Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Time to rethink the rethinking on the Houdini punch


It was 87 years ago today that Houdini was punched in the stomach by J. Gordon Whitehead in the dressing room of the Princess Theater in Montreal. Those punches marked the start of a chain of events that would culminate in Houdini's death on Halloween eight days later. But did those punches kill him?

After Houdini's death, it was widely reported that the punches (frequently misreported as a single punch) were the cause of his fatal illness -- "traumatic appendicitis." But in the past few decades, historians have questioned this on medical grounds, saying that it's more likely Houdini was suffering from appendicitis before the attack and the punch only worked to cover-up the serious infection developing in his abdomen. This opinion has been stated in many Houdini documentaries (even by yours truly), and even appears on the official McGill University website. In fact, the most recent Houdini biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, goes as far as to say that traumatic appendicitis as a medical condition "has never existed" (page 518).

Eyewitness sketch
But Houdini author and expert Patrick Culliton has pushed back hard against this thinking in recent years. He believes Houdini's appendicitis was caused by Whitehead's blows. Furthermore, he thinks Houdini was not struck unexpectedly. He believes Houdini was prepared for the blows, but because of his broken ankle, he elected to remain lying on his dressing room couch. But with his back against a hard surface, there was no "give" when the punches were struck, which is key to performing a feat of physical prowess such as absorbing blows to the stomach.

Patrick cites the famous footage of Frank "Cannonball" Richards getting hit in the stomach with a cannonball. Having give in the body is essential. Had Richard's been standing with his back against a hard surface, well... Hence the blows from Whitehead were especially damaging to Houdini's internal organs.

But what about the claim that traumatic appendicitis doesn't exist? Why are we asking magicians? Why not ask a real doctor?

Marc Gellman, M.D., a Houdini buff and reader of this blog, has taken up this question for us and sent over a May 28, 2010 report by the RCS Advance Surgical Standard on Trauma Surgery on the "Systematic review of blunt abdominal trauma as a cause of acute appendicitis." Their conclusion; while rare, traumatic appendicitis absolutely exists. In fact, this report seems to confirm many of the conditions of Houdini's fast acting illness.


Click to enlarge.
Although rare, the diagnosis of acute appendicitis must be considered following direct abdominal trauma especially if the patient complained of abdominal right lower quadrant (RLQ) pain, nausea and anorexia. Appendicitis can be reasonably attributed to trauma if the presentation was early after the traumatic event and the patient has not suffered from suggestive symptoms prior to trauma.

It's important to know that Houdini's doctors all signed off on the traumatic appendicitis diagnosis. The push back against the idea came from Houdini's insurance company. If they could establish that Houdini was suffering from the illness before the dressing room incident, they would not have to pay double indemnity for an accidental death. Some newspapers aided in this, reporting that Houdini was ill on his arrival in Montreal and was traveling with a nurse.

But sworn affidavits from all of Houdini's crew refuted the idea that the magician was ill before Montreal. It's true that a nurse was traveling with the show, but she was looking after Bess who was still recovering from a serious bout of food poisoning. The insurance company failed to establish pre-illness and eventually paid out. That should have been the end of the story.

So why have we all now taken up the cause of the insurance company? Why shouldn't we accept the word of Houdini's own assistants and the diagnosis of his own doctors? I believe it's because, at some point, someone suggested the medical improbability (and then impossibility) of traumatic appendicitis and we all took the bait. For some it appeals to a sense of logic; to others a predilection for conspiracy theories.

But thanks to Marc, we now know traumatic appendicitis does exist. So the possibility that Houdini died from Whitehead's blows has to be seriously entertained, especially considering how the punches were delivered (Patrick's theory). In fact, I'd say the burden of proof is all on the opposite side.

Now, whether Whitehead intended to injure Houdini or if the incident was truly accidental is something else that is argued by Houdini buffs, but I'm not opening that can of worms here. One controversy at a time! What I'm offering up here is proof that it is medically possible Houdini's fatal appendicitis could have been caused by the punches he received 87 years ago today.


Thanks to Marc Gellman, M.D. for his help clarifying the medical side of this for us. If you'd like to read the full RCS report, shoot me an email and I will send you the PDF.

UPDATE: Check out this post for a revelation that might shed some new light on Houdini's reluctance to seek medical attention. Read: Did a contract clause kill Houdini?

120 comments:

  1. The bigger or more interesting question for me has been .....how did Whitehead know Houdini prior to the incident? Supposedly he was returning books that he borrowed...when...how? Also the talk that Houdini was accosted earlier that week. Any new clarifications?

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    1. Like I said, one controversy at a time. :)

      This just debunks what has become a wildly cited medical opinion (by non doctors) that traumatic appendicitis doesn't exist. It does.

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    2. As to the earlier punch in the hotel lobby... I'd like to see Don Bell's actual research/notes on this before I completely accept it. I feel like this could have been the confused secondhand recollection of an old timer who was actually talking about the Princess punch. Even Silverman thought this sounded sketchy.

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    3. That punch happened in my grandfather's hotel (Prince of Wales) and I've heard this from him and my father since I was born! It was witnessed by my grandfather's brother, Honoré Larin. Gilles Larin

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    4. Thank you for commenting on this, Gilles. Wow. This is interesting!

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  2. Sid Radner expressed to me his belief that Houdini's survivors (he mentioned Bess and Ernst) linked the appendicitis to the blows occurred specifically to trigger the double indemnity clause.

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    1. Well, that's the point. Maybe we need to rethink that kind of thinking, even when it comes from someone like Sid.

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  3. You also have to wonder about the effect on Houdini's organs of wriggling out of hundreds (thousands?) of tightly laced straightjackets, plus wet sheet escapes, and whatever else. Didn't the doctors say his damaged appendix wasn't even in the correct place?

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    1. Good point.

      The mis-positioned appendix confuses me. The doctors said his appendix where lying across the stomach, but I took this to mean that was because of the rupture. Some have taken this to mean that his appendix was in the wrong place his whole life. It's not clear.

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    2. I remember reading it but can't recall whether in Kalush or Silverman that Houdini's appendix was "a great long affair" and transverse. It is possible too that it might not have been in the usual place due to a congenital condition.

      There is a medical condition where the organs are mirror image or reverse to where they should be. Rare apparently but still possible.

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    3. Yeah, the "great long affair". What the heck does that really mean? Long because it was long? Or long because it had ruptured? Maybe I should have asked Marc!

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    4. Here's what Marc has to say about this:

      "I'm not a surgeon but after more than 20 years of practicing emergency medicine I've seen a fair amount of appendicitis cases. My experience has been that the appendix is extremely variable in length and anatomic position."

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    5. Cool - thanks.

      (Just came back to read the comments and noticed the discussion has been continuing ever since this has been posted. Is this a new comment record for you? =)

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  4. Over the past few years we have had heated discussions with Culiton at The Magic Cafe. He even at one point said he "knew" some of the details that refuted our belief that it was not accident, and that Whitehead was stalking Houdini from day one in Montreal. There is other evidence we have that we have not disclosed that connects Whitehead to various interests in the occult. We contacted the Don Bell (who wrote "The Man Who Killed Houdini") family to see some files and they referred us to Kalush and the Alexander people. We have contacted them several times over the last few years, but even with the referral from the Bell family they have so far ignored us, again and again. Not sure why???

    We also believe Whitehead was closely linked to people who did and attended seances, some of whom reached the highest level of government. Some of the info we need to reaffirm may be buried deep in the Don Bell files that we have been kept away from. None the less we have it from elsewhere than those files.

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    1. Yep, that's the can of worms I was talking about. :)

      Are Bell's notes in the Conjuring Arts Center?

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    2. According to the Don Bell family, yes, and they gave it to them with the understanding it woud be available for research. So far that remains to be seen!!!

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    3. I believe the Bell files are available if you have the highest level of Ask Alexander. I would also think you could read them if you visit the CARC in person.

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  5. Gibson felt the same when we talked with him over the years when he attend our Original Houdini Seances passed down to us from Bess to him to us.

    As I believe did one of his nurses-assistants-helpers. Norman Bigelow has some info or thoughts on this.

    More later as we are very busy this Halloween season, with ribbon cutting by the Mayor for the new front the seance, performing at the theater here where Houdini performed, and the Proclamation of Dorothy Dietrich Day on Nov 1.

