Thursday, March 29, 2007

FATE catches up with Houdini

Poor Harry can’t seem to catch a break this month. First we have the battle over whether to exhume his corpse, now FATE magazine features a cover which promises “Houdini Exposed!”

FATE is a magazine devoted to the paranormal “supplying its loyal readership with a broad array of true accounts of the strange and unknown for nearly 60 years.” This current March 2007 issue features a pro-Margery look at the famous Houdini/Margery investigations conducted in 1924 for the Scientific American magazine.

You can subscribe to FATE or buy individual issues at the FATE magazine website.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Houdini: The Handcuff King released

Houdini: The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi is now available at Amazon.com and in bookstores.

This hardcover graphic novel from Disney-Hyperion is aimed at ages 9-12 and is very nicely done.

We first caught wind of this book at the San Diego Comic Con back in 2005.

This article first appeared on Houdini Lives.

Blood family speaks out against exhumation


The Blood family have issued a statement speaking against the proposed exhumation of Houdini to test for poisoning. Here is their statement in full which was posted at the Scranton Houdini Museum website.

FAMILY STATEMENT 
Re: Houdini Exhumation
Regarding the proposed plan to exhume the body of Harry Houdini, relatives of Beatrice (Bess) Houdini are totally against it.
Based on information made available to us over the years, we feel there is no need to exhume his body. It is our firm belief that Bess Houdini would never approve of this. The family believes this is likely being done to promote sales of a recent book on Harry Houdini suggesting he may have been murdered.
The Houdini family wants to honor the name of Houdini and not use it for sensationalism that does not honor him.
Several members of Bess Houdini’s family are members of the Society of American Magicians (SAM) and have tried to promote him through the art of magic that Houdini loved. Bess’s relatives were honored guests at the US Post Office official stamp issuance held at the Society of American Magician convention held in New York City on July 3, 2002.
Marie Hinson Blood (Houdini’s niece) and David Copperfield were two of the honored speakers. Our family presence at this event was represented by 14 family members. We do not know why relatives of Hardeen (Houdini’s brother) did not participate in this event honoring Houdini.
The Houdini family established a youth magic scholarship fund through SAM when Marie Hinson Blood passed away in November 2004. This was to honor Houdini, the uncle she loved so much. Marie spent the last 20 years of her life
speaking at magic conventions, schools and community events of her childhood memories of living with her aunt and uncle, the famous Houdini’s. In 2000 we established “Houdini Family” DBA to preserve the memories of Houdini and promote the art of magic.
Jeffrey Blood,
Grand Nephew of Houdini
Houdini Family

UPDATE: This response from the Hardeen side of the family was released today via the Associated Press.
Bruce Bobbins, spokesman for the Hardeen side of the family, said the Blood relatives - in an odd twist of phrase - “are not blood relatives of Harry Houdini and therefore have no legal standing on the issue.” 
Bobbins, of Dan Klores Communications, said that the Hardeen contingent was willing to meet with the Bloods to discuss any concerns, but that “we are still committed to moving forward in an expedient manner with the exhumation process.”

UPDATE 2: The Washington Post has a report on all this that may shed the most light on what's really going on here. Read: Why not just hold a seance?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Washington Post: Why not just hold a seance?

From left, George Washington University forensic science
professor James Starrs and authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman

The Washington Post has a very interesting article today about the proposed exhumation of Houdini to test for poisoning. This is starting to stink a bit. Here is the article in full:

Why Not Just Hold a Seance?
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007

NEW YORK, March 23 -- Determined to right a historic wrong, a group that included authors, lawyers and a forensic pathologist called a news conference Friday to unveil a bold campaign to exhume a dead book.

No, wait.

To exhume a dead body. Well, that's what they said, anyway. But the more they talked about exhuming the body, the more it seemed like the point was reviving the sluggish sales of a nearly moribund book.

Specifically, The Secret Life of Harry Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero, by William Kulash and Larry Sloman. Published in October, this door-stopper purports to reveal new and astounding elements of the great magician's life and death -- including the claim that he was murdered, a crime plotted by the husband of a spiritualist whom Houdini had debunked.

