is that Whitehead was one of three McGill students who visited Houdini's dressing room that night They met the magician after he gave a lecture at the McGill Union, about fraudulent spiritualists and the tricks they used at seances

According to the witness accounts of his fellow students, Whitehead dealt several excessively heavy blows to Houdini's abdomen while he was lying down, and therefore unable to prepare himself for the attack But a 2010 medical review found that there is no clear causal link between physical trauma like the punches Houdini received, and the ruptured appendix that killed him Furthermore, the witness statements made by Houdini's wife Bess and her niece don't match So there is sufficient scientific doubt that Whitehead is the man who killed Houdini There is another suspect in this mystery: the Spiritualist movement

Houdini spent much of his career exposing fake mediums and wizard fraudsters, using his knowledge as a magician to debunk spiritualism whenever possible As a result, Houdini was the target of countless death threats In fact, he received so many that he paid them no attention Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the spiritualist movement's figureheads, said that Houdini would ""get his just desserts very exactly meted out"" It may be no coincidence that Houdini's lecture at McGill University was explicitly against spiritualism

This has led biographers William Kalush and Larry Sloman to suggest that Houdini was really assassinated by spiritualists, who either hired Whitehead to deliver a fatal attack, or opportunistically poisoned Houdini while he was in hospital There is no evidence to prove either claim However, there is another suspicious side to Houdini's death Somewhat surprisingly, this stems from his life insurance policy Given the dangerous nature of his art, Houdini was insured for $25,000 – but his policy meant that should he die accidentally, his widow Bess would receive $50,000

At first, the insurance investigators denied that Houdini was killed from being punched in the abdomen It wasn't until Bess carried out her own investigation that the insurers paid her $50,000 Her investigation included the witness accounts that blame Houdini's death on Gordon Whitehead According to conspiracy theorists Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz, these students were paid $200 apiece by Bess Dietrick and Brookz believe that the story of Houdini dying from a punch to the gut is a complete fabrication, created by his widow to get the double indemnity insurance money

If this is true, it leaves the door wide open for speculation about his death Another, more banal, theory about Houdini's death is simply that he had appendicitis It is widely known that despite being in enormous pain for the last week of his life, Houdini refused medical treatment and continued to perform on stage It may well be that Houdini didn't realise the pain he felt was his appendicitis: he may have thought it was simply the result of Whitehead's strong punches Without treatment his appendix would have ruptured by itself and the subsequent infection killed him

The planned exhumation of Houdini's body never took place, in part because of legal issues Therefore we may never know whether it was peritonitis, poison, or punches that killed Houdini "

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