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  6. I have read every page of Don Bell's research. Every page that is on Ask Alexander. I have read Mr. Bell's book. I found nothing to indicate that Gordon Whitehead was an occultist. The evidence shows that Houdini and Whitehead had a friendly relationship. The evidence shows that two students "tested" Houdini's stomach muscles with a punch at McGill before Houdini lectured. Whitehead asked if he could test Houdini's stomach muscles in the dressing room at the Princess. Houdini said he could. The students and Houdini went on visiting after the blows were struck.
    Sid Radner owned a lot of Houdini equipment and Houdini's earliest scrapbook, but, he had no firsthand knowledge of the circumstances of Houdini's death. Everyone who consulted with Sid about Houdini was impressed with what he knew, but, could not help but notice there was a lot Sid didn't know. Walter Gibson knew a lot, but, there are hundreds of errors in his various books on Houdini. I said there was something in Don Bell's book which exonerated Whitehead. The grassy knollists (Brookz, Dietrich, and Bigelow) obviously couldn't find it or didn't try.
    "We also believe Whitehead was closely linked to people who did and attended seances, some of whom reached the highest level of government. Some of the info we need to reaffirm may be buried deep in the Don Bell files that we have been kept away from. None the less we have it from elsewhere than those files."
    As I said, I have seen every document in the Don Bell archive. Dick, Dorothy, the "info" you need about Whitehead, seances, people in high places, etc. isn't there anymore than such "info" is in Don Bell's book where it would be if he'd turned it up.
    The main thing that the assassination buffs hang their nonsense on is that Gordon Whitehead was some kind of bad guy. That's why I'm engaging in this goofy debate. Whitehead was not a bad guy and it is clear that Houdini liked him. The affadavits of Sophie Rosenblatt and Dr. Kennedy affirm that.

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    1. Thanks for chiming in Patrick. You see that this post isn't about the maliciousness (or not) of Whitehead, just the medical possibility of the punch causing HH's appendicitis, which you have long said is a possibility. Now we have a report to back that up.

      Do you recall anything in the Bell papers about the hotel lobby punch?

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    2. Patrick: Sophie Rosenblatt later claimed (in an interview) that she was forced by Bess' lawyer into saying the punch was an accident in her affadavit. She didn't believe it herself. Bess wanted double indemnity and she wouldn't recieve it if the punch was not accidentally. I also read Don Bell's book. If I recall correctly, he linked Whitehead to spiritualists as well as to Lady Marler and Lady Allan (both strong believers). In fact, Lady Marler's husband worked for the Prime Minister who was also a strong (although secret) believer in mediums. I'm not syaing that they killed Houdini, but it is suspicious.

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  7. I'm going by memory, but, the story came from Gilles Larin who wasn't there, but, it was an oft told tale from I believe, his grandfather's brother. It almost sounds like an anagram of the dressing room story. Personally, I couldn't see a "there" there. You and I talked about this, John. You said it sounded like the dressing room story after a round of the game "telephone."
    Don Bell met and interviewed Gilles' father Marcel. He told essentially the same story. He said his father's brother, Honore, was the night clerk at the Prince of Wales hotel and that he had witnessed a possibly drunk McGill student punch Houdini's stomach through the newspaper he was reading. He said that he and, I think, three other employees witnessed it. He said that Houdini said, "you should not have done that." and after a few minutes, he staggered into the manager's office.
    My thought is this: at best this is a second or third hand story and the whole punch in the stomach thing was so high profile that it is impossible to think that one of the several supposed witnesses at the Prince of Wales wouldn't have told the press--or the cops. Don Bell got a letter, I think in response to a newspaper story about his (Bell's) research, from a grand-nephew who had heard a family story from his father which was a family story from HIS father, Francis Larin, who heard it from his brother--I think that's why it reminded you of "telephone."
    I believe the grandfather's brother said a bunch of McGill football player types came out of the bar and encountered Houdini in the hotel lobby. How did he know they were McGill students?
    How did this story stay so quiet at the time? Multiple witnesses to an injurious assault. When the circumstances of Houdini's death are told and retold, at the time and since, and this story remains a secret until Don Bell--who says he finds the story--I think he uses the word "questionable"--recounts it in his posthumously published book--which most Houdini authorities I've spoken to haven't read.
    Kalush and Sloman put the story on the map. I expressed doubts about it when I read their final proof.

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    1. Thank you Patrick. Very interesting. Yeah, I share your doubts.

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    2. I also was told this by my grandfather, Francis Larin several times! He died in 1956. So at best it is from Honoré Larin, Francis' brother who actually witnessed the incident and reported it to the owner (Francis)subsequently! BTW, I actually spoke to Sam Smiley in 1986 and he pretty well told me exactly what he told Don Bell (I had not met Don at the time..). So, if this was a "family story" it was a factual one! Gilles Larin

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    3. Thank you for joining to the discussion, Gilles. This incident at the hotel is very intriguing!

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  8. Thank you to Wild About Harry for such excellent work!

    There were 3 McGill students in Houdini's dressing room during the punching incident. Next week, the daughter of one of these men is attending the Official Houdini Seance in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Thank you to everybody who bought tickets. We have a sell out and a growing waiting list.

    It's interesting to note that Houdini toured Nova Scotia and New Brunswick with a man named J. M. Whitehead. Perhaps J. G. Whitehead was related to Houdini's 1896 stage hand. He might have used this connection to gain access to Houdini in Montreal.

    If you look at the 16 second mark of the Official Houdini Seance (Halifax, Nova Scotia) YouTube video, you will see that Whitehead checked into the same Halifax hotel with Harry and Bessie Houdini. J. M. Whitehead's name also appears on the various theatre programmes from the 1896 Canadian tour.

    There are still many Houdini mysteries to be solved!

    Here's our Halifax Seance video link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uW9Vknwm-dc



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    1. The daughter of one of the students is going to be at the seance? Wow! That's wild.

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    2. At the table!

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  9. John Hinson great nephew of. Bess and Harry HoudiniOctober 22, 2013 at 3:17 PM

    Afrer all these years we are still talking on how he died
    its still a mystery.

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  10. Patrick cleared up a small mystery for me. I always wondered why Whitehead showed interest in punching Houdini in the stomach. Culliton wrote that before Houdini lectured at McGill, he allowed students to punch him as a kind of demonstration of his physical prowess. Based on that, I'm guessing that Whitehead probably saw this from a distance, or heard about it and decided to test his luck in the dressing room.

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  11. One of the guys that said Houdini let him punch him in the stomach was a guy named Gerald Pickleman. Dr. Tait, the guy who introduced Houdini at McGill, told all concerned that he accompanied Houdini from the stage to the car and that no one punched him in the stomach. But, before the lecture which was in "the ballroom" Houdini was downstairs from the hall hanging out with members of the banjo and mandolin club of which Gerald Pickleman was president. Don Bell spoke to Gerald's widow who confirmed that Houdini let Gerald punch him in the stomach. There was also a rumor about a flyweight boxer at McGill named Musselman taking Houdini up on a "punch me in the stomach" invitation. Another student remembered seeing Whitehead at the lecture. he said he remembered "that funny loping, walk of his." (Whitehead had been severely injured when he was about 18. He didn't walk for at least a year). All this is in Don Bell's book which I no longer have a copy of.

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    1. Wow, you mean you just pulled all that from memory? That's impressive.

      The Bell book is amazing. I should really give it a re-read.

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    2. I've often heard from my grandfather and father - both attended Houdini's shows - that he invited people to punch him in the stomach during the show!

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  12. I just thought of something. Max Malini and his son Ozzie attended Houdini's last show in Montreal. The punch in the hotel lobby took place according to the Larin family's story of what Honore Larin said he saw, he says that it was after Houdini's last show. Ozzie told me--and I absolutely believe it--that he and his dad were with Houdini before the show. He said Houdini seemed agitated. He was chasing the giant rabbit. Max said, "let the assistants catch him, Harry" and Houdini said, "I'm the only one that can handle him." Ozzie said they hung out with Houdini after the show and went to the train station with him. Houdini told them, "I let a college kid punch me in the stomach and he caught me wrong and it's killing me."
    I see no way that Ozzie would not have been aware of the punch at the Prince of Wales Hotel if it had occurred and he would have told me.

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    1. This is very interesting! Is Ozzie still alive?

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  13. Not wanting to tip our entire hand, and still waiting to see the Don Bell archives in Kalush's hands for confirmation, we will add this.

    There is no clear evidence that we know of that Houdini ever challenged people to punch him in the stomach. Although proud, Houdini was a very smart man, and we do not believe he would have set himself up like that. As far as we could detirmine, the punching in the stomach challenge was a rumour started by Sid Radner. When we confronted Radner on this, he quipped. "Houdini would have loved it, as long as we spelled his name right." According to the most careful Houdini biographer, who won a Pulitzer prize for one of his well researched biographies, Ken Silverman, author of "Houdini!, The Career of Earich Weiss," in all of his research, he never found any evidence of Houdini challenging people to punch him in the stomach.

    We believe the accidental punch story was set up by excellent lawyer and good Houdini family friend, Bernard Ernst to collect insurance money for Bess Houdini, who was the living remaining half of the Houdini family who needed to be taken care of. Bernard Ernst, after one of the insurance companies turned down a request for double indemnity, gathered the pieces of the story together. We believe Whitehead no choice to go along with the accident story as put together by Ernst, when he realized, or was told, that otherwise, he could possibly be charged with murder. After Bess got double the insurance money, she "paid" off the two boys as a thank you for their help in the matter.