When this murder rap first surfaced in The Secret Life, nobody paid it much mind, probably because there is not a whit of remotely persuasive evidence to support it. But a couple days ago a public-relations firm in Manhattan issued a news release announcing that the "families of Harry Houdini" would call for the exhumation of their ancestor's body so that it could be tested for traces of poison. Further, the announcement stated, a noted law and forensic science professor at George Washington University, James Starrs -- whose previous celebrity disinterments included the outlaw Jesse James -- had agreed to conduct the tests.

"We are here today at the beginning of a historical moment," said attorney Joseph Tacopina, starting off the festivities and speaking before a few dozen reporters and photographers. "Advances in forensic science have increased our desire as a society to disinter the distinguished in order to solve outstanding mysteries. This is one."

The Houdini clan, it turned out, was represented by George Hardeen, a grand-nephew, who was later heard via speakerphone and identified by Tacopina as "the only known living descendant of the family." Tacopina said that he had received the consent of the cemetery in Queens where Houdini is buried, and that he has a "good and substantial case," which he stated is the legal standard to convince a court that a digging expedition is a good idea.

Exactly how compelling is this case? The standard account of Houdini's death is that on Oct. 22, 1926, while he was on tour in Montreal, a fan punched him in the stomach -- by invitation, but before he was ready for the blow -- rupturing an already inflamed appendix. (It's known that Houdini had been complaining of stomach pain at the time.) A doctor in a Detroit hospital tried injecting him with an experimental serum, but he died on Halloween, at the age of 52.

But authors Kulash and Sloman maintain that Houdini was the victim of a thuggish cabal of psychics. Houdini spent much of his career unmasking spiritualism as a fraud, and one of his favorite targets was one Mina "Margery" Crandon, a socialite who acquired a certain fame after claiming telekinetic abilities. Her husband, a prominent Boston surgeon named Le Roi Crandon, was supposedly a member of what the authors call "the Psychic mafia" and the man behind Houdini's poisoning. In the authors' telling, Crandon had a confederate inject Houdini with that serum in Detroit, and it was meant to kill him, not cure him.

Now, you would think that for this theory to hold water you'd need some link between Crandon and the physician who administered the serum, right? Nuh-uh.

"There is no connection between the two [men]," said Kalush in a chat after the news conference. "There might be a connection. What I'm saying is there is more to investigate there."

Don't just focus on the serum, Kalush said. Another revelation in The Secret Life is that after the initial punch, Houdini was attacked two more times, both times by men punching him in the stomach. Kind of a strange way to whack a guy -- send goons to repeatedly punch him in the stomach. But if that doesn't fly, Kalush says that Houdini could have been poisoned earlier in his tour.

"We don't have a day-to-day record of who was with Houdini on tour," Kalush said. "Crandon had a lot of connections. Do we have a smoking gun that Crandon had a friend in Houdini's camp who could have put something in his soup? No."

What we have here, to put it politely, is pure conjecture. Kenneth Silverman, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of Houdini!!!: The Career of Erich Weiss read The Secret Life and found the murder charge unconvincing.

"There's just no evidence given," he said. "I'll believe anything if you've got good evidence. But these are all very surprising and extreme conclusions. And the business about him being punched by a number of people sounds to me like utter baloney."

This wasn't the only story at the news conference that didn't quite check out. Hardeen, the grand-nephew, said he is not the only known descendant of Houdini. Far from it.

"There's lots of relatives out there," he said.

Well, did they sign off on this exhumation?

"I'm just speaking for myself. I don't represent the entire family, that's for sure."

Further, the man in charge of the cemetery in Queens said yesterday he hadn't given his okay to dig up Houdini's body -- nor is his okay needed.

"It's not up to me," David Jacobson explained, the cemetery's chairman of the board. "It's up to the courts."

Well, this is all starting to sound a little nutty, isn't it? Or not. The news conference, held at the American Jewish Historical Society, generated stories in the New York tabloids, and it was impossible to take a photo of Friday's event without including a big blown-up copy of the cover of The Secret Life.

