The show revived and super-sized all the hokum that surrounded the release of 2006's The Secret Life of Houdini, with the show stars uncovering "evidence" that Houdini worked as a spy and was possibly murdered, maybe even by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! The whole spy malarkey (which I thought had gone away) received a surprising amount of play in the show, with Brad Meltzer doing all he could to prove that Houdini was the 007 of his day. It's sexy, but silly, and especially ridiculous to suggest, as Meltzer does, that Houdini's "spy work" may have "cost him his life".
It's a shame this sensible assessment of Secret Life's controversial theory didn't come from one of the several Houdini experts interviewed, who by and large played into the sensationalist tone of the show, or were at least edited to appear they were doing so. I felt that Lance Burton was particularly sandbagged here.
Curiously cut from the show was an interview with Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum in Scranton, who had provided provocative new information about the dressing room assault. According to Dorothy and Dick, Houdini's lawyer, Bernard Ernst, manipulated the affidavits of eyewitnesses Jack Price and Sam Smiley to make the incident seem more accidental than it really was. This was to ensure Bess received a double indemnity payment from Houdini's life insurance policy. They also say Bess paid Price and Smiley $200 for their efforts (!). You can read their notes here.
Scott Rolle, a former DA and now one of the Decoded "detectives", this was the smoking gun.
During the show's wrap-up (filmed at The Magic Castle), Rolle concluded that Bess must have murdered Houdini. Yes, you heard me right. Bess murdered her husband of 33 years. His "evidence" was the affidavit monkey business ("She paid people to lie about what happened that night") and the fact that Houdini had an affair with Charmain London (he failed to mention that it happened 10 years earlier). The show helped support his theory with the completely fabricated claim that Bess was a "rising star" when Houdini met her, but that he snuffed her career. Said Rolle, "If I was a prosecutor in the case, I would open a case on Bess."
Wow. And this guy was a DA? If this was seriously his conclusion, maybe we need to look back at some of his real cases! But I suspect Rolle was just reciting his script. But, again, where are the ethics in all this, History Channel?
While the Bessie claim was tempered by the other detectives concluding that Houdini wasn't murdered (Buddy Levy, in the end, was given the task of articulating the obvious), I was sad to see all this garbage added to the soup of Houdini mythology that I'm now going to have to deal with, well, forever. As we've all learned, these things don't go away easily (how many people still think Houdini died in the Water Torture Cell because of a movie made in 1953?). Also, I would hope that the Blood family (Bessie's family) would have some legal recourse against this show and The History Channel for claiming their relative was a murderer. But I'm sure in the great tabloid tradition, Brad Meltzer's Decoded is protected from its own tidal-waves of slanderous misinformation.
Houdini collector and expert Arthur Moses (not interviewed), shot me this email after the show, saying, "I thought I was going to be ill after just the first five minutes...but I forced myself to watch it through to the end for the comedic value. Best novelistic agenda I've seen since viewing Disney's 101 Dalmatians. Where did they come up with these ideas??? The only premise held true the entire program was Houdini's own story-telling technique of never let a good story be told by including the facts."
All in all, I thought this was a shameful defamation of Bess Houdini, a sleazy and irresponsible piece of exploitation on the part of Brad Meltzer and The History Channel, and a real embarrassment for Houdini buffs. Brad Meltzer's Decoded slimed us all.