    Pat likes to continue to claim we believe Whitehead wanted to murder Houdini. He knows this is not what we believe. However we do believe, on good evidence, that he was following Houdini around (stalking), and know that he was follower of things occult. He also questioned Houdini backstage on his belief in the "miracles of the bible". We believe he was upset with Houdini exposing spiritualists who he thought were real, such as Margery. who herself had threatened Houdini with a good beating onstage. Could be he had heard this and wanted to carry it out, or was self motivated.

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    1. More fill in facts later this evening, Wednesday.
      We have shows all day.
      D&D

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    2. As far as I am concerned, my grandfather had absolutely no interest in "setting up" an accidental punch story! In fact, this was not known until I actually contacted a reporter who wrote a syndicated story on Houdini in 1986 as I had knowledge of this since I was born. When I spoke to Sam Smiley in 1986, he agreed that Houdini could have been punched several times.

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  14. Al Hirschfeld, Houdini's friend and the world's premier chronicler of the theater, has left us some never-before-reported details on the "death punch." We'll add them to this discussion in the Halloween edition of The Houdini File.

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  15. Regarding the original question: Can trauma to the abdomen cause appendicitis? It does seem that most of the Fowler conditions put forth in the report have been met. However, there are obviously some loose ends.

    The report concludes that "Appendicitis can be reasonably attributed to trauma if . . . the patient has not suffered from suggestive symptoms prior to trauma." We can be reasonably sure Houdini at least looked exhausted in the days preceding the punch (Samuel Smilovitz's observation, according to Silverman, p. 407). But was that exhaustion one of the "suggestive symptoms"?

    I don't remember reading anywhere that Houdini suffered from acute abdominal pain before the punch. And even if he did, we would still have to address the criteria relating to demonstrating "true traumatic lesions" and "a superimposed acute inflammation of the appendix" (the Fowler criteria relating to microscopic diagnosis). "Without these genuine lesions, coupled with the necessary inflammatory reaction, the case of primary traumatic appendicitis has not been proven and its occurrence is a coincidence" (Fowler). Are those things something in the detailed medical records relating to Houdini's death?

    In summary, while it does seem possible that the punch caused his appendicitis, we also have to keep in mind that A) cases like that are exceedingly rare, B) the trauma might have only contributed to appendicitis that was already there (and in that case, we'd have to change the terminology to "traumatic appendicopathy," according to Fowler, and C) we don't have all the information and may never know for sure.

    This all assumes that there would be a good reason to question Houdini's doctors. Back then, did they have the same medical standards for proving a relationship between trauma and appendicitis? Could they have been victims of the logical fallacy "post hoc ergo propter hoc" (just because event A preceded event B doesn't mean event B occurred *because* of event A.) as opposed to basing their diagnosis on physical evidence?

    I'm not suggesting we shouldn't trust Houdini's doctors. I'm just saying there are still some unanswered questions, even if those questions are the direct result of the insurance company's investigation.

    I'm not sure on whose shoulders the burden of proof lies, but to prove this thing either way once and for all, it would obviously help to know for sure if Houdini had acute abdominal pain anytime before Oct. 22 and if the medical records include the microscopic evidence Fowler set forth in his test.

    If we cannot determine these things, should we tentatively accept the word of Houdini's doctors until new, disconfirming evidence surfaces? I'm all for evidence-based conclusions and don't feel comfortable assuming Houdini's appendicitis was brought on by the punch simply because Houdini's docs all signed off on that diagnosis. I'd be very interested to hear Dr. Gellman's opinion on this.

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    1. Hi Tom. I've never seen Houdini's medical records so I don't feel qualified to offer an opinion regarding his specific medical evaluation or subsequent treatment. Of course, I'd love the opportunity to see any actual documentation. Are the records available to the public?
      It was after reading Mr. Kalush and Mr. Sloman's book that I wondered about the reality of traumatic appendicitis. A review of the medical literature has convinced me that, although uncommon, traumatic appendicitis is possible. I'm not suggesting it as the definitive cause of Houdini's death. However, it should not be dismissed until further proof exists as to the reason for Houdini's demise.
      Marc Gelman, MD

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    2. Hi Marc. Thanks for your thoughts and professional opinion. Patrick Culliton said he's seen affidavits from doctors who treated Houdini (see his comment below), but I don't know if anyone has copies of the medical records themselves. Although I'm a layman when it comes to medical issues, I understand the importance of scientific evidence and realize that traumatic appendicitis cannot be ruled out in Houdini's case. I'm so glad you looked into the matter because I, like many others, have been misled to believe there is no evidence to support traumatic appendicitis. I made the mistake of assuming certain Houdini biographers already researched this. As you know, Kalush and Sloman refer to traumatic appendicitis as "a condition that has never existed" (p. 518). Did they ignore or inadvertently overlook the evidence because it didn't fully support their own theory of foul play? Even Ken Silverman, an amazing researcher and author, concludes in his book that Smilovitz's description of a tired-looking Houdini in Montreal suggests "Houdini was already feeling symptoms of appendicitis" (p. 411). But we still don't know if he was experiencing abdominal pain before the 22nd. As Leo Hevia points out in his comment below, for all we know, Houdini might have contracted the same foodborne illness Bess had, not to mention he was utterly exhausted and stressed from some pending lawsuits brought on by mediums, according to Silverman. In any event, I hope new evidence turns up sooner than later so we can unlock yet another Houdini mystery. Thanks again.

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  16. If Houdini was showing signs of appendicitis before October 22nd, I wonder if food poisoning may have triggered it. We know that Bess came down with food poisoning right around this timeline. Is it possible Houdini had eaten the same meal that caused her condition?

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  17. I've seen affidavits from five or six doctors that treated Houdini all of whom agreed that, rare as it was, it was a case of "traumatic appendicitis." One mentioned a case of a man being kicked by a mule in the stomach not near the appendix but all the symptoms of appendicitis instantly appear. The compression of the peritoneal cavity causes foreign (usually fecal) material to rupture its way into the appendix. Sometimes it gets out again. But if the waste matter is trapped in the appendix, the appendix will start to form lesions which become gangrenous. The putrefaction causes the appendix to blow up like one of Dennis Forel's balloons. Time is of the essence. They had to get it out before it exploded. But they didn't. He didn't.
    Everybody agreed. The doctors. The nurse. The assistants. Bess. In spite of an exhausting schedule and a broken ankle that was braced and healing. (He told the boys "I cover it when I'm onstage") Houdini was in good shape until the punch. All the symptoms of appendicitis started there. Ernst got the widow double indemnity. Houdini hired him because he was the best lawyer in New York--one of them anyway.
    http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/picture-of-the-appendix
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22558817

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  18. Patrick cites the famous footage of Frank "Cannonball" Richards getting hit in the stomach with a cannonball. What Pat may not know, though I doubt it, or that he would admit not knowing, is that the "cannon" of Frank "Cannonball" Richards was not a real cannon. It was a stage prop. It delivered the cannon ball at a predetermined strength that Richards was able to handle. Probably powered by air pressure or spring.

    Houdini was already sickly when he arrived in Montreal. As we remember one writer who interviewed him when he arrived said he had the look of death on his face. Before he got to Montreal he had complained he had a stomach problem that would not go away.

    There were rumors that he was sick and even threw up that were quickly quashed and that the nurse that was traveling with the staff was not for Bess but for Harry. Of course the Great Houdini would never admit such a thing. (Any one with more details on these please advise or contact us)

    In retrospect the testimony his assistants and staff cannot be counted on. They lived in a sea of publicity exaggeration and magicians lies, As one of them said, "the truth was as the boss saw it." They were all bonded together and would protect and back the boss and Bess at all costs. I believe, even to going along with the story Bernard Ernst put together to help Bess, whose future was on the line.

    Yet more of the many indications that Whitehead was a religious fanatic is his questioning Houdini backstage on Houdini's belief in the Miracles of the Bible. Sorry to offend, but anyone who believes all those tales as fact is clearly one who believes in the occult as being real. Houdini gave a blunt answer and I believe the two boys said Whitehead was taken aback by Houdini's reply. We have more on all this but are still hoping to see the Ask Alexander Don Bell Archives that Bell's family let Kalush have with the understanding they would be available to the world for research. We have inf on people in high office, seances, readings, theft of occult books, a jail sentence later for Whitehead, Dianetics, etc, much of which has not yet come to light.

    In response to Pats comments on Walter B. Gibson. They were not fair. Gibson by trade was a fiction writer. He ghost wrote for people. What does all that tell you. He was in the business of making things up. A lot of it for magicians like Houdini. That is why he was hired to write those books. He was a friend of Radners who agreed with the feeling that Houdini would have loved stories written in Houdini's favor as long as they spelled his name right, which he also expressed to us on many occasions.