It turns out this media spectacle was not orchestrated and paid for by the family of Houdini, as one might have inferred from Tacopina's opening remarks. It was organized and paid for by the authors, who hired the uber-crafty PR firm Dan Klores Communications to put it together. The idea, perhaps, was to goose sales of The Secret Life, which hasn't exactly burned up the bestseller list. It's sold a decent 24,000 since October, according to BookScan, which tracks most retailers, but the numbers are flagging. Last week, just 200 copies were sold.

So you can't help but feel sorry for Houdini, whose eternal peace could be disturbed for the sake of a hardback. One of his go-to stunts was escaping from a sealed coffin. If there's any justice in the world, here's hoping this misadventure ends with a bunch of people, huddled in a cemetery in Queens, gaping at an empty box.

UPDATE: Time to bury the Houdini exhumation.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Newsday: Houdini dig conjures stir

Newsday has an update in the proposed exhumation of Houdini to test for poisoning. Here is the article in full:

Houdini dig conjures stir
by Emi Endo, Newsday

If the family of legendary escape artist Harry Houdini succeeds in having his remains exhumed, forensic scientist James Starrs said Friday that his team of experts would look for evidence that Houdini was murdered.

An attorney for a relative of Houdini said would file court papers on Monday seeking to disinter the body from Machpelah Cemetery in Ridgewood.

The group that has been maintaining the graves of Houdini's family for decades is aghast at the prospect.

"We're very upset about all this," said George Schindler, the dean of the Society of American Magicians, a group that Houdini once presided over. Schindler, who noted that the cemetery was Jewish, added, "We feel it's almost like desecrating it."

An exhumation would go beyond seeking to determine whether the magician was poisoned, said Starrs, a George Washington University law professor who has spearheaded other high-profile exhumations. Starr said his volunteer group of forensic experts, pathologists and toxicologists would perform x-rays and examine the hair and fingernails.

"What we're going to be doing, certainly, is, shall I say, fleshing out Harry Houdini, so we know a great deal more about Harry Houdini," Starrs said at a Manhattan news conference. "And we may also know, hopefully, a great deal more about his death."

All that George Hardeen, whose grandfather was Houdini's brother, knew about Houdini's death came from stories passed down from his father.

"I had no inkling that Houdini might have been poisoned," he said via a telephone conference call from Tuba City, Ariz., where he lives.

When Houdini died on Halloween 1926 at age 52, the cause was listed as "traumatic appendicitis" brought on by a blow to his abdomen. But according to modern medicine, appendicitis cannot be caused by being struck.

The authors of a recent biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, wonder if Houdini's work debunking fraudulent Spiritualist mediums had made him enemies who would go so far as to kill him.

Author Larry Sloman said one possible scenario was that Houdini was poisoned for his activities against the Spiritualist movement.

But Schindler said it was his personal opinion that the exhumation effort was a mere publicity stunt. "I don't believe we should bother with this. It's a shame. The man's been dead for so many years," Schindler said. "I don't see what they have to prove."


UPDATE: Blood family speaks out against exhumation.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

AP: Houdini kin wants body exhumed, tested

The Associated Press reports today that plans are being made to exhume Houdini's body to test for poisoning. This is an old theory which has gained some new traction with the publication of The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. Here is the full report from the AP:

Houdini Kin Wants Body Exhumed, Tested

By LARRY McSHANE
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 22, 2007; 10:34 PM

NEW YORK - For all his death-defying stunts, Harry Houdini couldn't escape the Grim Reaper: He died on Halloween 1926, apparently from a punch to the stomach that ruptured his appendix. But rumors that he was murdered have persisted for decades. Eighty-one years after Houdini's death, his great-nephew wants the escape artist's body exhumed to determine if enemies poisoned him for debunking their bogus claims of contact with the dead.

"It needs to be looked at," George Hardeen told The Associated Press. "His death shocked the entire nation, if not the world. Now, maybe it's time to take a second look."

Houdini's family scheduled a news conference for Friday to give details on the plans. Prominent New York lawyer Joseph Tacopina is helping clear any legal hurdles to the exhumation.

A team of top forensic investigators would conduct new tests on Houdini's body, said Hardeen, whose grandfather was Houdini's brother.

The circumstances surrounding Houdini's sudden death are as murky as the rivers where he often escaped from chains, locks and wooden boxes.