    We feel it is sad that Pat attacks the many, many years of work and research of an established reporter and fellow writer on Houdini, Don Bell, and his book "The Man Who Killed Houdini" which is probably one of the best books in recent history with new information about Houdini's life. He talks about details from the book from memory and does has not had a copy of it for years in his collection. The book is out of print, but we will gladly send him a copy of it as a gift, if he requests it.

    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich
    The Houdini Museum
    "The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini!"

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    1. See, can of worms...

      To be fair to Pat on the Frank "Cannonball" Richards, that was just something he mentioned to me in private conversation and I used it here because I did think it was a good example of the "trick" of taking blows to the stomach. Pretty obvious that can't be a real cannon fired at full force. But it's also obvious that he's taking a real blow to the stomach.

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    2. I have to agree with Dorothy: Bell's book presents the most exhaustive research and I had the privilege of working with him for Chapter 4 of his book. Gilles Larin

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  19. Yes, we were talking about the way his body was knocked back to "take" the "cannonball."
    I also mentioned seeing film of Joe Frazier's medicine ball training.
    Here is my honest opinion: compared to Brookz and Dietrich, Gordon Whitehead seems amazingly sane. And not a bad guy.

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  20. And I will add that I have read Don Bell's book and have a genuine appreciation for it. I have praised Don Bell and his book many times in print. I have said that everything we know about J. Gordon Whitehead we owe to the late Don Bell. I am working from memory when I discuss the "the Man Who Killed Houdini." That's true.
    But, I know the material in that book better than Brookz and Dietrich do, and they have multiple copies.
    Their offer to give me a copy is declined.
    I recommend the Bell book to anybody who is interested in the circumstances surrounding Houdini's death. Bear in mind, Don Bell died before he finished the book, so, it's more like a first draft, but, it's a good read and filled with material everyone else missed.
    Read it carefully and you will see that it actually exonerates Whitehead. You won't find any evidence that Whitehead was a spiritualist or a cultist or that he bragged about killing Houdini. He wasn't aware he had hurt Houdini. Houdini had covered it. Price saw he was affected by the punches, Smilovitch and Whitehead did not. And Houdini was saying, "Come on. Hit me!" as if the punches weren't bothering him.
    Don Bell turned all this up.
    The double indemnity story deserves a book of its own. Could double indemnity apply if Houdini invited the blows? Yes, if the blow(s) occurred unexpectedly. Whitehead gave one affidavit. Smilovitch and Price gave two affidavits apiece, and the second affidavits eliminate some disparate observations the boys made in their first statements. The point is that they establish in the second affidavits that Houdini wasn't expecting Whitehead to punch him when he did.
    But, Jack Price told Don Bell something different. He said Houdini told Whitehead he could "test" his stomach muscles, then, "set himself" to take the punch--as he reclined on the couch. That was his first mistake. His second was assuming the pain was muscular. He didn't see a doctor. He continued performing the show. And then, on the train to Detroit, the appendix burst. Case closed.
    Price and Smilovitch were each given a generous gift of cash for their help by Mrs. Houdini.

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  21. When I spoke to Sam Smiley in 1986, he mentioned that "Whitehead came into the room apparently returning some books he had borrowed from Houdini and asked him if he could try him out". Gilles Larin

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    1. Thank you. That's interesting. It really does sound like HH made this claim at the lecture and word had spread among the students.

      Delete
  22. Suggestion to Mr. Culliton.

    Read the book again, with an open mind. Above comments on Don Bell do not Jive with some comments you made on The Magic Cafe about him and his book.

    Everyone should read this book. Our offer to send a copy of this out of print book to Mr. Cullition stands. Memories can fade and important facts can go unnoticed on first readings.

    We are booked solid the next four weeks. Shows, TV interviews, our radio shows, bookings, etc.

    We will in the future piece together more details. Possibly Jon Cox will do a page on it when we get more of it together. We are busy as well with our Original Houdini Seance Halloween, Ribbon Cutting for the new marquee by several Mayors and celebrities here, Dorothy performing at the same theater Houdini performed here in 1917 next week, when the Mayor of Scranton proclaims it Dorothy Dietrich Day because of the tens of thousands of people she brings here and the publicity she brings the city via her many television appearances, the bust restoration, role model for "Now You See Me", etc.

    We are also putting together information through November trying to get care for the Houdini grave abandoned by the Society of American Magicians. Meeting with the cemetery, etc.

    If any readers here are members of the SAM, write them with your concern about the care of the Houdini grave site. I have to believe they do pay attention to members concerns. I believe they used to take care of the site since Houdini brought them the greatest movement in the history of magic when he expanded the single NYC club to where it now has 300 clubs world wide and 5,000 to 6,000 dues paying members that generates a half a million dollars in dues yearly. They have millions in their various bank accounts, many thanks to Houdini.

    Please reread our several posts above for the logical progression of facts leading to Houdini's death. Critical thinking on the issue can only bring one to the same conclusion we have. Plus other facts to be revealed about people in the very highest levels of government connected to Whitehead that includes seances, readings, cover ups, jail time, Dianetics, etc.

    Thanks for now...
    Thanks to John Cox for helping bring this misunderstood area about J. Gordon Whitehead to the fore.
    More in the future...
    To be continued...

    OPEN UP THE DON BELL FILES AS THE FAMILY WISHED!
    TAKE CARE OF THE HOUDINI GRAVE SITE!

    D&D

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  23. I don't really know where these are. When the book was posthumously launched (we were at the launch (see www.interclik.com/houdini ) I got the impresion that the files were somewhere between Sutton, Paris and Montreal, places where Don lived depending on the time of year. Gilles Larin

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    1. Thank you for that link. Great photos and a fitting tribute to Don Bell. His book is amazing.

      Delete
  24. Brookz and Dietrich: I never said anything anywhere against Don Bell. Where did that latest delusion come from?
    I will say that he doesn't make his case in the book--he ran out of time. So, it's good that others are carrying on his work. Even if they're nuts.
    On the other hand, I am very excited to see posts from Gilles Lurin. In trying to assemble a history, family stories are important. Classicly, every eyewitness sees an event a bit differently. I absolutely believe Gilles who heard his grandfather (Francis?) tell the story more than once and that the story was consistent. furthermore, Honore reported it to Francis within hours, according to the family story. A couple of bellboys and another manager also witnessed it.
    And that's the story. I can't help but have questions. Day and time? There is a problem there. The other witnesses--and stories they might have told about the incident? I'll bet Don Bell tried to find them. The dressing room punch was described at length, at the time, by all the witnesses. Price and Smilovitch both talked to Don Bell. Still, Whitehead's name was kept secret until Smilovitch (who had a prejudice against Whitehead and told Don Bell so) gave an interview with some publication (ca) 1953.
    The Gerald Pickleman punch was a family story. Don Bell heard about from, I think, another McGill student and confirmed with Pickleman's widow who told the story as she had heard her husband tell it many times.
    I'm seventy. Forty five years ago, I served in Vietnam. There is a fog of war, but for many years I remembered every second of my months there. I was afraid I always would. But, there is also a fog of time. As a Houdini researcher, I spoke to hundreds of people who had known Houdini--or seen him or worked with him. I photographically remembered everything they said. Now, I'm losing some of the details--not to mention that there were questions I never thought to ask.
    Ancestry.com has a page on family stories. This does not seem to apply to Gilles' story, but, they say that just because the dad's story and the aunt's and the grandfather's stories don't quite match, you don't dismiss the story.
    I believe Gilles Lurin, but, I can't corroborate the story. An old news clipping, a police report, a description from someone else who was there. The other night clerk, the bellboys--they witnessed it. WHAT DID THEY DO ABOUT IT? On the night in question, Houdini was never alone. There would have been other eyewitnesses. The other (drunk?) McGill students, the people who were with Houdini.
    The other witnesses did confirm what they'd seen to Francis Lurin--apparently. Was that all they did?
    I'll tell you, the Prince of Wales punch probably didn't happen the night the show moved. I knew a man who was with Houdini that night.
    One unrelated thing, Houdini and a magician friend of his, Canada Jack Walsh, were throwing snowballs at each other a day or so before the punch. I only heard that from Canada Jack and Joe Berg, who had also heard it from Canada Jack. I can never prove it, but, it does speak to Houdini's health before the punch--bending over, making snowballs, pitching them at a friend.
    One more thing, I would like to ask every one in the world who has had an appendicitis: Before you were treated (before the doctors saved your life), did you feel like letting someone punch you in the stomach?

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  25. Boy does this topic bring out the comments!

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  26. As stated above we will revisit all this at a later date, due to time constraints, as this keeps going in circles along with childish insults, rather than discussion
    .
    Looked for comments by Mr. Culliton on Bell's book and found this which I disagree with. Other than that I may have remembered wrongly that he was very negative about Bell's book.

    Pat had said about the book...
    It's fiction--just as most of Don Bell's book is just wondering "what if?"

    Most all of Bell's book is not fiction but well researched new information.

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  27. My reply to Patrick Culliton's latest post.

    I opened this page strictly by chance as I was doing some update research on Houdini for a social event last night (October 26 2013) , where we spoke about Houdini and my hosts actually showed me an original Princess Theatre program featuring Houdini! Most interesting as I had not done any ''looking'' since the launching of Don Bell's book ''The Man who Killed Houdini'' on October 30 2004. (see www.interclik.com/houdini ).

    You mention a lot about family history and accuracy and then mention ''fog'' about remembering yet you also challenge my date on the Prince of Wales punch, stating you knew someone who was with Houdini that particular night: (''I'll tell you, the Prince of Wales punch probably didn't happen the night the show moved. I knew a man who was with Houdini that night.'')! What makes you sure that your information is right and mine is wrong?? I'm about the same vintage as and both us were not there!

    Just to elaborate on the punch: The Pig 'N Whistle Tavern, part of the Prince of Wales Hotel, was located in the back of the hotel lobby and closed at 11:00 p.m. As the Tavern was located on McGill College Ave – near McGill University – most of its patrons were McGill students. When the bar closed, some exited through the lobby and one of the students recognized Houdini who was sitting reading a newspaper. The student then punched Houdini in the stomach without any warning. Houdini, after receiving the blow, said: ''You should not have done that'' and the matter was closed. Honoré Larin (not Lurin.., who died in White Plains NY in 1932) was the night manager and witnessed the whole incident along with others (as they're mentioned in chapter 4 of Don Bell's book) and the next morning reported it to the owner, my grandfather Francis Larin.

    I've heard this both from my grandfather (who died in 1956) and from my father Marcel over the course of my life and that is what led me to contact the syndicated journalist in 1986. This was 4 years before I met Don Bell. I actually tracked down and spoke at length (over one hour) with Samuel Smilovitch, who told me exactly what he told Bell (and Bell also located Jacques Price, the other witness.)

    When I met Don bell in 1990, we became friends and over a few years I was very interested in his progress, bit by slow bit. I remember his anxiously waiting for a response from NY Life and when he received it, the thoughts were that Bess had done a little ''arranging'' to receive the double indemnity from the life insurance policy.

    In my mind, no one did more extensive research then Don Bell and I consider myself fortunate to have met Don and been able to contribute to his book.

    Gilles Larin

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    1. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you Gilles. My own "fog" on the Prince of Wales incident is starting to lift. There really does appear to be solid eyewitness accounts.

      Delete
    2. John, My father Marcel (B 1912; D. 1993) was about and saw most of the shows when Houdini was at the Princess Theatre, just around the block from the Prince of Wales (he and my grandfather were friends..) and he repeated this event to me since I can remember. I also asked my grandfather and he repeated it as well, mentioning the witnesses that my father named when interviewed by Don Bell! I also had the distinct privilege of speaking to Sam Smiley - which I do not believe Robert Culliton did - way before I met Don Bell and he was certain that Houdini was a "target" for the occasional bully who wanted to "test" him, as seems to have been case at the Prince of Wales (and it was most likely not Whitehead..). I've taken a very deep interest in this since 1986 and have done a lot of research, especially on my grandfather whom I hardly got to know.

      Harry must be having a field day watching all of this....

      Very interesting and fascinating!

      Gilles Larin

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  28. Gilles.....very fascinating. To hear accounts like this is so rare! So can you please summarize based on your knowledge what happened to Houdini from the sucker punch at the hotel to the dressing room incident? How did Whitehead know of Houdini prior to the punches in Houdini's dressing room?

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    1. I really don't know much as Don Bell did all the research. As I mentioned, for the Larin family, this was a unique incident and no other action was involved to my knowledge. Smiley told me that Whitehead was a Divinity student at McGill (although there seems not to be any record of this) and I believe Bell found the same information. Houdini gave some conferences at McGill and the students were aware of his presence as well as his dislike for charlatans. Other than that, my knowledge of Whitehead is from Bell's research. I stood on his grave some years ago and, unfortunately, the keepers at Hawthorn-Dale Cemetery had little knowledge of who was in that plot.

      Gilles Larin

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  29. Dear Gilles,
    The gentlemen who were with Houdini the night the show moved from Montreal to Detroit were Max Malini and his son Ozzie. I knew Ozzie. I am not going to say which one of you is accurate. Ozzie's gone.
    I sold my books, so I am going from memory. I remember your father telling Don Bell that your grandfather was friendly with Houdini and that (Marcel) and, I think, his brother were allowed to see the show and go backstage and even under the stage. I hope that I'm right, but, that's what I remember.

    Earlier on this thread, my antagonists, Brookz and Dietrich, wrote:
    "There is no clear evidence that we know of that Houdini ever challenged people to punch him in the stomach. Although proud, Houdini was a very smart man, and we do not believe he would have set himself up like that. As far as we could detirmine, the punching in the stomach challenge was a rumour started by Sid Radner. When we confronted Radner on this, he quipped. "Houdini would have loved it, as long as we spelled his name right." According to the most careful Houdini biographer, who won a Pulitzer prize for one of his well researched biographies, Ken Silverman, author of "Houdini!, The Career of Earich Weiss," in all of his research, he never found any evidence of Houdini challenging people to punch him in the stomach."

    Actually Brookz and Dietrich didn't finish what Dr. Silverman said. Silverman said he could find no examples of Houdini challenging people to punch him in the stomach--BUT THEN ADDED "BUT IT SOUNDS LIKE SOMETHING HE WOULD DO."
    But, Gilles (I'm going to call you Gilles even though you called me Robert), you posted this:
    "Gilles Larin October 25, 2013 at 4:25 A.M.
    "I've often heard from my grandfather and father - both attended Houdini's shows - that he invited people to punch him in the stomach during the show! "
    Gilles, there is no record anywhere, ANYWHERE, that Houdini ever, ever invited people to punch him in the stomach during any of his performances during his entire career.
    I am not impugning your family story. I am sure it is based on something. But, there is also something wrong about it.
    And, again, Houdini never invited a spectator to punch him in the stomach during a performance. Don't take my word, go with Silverman.
    Bruce McNab might be able to unravel it all.
    I want to tell you about Sam Smilovitch. He didn't like Whitehead at their meeting in the dressing room. He told Don Bell (I may be paraphrasing slightly) "I didn't have much respect for a 31 year old freshman at McGill"--a statement that shows real prejudice. He didn't know what Don Bell was to learn: That the summer before he was to enter McGill (at the age of 18) Whitehead suffered devastating injuries which prevented his walking or talking for a year. That's why he was a "31 year old freshman."
    Smilovitch was a lawyer. Smilovitch changed his story in the second affidavit he gave, and then changed it some more over the years--in small ways. His observations differed from Price's in the first affidavits, but, their statements were a near match in the second affidavits.
    Price, on the other hand, seems unprejudiced and honest.
    As do you, Gilles.
    Patrick Culliton

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  30. To John Cox,
    This is not a single thread. It's about five threads, each of them very interesting. Each deserving a separate thread.
    Particularly, put up a preview of the Nova Scotia seance.
    I hope everyone who reads this post has bought Bruce McNab's book on Houdini's Nova Scotia tour. Bruce sent me some T-shirts that had the tour schedule on the back. I wore the shirt to various magic functions and I would turn around and say, "There is more information on Houdini's Nova Scotia tour on this shirt than in all the previous Houdini books combined."
    I hate Houdini seances, but, I wish I could attend this one.

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    1. This certainly has sprouted into many topics, all very interesting.

      I already posted everything I know about the seance HERE.

      Delete
    2. Patrick, Sorry about calling you Robert. The only certain thing here is that in another world, Houdini must be having a field day! When I contacted Smiley, he was starting to get ill and was at home but still maintained his law practice at 1717 Ste. Catherine West but his assistant confided that he was seldom there. Although he didn't tell me he disliked Whitehead, that certainly seemed to be the fact as Don Bell found out. As for Houdini and my grandfather being friends, they were both Masons (I discovered this about my grandfather during my research in 1986) and ironically, after Francis Larin sold the Prince of Wales Hotel i 1929, he bought the Potton Sulfur Springs Hotel from a Mason..
      (you can see this on the web page I made on October 30 2004 at www.interclik.com/houdini ).

      As far as there being no evidence whatsoever of Houdini ''daring'' people to punch him, I've never seen any other mention of it except what was told me. But why did these bullies punch him?

      I guess we'll never know the answer! Thanks for all your thoughts and information!

      Gilles Larin

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  31. Ive been a Houdini fanatic since the early 70s. I have never read anything ever concerning Houdini challenging people to punch him. So how would college kids know enough about Houdini to do so? Understand Houdini was from a different generation than anyone involved including Whitehead. Could it be that Houdini was physically attacked by Whitehead and then witnesses were asked and then paid off after giving a different account of what occurred so Bess could get a double insurance payout? Im the last one to believe in conspiracies but something appears amiss here. Whats the concensus of opinion?

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    1. As you can see from the comments above, there really isn't a consensus opinion on this. I opt to not believe in conspiracies until I see some real evidence.