The generally accepted version was that Houdini, 52, suffered a ruptured appendix from a punch in the stomach, leading to a fatal case of peritonitis. But no autopsy was performed.

When the death certificate was filed on Nov. 20, 1926, Houdini's body -- brought by train from Detroit to Manhattan -- had already been buried in Queens, along with any evidence of a possible death plot.

Within days, a newspaper headline wondered, "Was Houdini Murdered?"

A 2006 biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, raised the issue again and convinced some that he might have been poisoned, including George Hardeen, who lives in Arizona and is the chief spokesman for the president of the Navajo Nation.

The likeliest murder suspects were members of a group known as the Spiritualists. The magician devoted large portions of his stage show to exposing the group's fraudulent seances. The movement's devotees included Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the Houdini biography, authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman detail a November 1924 letter in which Doyle said Houdini would "get his just desserts very exactly meted out ... I think there is a general payday coming soon."

Two years later, Houdini -- by all accounts a man in extraordinary physical shape -- was dead. Kalush and Sloman say that "the Spiritualist underworld's modus operandi in cases like this was often poisoning" -- possibly arsenic, which could be detected decades later.

The authors also suggest that Houdini might have been poisoned by "an experimental serum" injected by one of his doctors at Detroit's Grace Hospital.

Houdini took the Spiritualists' death threats seriously, but he traveled without security, often accompanied only by his wife, Bess.

"If someone were hell-bent on poisoning Houdini," the authors wrote, "it wouldn't have been very difficult."

Forensic pathologist Professor James Starrs

The team working on the exhumation includes internationally known forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden and professor James Starrs, a forensic pathologist who has studied the disinterred remains of gunslinger Jesse James and "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo.

Baden, who chaired panels reinvestigating the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., pointed out a pair of oddities in Houdini's death certificate: It noted his appendix was on the left side, rather than the right. And the diagnosis of appendicitis caused by a punch was "very unusual."

Starrs said he was long familiar with the story of Houdini's death, and believed the fatal injury was the result of an accident until he read the Houdini biography.

"My eyebrows went up when I read this book," Starrs said. "I thought, 'This is really startling, surprising and unsettling, and at bottom, suspicious in nature.'"

The exhumation plan received support from a surprising source: Anna Thurlow, the great-granddaughter of "medium" Margery, whose husband Dr. Le Roi Crandon was one of the Spiritualist movement's biggest proponents -- and one of Houdini's enemies.

During a 1924 "seance," Margery channeled a "spirit" named Walter who greeted Houdini with a threat: "I put a curse on you now that will follow you every day for the rest of your short life."

"With people that delusional, you have to question what they're capable of,'" Thurlow said. "If there's any circumstantial evidence that Houdini was poisoned, we have to explore that."

UPDATE: Houdini dig conjures stir.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Houdini The Musical opens in the UK, June 6

The new UK production, Houdini - The Musical, receives its world premiere at The Playhouse in Weston Super Mare, Somerset on June 6, 2007.

Jamie Alan Nicklin, co-writer of Houdini the Musical says: "This production is the realization of a lifetime's ambition for me. Houdini has always been my idol since I was a little boy. In those days, he was top of the bill for all grand illusion tour shows which in my opinion far outshine a lot of the modern shows in terms of style and grandeur that sadly you simply don't see any more. It is this feeling of grandeur from the golden age of variety that we want to recreate in the minds of our audiences who come to see the musical."

Canadian born Sam K. Andrews plays the role of Houdini with Kerry Whiteside as Bess. Part of the show features a recreation of Houdini’s famous Chinese Water Torture Cell escape.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tribute to Houdini...Letterman style


Donny Glen, the “Escape Artist” made an appearance on David Letterman last month to perform the famous Houdini Milk Can escape.

For the uninitiated, Donny Glen is a semi regular performer on the Letterman show whose tricks never quite work out and usually end in a temper tantrum.

Click the YouTube Link to see how it went.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Houdini returns to Russia

One hundred years after Houdini’s one and only tour of Russia, the great magician has returned in the form of Kenneth Silverman’s, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss.

Published in 2004, the Russian translation of this seminal Houdini biography can still be purchased from Ozon.ru (if you speak Russian or can otherwise figure it out).

Nice cover art.

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