      Delete
  32. I have had two friends who were "punch me in the stomach" guys. Bill Larson was a neighborhood pal and he would tell people to punch him in the stomach. This was when he was an athlete at Hollywood High. The other (I'm naming names) was Rick Harper, who invited people to punch him in the stomach all his life. He'd been a roadie/bodyguard and was built heavy.
    I told them, "haven't you heard about Houdini?"
    Now, would Houdini, at 52, let college kids punch him in the stomach? This is Patrick Culliton speaking. Yes. You bet he would. I think this because Houdini had been a talented tough amateur boxer. He had the flu and couldn't compete in the trials for the American boxing team in the first modern Olympics. A boy he had beaten went instead. Later, he owned (sponsored) a boxer. I don't know the guy's name.
    "Oudini" whose real name was (as I recall) was Frank Rowen had been a boxer. How he was able to put out a pamphlet in which he blueprinted several of Houdini's escapes--correctly--is a mystery.
    Several of the old-timers said, "he was one of those 'punch me in the stomach' guys. I think he let he allowed Gerald Pickleman to punch him at McGill. Probably Musselman as well. He allowed Whitehead to punch him in the dressing room.
    He knew all the boxing champions. His stomach, when set, was "hard as a rock."

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  33. A boxer and a big time Mason.
    He belonged to the St Cecile Lodge, which was, I think, all or mostly Jewish Masons. He joined in 1923. He said, " I realize I've been a Mason all my life."
    He rose very high in Masonry very fast. He created an initiation ceremony for the Society of American Magicians (of which he was president) based on the Masonic ceremony.
    Houdini was sitting on a chair in the Prince of Wales lobby.
    Houdini was reclining on a couch in his dressing room.
    As he was sitting in the lobby he was reading a newspaper.
    As he was reclining on the couch in his dressing room he was reading his mail (he explained to visitors he could, we now say, multitask).
    Some McGill students entered the lobby.
    Some McGill students were visiting Houdini in his dressing room.
    One of the students struck Houdini in the stomach--more than once.
    One of the students struck Houdini in the stomach through the newspaper.
    What if both events happened, but, the Prince of Wales didn't involve an injury.
    Let's say Houdini was already injured. It's bad, the appendix is hours from bursting. Which is the fact!
    Let's say that some members of the Houdini troupe are having a final drink before they return to the land of prohibition in the hotel bar, and he is waiting in the lobby.
    Let's imagine that someone from the bar, for whatever reason, punches the paper--but not Houdini--a prank.
    A prank which didn't injure Houdini, but, which didn't amuse him.
    That might explain why Honore Larin didn't do more--like throw the guy out or call the cops.
    But, the four (actually more) witnesses Francis Larin actually knew probably told him Houdini was hurt.
    But then, why didn't one of the eyewitnesses DO SOMETHING?
    He sure was hurt. But, two days (three performances) before.
    Perhaps he told the clerks and bellboys to ignore it.
    For it to happen was not a good thing for the Prince of Wales hotel.
    Celebrity guests didn't come to the Prince of Wales to get punched in the stomach.
    I have been reading a paper when some schmuck sneaked up and grabbed it or punched it. On the school bus.
    Then we come to come to the people (Hirschfeld might be one) who say, "Houdini did an act where he invited anyone to come up on stage and punch him in the stomach."
    It might have been someone who saw or heard about the "punch me in the stomach" incident(s) at McGill.
    If there was any record of that Silverman, Kalush, or I would have seen something that corroborates it. Not so far.
    Hirschfeld was getting punchy when he did the American Experience. The old guys tell the damndest stories.
    On the other hand, when my brother was being directed by a 107 year old George Abbott, Abbott was sharp as a tack and mentioned Houdini.

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  34. All is possible...
    Gilles Larin

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  35. In answer to the very first comment on this thread.

    AnonymousOctober 22, 2013 at 10:26 AM

    "The bigger or more interesting question for me has been .....how did Whitehead know Houdini prior to the incident? "

    As far as we know it could have been five times or more.
    He sought out Houdini at Houdini's secret hotel where Houdini stayed and believe he was turned away.
    At some point he borrowed a book from Houdini.
    For sure he saw Houdini's show at the Princess Theater. How many times?
    He probably saw Houdini's talk at McGill.
    He met Houdini backstage where the punches occurred
    He met Houdini at the theater after the punches.

    He probably saw Houdini up close more than most any individual from Montreal.

    Additionally he showed some bravado in describing the punches after the punches.

    He may of been the one who wrote Conan Doyle in England telling of Houdini's comments onstage. This is conjecture.

    These are just a few of the many, many reasons it is clear to us he was following Houdini around, and stalking Houdini wishing Houdini harm. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

    RELEASE THE DON BELL ARCHIVES

    TAKE CARE OF HOUDINI'S GRAVE SITE, HE WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE GREATEST MOVEMENT IN MAGIC HISTORY, THE SAM NATIONAL!

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  36. I constantly hear about Whiteheads comments ...a signed affidavit ......etc after Houdinis death concerning the dressing room punches Can someone post this info or if not can someone post from memory as best they can Whiteheads comments?

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  37. Get the book, "The Man Who Killed Houdini" and it will answer all your questions and MORE!

    Or contact Conjuringarts.org and ask them to release the Don Bell archives to all for research as the Don Bell Family wished when they gave it all to them!

    ASK THE SAM TO CARE FOR HOUDINI'S GRAVE. HE MADE THE SAM WHAT IT IS TODAY!

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  38. Whitehead and Houdini formed a friendship in Montreal. Houdini loaned him some books. I think he also gave Whitehead a Scientific American magazine with an article he wanted him to read. I think Houdini liked Whitehead. He undoubtedly recognized that Whitehead suffered some impairment. He probably learned about the injuries Whitehead had suffered at the age of 18 and the young man's long road back.
    The first thing Houdini asked Dr. Kennedy when he came out of the anesthesia was, "Do you think the blow caused it?" Kennedy answered, "absolutely." Houdini said, "Oh that poor kid. He didn't know what he was doing." It wasn't Whitehead's fault. It was Houdini's fault. If he had been standing, the punch wouldn't have hurt him. As Price tells us "Houdini seemed to set himself." On the couch. It was an accident.
    The guys who punched Houdini in the stomach were not bullies. They were responding to a 52 year old superman show-off. Watch all the footage you can find of the upside down straight jacket you can find. Watch him as he wriggles and twists and bends up and back. Nobody else did it as well. Now, imagine what his stomach muscles were like.
    Houdini had been a talented amateur boxer. He was a lifelong devotee of the sport. As Silverman said (paraphrase), "I couldn't find other instances where Houdini invited people to punch him in the stomach BUT IT SOUNDS LIKE SOMETHING HE'D DO.
    Was Houdini the type of guy who would try to impress college men with his fitness. YES. YES. YES.
    Whitehead did not show any "bravado" about punching Houdini. When he talked to the New York Life investigator about the punches (and Price and Smilovitch disagreed in their first affidavits--Price said Whitehead struck Houdini twice. Smilovitch said he hit him at least four times) Whitehead was completely candid. He didn't brag about it. He had no idea at that time that he had injured Houdini. After all, after the first, probably fatal, blow, Houdini was saying: "Come on! HIT ME!" like Ali to Foreman. Houdini masked that he was hurt the same as he covered the ankle injury onstage and never missed a show--including finishing the show during which his ankle was broken.

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    1. Patrick, your last response makes a lot of sense and I tend to agree with it. As I write this, In Montreal on October 29, I can tell you that this Halloween will be a special one largely because I accidentally arrived on this page! Many thanks to all for your views and comments. Gilles Larin

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  39. Just amazing. Patrick where did you get the detsils of what occured in houdinis dressing room? The go ahead and hit me comment kind of blows me away. Never pictured it going down like that.

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  40. Although we respect Mr Culliton very much, he is not the expert in this matter and puts things in quotes from memory that are not quite accurate.

    Don Bell is the final word on this and one must read the book. He walked the walk all over parts of Canada to get the facts and talk to the people who were there.

    For Pat to use a statement such as "it sounds like something Houdini would do" as his proof that Houdini did something is silly.

    Go here for 4 pages on this http://houdini.org/houdinimurdered.html

    Houdini said to Whitehead... "Why...Hit me"

    Houdini's first words in coming out of the anesthesia according to his nurse/attendant Sophie Rosenblatt, and not to any doctor, were, "Don't let them blame that poor kid, he didn't know." This could be taken to mean by Houdini that Whhitehead did not know of Houdini's stomach ailment.

    His quote of what Houdini said when he came out is paraphrased by Mr. Culliton but has quotes around it. This is often the case.

    We have been though all this before and it goes in circles with comments from him such as "I think" , "as I remember", "from memory", "I may be paraphrasing" etc., etc., etc. Read Don Bell's fantastic book, "The Man Who Killed Houdini" and decide for yourself who Whitehead was.

    Write conjuringarts.org and ask them to release the Don Bell Archives for research as the family had expected.

    IF YOU BELONG TO THE SAM ASK THEM TO CARE FOR THE GRAVE OF THE MAN WHO MADE THEM WHAT THEY ARE TODAY.
    D&D

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  41. Don Bell includes the Whitehead affidavit which I believe he obtained from the New York Life Insurance Co.
    However, instead of presenting the affidavit as he received it, Bell interpolates some philosophy and theories of his own--paragraphs and paragraphs of them--in between every sentence or so.
    I could be wrong, but, I think the Bell archives are open to those with the highest level of membership in conjuringarts.org.
    Don Bell's book is not a "fantastic" book. It's an important book. There are five pages of speculation to one page of pure gold.
    A lot of Bell's difficult, frustrating, search for the truth is told with humor, particularly Mr. Bell's terror at the prospect of meeting some real Scientologists who had known Gordon Whitehead, only to find a couple of sweet, harmless, old people.
    The whole story is in the file kept by New York Life. There was a lot of push and pull between the insurance company's lawyers and Ernst, Fox and Cane. The job of Houdini's lawyers was to make a case for double indemnity and make it stick--which they did. Finally, New York Life paid double indemnity--and got a million dollars worth of free advertising doing it.
    Any of us would want our attorney to do as much for our widow.

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    1. I'm wondering if anyone has attempted to contact either of Don Bell's children with respect to this?
      Gilles Larin

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  42. Just wanted to add this for what it is worth.

    Saturday, March 24, 2007
    Washington Post
    By David Segal
    in an article called Why Not Just Hold a Seance?
    Quotes... "Kenneth Silverman, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of Houdini!!!: The Career of Erich Weiss"... "the business about him being punched by a number of people sounds to me like utter baloney."

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    1. Yeah, but Bell's book came out long after Silverman's book and Ken probably never had a look at Bell's notes. It is "unbelievable" that this could go missed this long. But there is the language barrier. I imagine Bell was able to mine info that other biographers missed because he understood French?

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  43. How would college students know enough about Houdini for several of them...Canadians....to go around punching him in the stomach? The only media back then were newspapers predominantly and non mention Houdini challenging people to hit him. The whole thing just does not sound logical at all. Houdini was a major star...how did these college kids from Canada gain access to Houdini? Why would several of these students know Houdini liked challenging people to hit him in the stomach?

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    1. I believe the thinking is that Houdini boasted about this during the lecture he gave at McGill and after the lecture at least one student "tried him out." Word spread.

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  44. If this was so well known that 20 year old college students from Canada knew about it why did the general public in the US not know about it? Was Houdini punched in the stomach all the time in the US also? You would think 20 year old college students from Canada would not care or know anything about a 52 year old Houdini...a entertainer from a bygone generation. Of course he was famous but college kids like today generally ignore older generation entertainers and find there own generally from their own generatoon. Does my daughter show any interest or knowledge in Copperfield...no...is she aware of Blaine and the "mind freak"...yes.

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    1. Houdini was giving a lecture at McGill on Spiritualism and his investigations of Spiritualist trickery. That was very contemporary and very cutting edge and certainly of interest to college kids. It was a hot topic of the day.

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  45. Yes. How were they in any way knowledgable concerning Houdinis claim to be able to take blows to the body? Houdini and spiritulism were known but nothing was written in usa newspapers concerning the ability to take body blows let alone canadian newspapers. So how would any of them know anything of it?

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    1. Did you see my answer above? The thinking is that Houdini boasted about this during the lecture at McGill. Maybe this was the first time. After the lecture at least one student "tried him out." Then word spread among the students.

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  46. Yes. Ok I see. In many ways he created his own denise.

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  47. If a lecturer at a college is interesting, young college students will attend in droves, even if the speaker is an old person. Years ago, Eli Wiesel spoke at my college and the tickets sold out like wildfire before I could purchase one.

    According to the Silverman bio, on page 407: During his October 19 lecture at McGill University, Houdini illustrated that one could control fear by pushing a needle through his cheek. No doubt he must have spoken about the capabilities of the human body. He may have even mentioned the Shelton Pool Miracle to illustrate endurance. Is there a transcript of this lecture?

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  48. "How well I remember that illuminating lecture. The great Houdini took us into his confidence. In a vivid conversational manner he first impressed upon his auditors that though he was President of the “Magicians” organization of America, no such elusive supernatural quality as one associates with the term “magic” ever entered into any of his apparently wondrous feats; all his performances were “stunts” and “tricks” depending upon iron nerve, highly developed dexterity, perfect coordination of eye, brain, and muscle of the performer, and upon optical illusion. He decried any attempt to attribute supernatural powers to himself; he was a clever sleight-of-hand performer and stuntman, and he was ready to admitted. What most people lacked he said was the ability to SEE; if only people would educate their eyes (and their brains), they would readily see through practically every one of his seeming “miracles.” He went on graphically to describe a number of his “stunts” and “tricks,” but would not reveal how they were done... He explained also, how the imagination magnifies, if it does not actually “cause,” much of our pain; that many of his feats were accomplished through an almost total absence of fear. By way of illustration he stuck a needle (after taking septic precautions) through his cheek, just as one would stick a pin through some cloth; no blood oozed forth, there was not the slightest manifestation of pain or discomfort...
    "Houdini waxed warm on the whole purpose of his address. Mercilessly he flayed spiritualists mediums and other fakers; he lashed at their nefarious practices with all the zeal and fury of a crusader. These spiritualists and mediums were racketeers of the worst kind. Arrogating to themselves supernatural powers and an ability to communicate with departed spirits by means of “hocus-pocus,” they were mulcting people of fortunes by playing upon their tenderest and most reverential feelings. They were fakes; and all they professed to do and all powers they claimed to possess were simply humbug. He made one reserve; he was not attacking, he pointed out, those who clung to the spiritualist religion, quite different from the “racketeers” who extort money from poor and troubled people who seek aid from the spiritualists and mediums. This “industry” of imposing upon the ignorant and the credulous had reached almost gigantic proportions; its business activities were flourishing and the profits derived reached annually into millions. He, Houdini, was prepared to back every statement he made. He was at all times ready to expose any medium or spiritualist, to reveal what really constitutes a “séance.” He had in fact been a medium himself, and was well acquainted with all the tricks. In the past he had exposed several “séances,” on every occasion that presented itself. He recounted, in particular, that he was privileged to expose a well-known medium at an “séance” attended by the late Sir Conan Doyle; and that, though the famous author admitted the exposure he still clung to his belief in spiritualism... So strongly did Houdini feel on the subject that he had no hesitation in pledging himself to devote most of his energy and direct much of his effort to the debunking of the spiritualist racket and in combating the very powerful organization that had been built up on gullibility and ignorance.
    "The spiritualists and mediums, the world over, were well aware of his efforts and intentions, Houdini said; they hated him with a deadly hatred. And, as if a cruel fate had put the words in his mouth, he closed his address with the ominous exclamation, 'if I were to die tomorrow, the Spiritualists would declare an international holiday!'”

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  49. Note;
    No mention in this description of his appearance of doing or taking about any "punches to the stomach stunt." No clear or clean record of this ever happening.
    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich
    Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini.
    First formed in the 1970's as New York's Original
    Houdini Museum on the top floor of The Magic Towne House

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    1. Have another look at the Bell book. I'm giving it a re-read myself and the Pickleman punch at the lecture is pretty convincing documented. Not only did Bell talk to Pickleman's widow, but he found a student who corroborated the entire thing and even independently identified Pickleman. I'm convinced it happened. Going to do a post about it soon.

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  50. A couple of statements by Julia Sauer and Sophie Rosenblatt give some weight to the fact that Houdini allowed people to punch him in the stomach. Whitehead said Houdini let him feel his stomach muscles and they "felt like a washboard" and felt solid "like a sandbag."
    Julia Sauer (1927) : "He said that three students of the University had called on him in his dressing room and he had made the remark that his physical condition was such that blows did not bother him and that he would permit himself to be struck to prove what he said was true."
    Sophie Rosenblatt (1927): "On Friday, October 22, 1926, I was at the Princess Theater, Montréal. During the afternoon Houdini was in his dressing room and two or three students of McGill University were with him. When they left shortly after 5 o’clock Houdini told me that one of the students had given him two vicious short arm blows in the neighborhood of the center of his stomach. He stated that it was the first time in his life the blows really hurt him and he twinged."

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  51. More of the eyewitness account of the McGill lecture:
    "Professor Tait, the head of the Psychology Department at McGill University, at all times highly interested in the theories held and expressed by Houdini, took advantage of the latter’s presence in Montréal to invite him to lecture before the University students.
    “'Mr. Harry Houdini will lecture at the McGill Union at four o’clock this afternoon. He will debunk spiritualists, mediums and other fakers.'” Such was Professor Tait’s brief announcement. That memorable lecture was heralded, too, in the college paper, The McGill Daily, in its issue of October 19, 1926.
    "The event was greeted with great enthusiasm by the students. At four o’clock that Tuesday the McGill Union was crowded with eager students who had come to get a more personal glimpse of Houdini and to hear his tirade against ignorance and the rackets of the “Spiritual” world.
    "I was an Arts Junior at the time; and I, too, had come to this meeting, anxious to see the great Houdini at close quarters and to hear him castigate the Spiritualists and others who impose upon the unsuspecting and the credulous. But, more particularly, I had come to make a sketch of Houdini; for, ever since I can remember I have been interested in drawing, and have rarely allowed an opportunity of sketching a prominent person 'in action' to slip by.
    "The meeting was opened almost on schedule. Professor Tait ascended slightly raised platform; he was followed immediately by Houdini, who was accompanied by his wife and his secretary. The learned professor, without much ado, introduced the principal speaker in a few remarks.
    "Houdini advanced to the center of the platform with a slight limp spell due, as I afterwards learned, to an accident which occurred a few weeks prior during a performance in a theater in Albany or Rochester (I don’t remember which). Of medium height, with pale, drawn face and dark shadows under tired eyes, this man certainly did not seem the formidable Harry Houdini who had filled half a world with our and admiration. Yet, when he began to speak in his earnest, forceful tones, one could sense the power of the man: his magnetic personality, his nerves of steel, his complete lack of fear, is supple, super-trained muscles, those all-seeing eyes, his extraordinary willpower, his sensitized mind."

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  52. It seems clear from the last paragraph, that Houdini could have already been quite ill.

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  53. I'm re-reading Bell and something that has jumped out at me that I've never considered before is that while Houdini might have indeed been ready for Whitehead's punch (he "braced himself"), he wasn't expecting Whitehead to continue to punch him several times. That's why Price shouted, "Hey, are you crazy?" Those were the "unexpected" blows, and maybe the ones that did the real damage.

    I also really appreciate Bell's honesty in his research. He admits he started off hoping to prove a connection between Whitehead and spiritualists and even at one point becomes paranoid that he's being lured into a trap. But in the end he doesn't find any connection. What he uncovers instead is a very human story. Whitehead was a troubled oddball of a guy who lived a very sad and tragic life.

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  54. What credibility do you give the observation that Houdini looked ill as he gave his presentation to the students at The university? Was Houdini sick well before those punches in his dressing room?

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  55. This thread is covering at least five subjects.
    Go to Silverman or Christopher or Kalush/Sloman and review Houdini's schedule from August 5, 1926. It is exhausting by any standards. He had suffered a broken ankle in an accident during the Torture Cell presentation which might have severed his foot. He finished that performance, had the ankle splinted and braced, and never missed a show. He covered the injury--and endeavored to perform the 2 1/2 hour show without limping.
    There is also the possibility he was taking some kind of pain killers. There is no proof of this, but, if he were suffering some degree of constipation, this could have been one of the factors in the "traumatic" appendicitis.
    In his somewhat confused statement, Gordon Whitehead says, "Houdini appeared to be a very sick man. . ."
    You can read it for yourself:
    http://www.houdinisghost.com/whiteheadaffidavit.html
    If he appeared to be a very sick man, Gordon, why did you punch him?
    As to Houdini still being unprepared for the blows. Well, he thought he was prepared, and it appears that after the first blow (which may have been the death blow) Houdini was egging Whitehead on to hit him again.
    There is only one way to get this all out and I'm going to do it on houdinisghost.com.
    Next up: the argument of Bernard Ernst in a letter to Mr. Cook of New York Life Insurance Co.
    John, read Bell carefully. I know you're doing that. And I know you are separating the narrative about Don Bell's amazingly dedicated search and his speculation about Whitehead, from what people he found who actually knew something actually said.
    Should we hold an inquest at the Castle?

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  56. Patrick...bottom line how do you think the events went down? Whitehead affidavit says he hit Houdini with two not so aggressive punches and there seemed to be no effect. The other witnesses if I am not mistaken stated there were as many as four punches. Was Houdini ill in terms of having appendicitis prior to the punches? Did Whitehead aggressively attack Houdini with body punches or was it less intense as Whitehead described? Step by step....what happened in your opinion?

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  57. I managed to get hold of a copy of Don Bell's book as a result of this post. Just finished reading it. Fascinating. Came back to this for an update. Wow...There is enough here for at least another two chapters !! Thanks to all.
    Cheers. Narinder

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  58. Sophie Rosenblatt:
    On Friday, October 22, 1926, I was at the Princess Theater, Montréal. During the afternoon Houdini was in his dressing room and two or three students of McGill University were with him. When they left shortly after 5 o’clock Houdini told me that one of the students had given him two vicious short arm blows in the neighborhood of the center of his stomach. He stated that it was the first time in his life the blows really hurt him and he twinged.
    Jimmy Collins:
    On Friday, October 22, 1926, he was playing at the Princess Theater, Montréal, and at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon of that day he was in his dressing room at the said theater in company with one Smilovitz and two other students of McGill University, Montréal, where he had lectured a day or two before. I was at the theater at such time. On such occasion one of the said students struck Houdini with two blows in his stomach merely for the purpose of showing his resistance to blows. Houdini stated afterwards that he was ordinarily able to steal himself against blows or bad effects there from, but that these blows were struck at a time when he was not prepared for them.
    Sam Smiley:
    The McGill student shortly thereafter gave Houdini very heavy blows below the belt, (handwritten: first securing Houdini’s permission to strike him – initialed S. J. S.) Houdini was reclining and the said student was more or less over him. Since Houdini’s right side was nearer to us, the blows fell to the stomach a little to the right of the navel. I do not remember exactly how many blows were struck. I am sure, however, that at least two hard and deliberate blows were delivered while my friend believes that the student hit the reclining magician at least four times.
    Jack Price:
    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 who continued striking Houdini with all his strength.
    Gordon Whitehead:
    10. The conversation was then continued and turned to the question of keeping fit. Houdini remarked that he could duplicate a famous strongman’s feat of supporting the pivot of a bridge over which was driven an automobile containing at least five people;
    11. I had previously mentioned a book I had read which set forth the requirements of good health, such as the care of the skin, the maintenance of an abdominal muscular corset, and a good digestion;
    12. Houdini suggested that I feel his abdomen, – his muscles were like a washboard and his abdomen as unyielding as a sandbag. Houdini invited me to hit him;
    13. At the time he was reclining in a half sitting position on the couch, – He had taken up disposition for the purpose of the sketch which was being done by Smilovitz, and Smilovitz was still sketching him at the time;
    14. I stood on the right side of the couch and facing Houdini’s head. My right knee was against the edge of the couch and halfway between his knee and his waist;
    15. Price was seated directly behind me and Smilovitz was seated diagonally behind me and to my right;
    16. I struck Houdini quite moderately and he smiled and laughingly said – “Why! Hit me.” I hesitated and he repeated – “Hit me;”
    17. I struck him a second blow slightly harder than the first, – he gave not the slightest indication of any discomfort at either of the blows. Both blows were struck on the left side of his body and above the navel.
    18. I was then standing above Houdini and he was facing me and I struck him with my right hand. This occurred about 12 P.M.
    19. Neither Smilovitz nor Price made any comment whatever, and in the position they were in at the time they could not see the part of Houdini’s body on which either of my blows landed;
    20. The conversation then went on in a general way for about an hour when Mrs. Houdini and one or two attendance came into the dressing room with Houdini’s luncheon;

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  59. Fascinating discussion. Just want to add that I knew Al Hirschfeld well in the years before he died and he was absolutely lucid in every way. Worked seven days a week until he died peacefully in his sleep. Al's story, as you know, was that his friend Houdini offered a $3000 reward to anyone who could punch him and make him falter. That would answer a lot of the questions about Whitehead's motivations.

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  60. Hi David,
    As it happens, my brother knew Al Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld signed two books for him: a collection of his theatre drawings and the extremely rare "Harlem by Hirschfeld. He told me Hirschfeld was sharp as a tack.
    I never heard the $3000 offer to anyone who could punch Houdini in the stomach and make him falter.
    I don't believe it.
    P.S. Have you found Franz Kukol yet?

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    1. Just saw this rereading John's delightful "best of blog" post.

      That Harlem book is a really fine piece of work. I must brag that Al did a portrait of me that is my prize possession.

      Like you, Pat, I never heard of the $3000 reward except from the Hirschfeld camp.

      Still working on Kukol. He seems to have dropped Williamson and gone back to Kukol as of that 1924 letter from Houdini to Vail.

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  61. I posted last year regarding my efforts to find Kukol. I found in the NY death records his name and if I remember correctly he died in 1934. Whether of not this was the Kukol is a question. The fee is like 15 dollars to obtain the complete record.

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  62. A Frank Williamson died in Kings County NY on Sept 30th 1930 at the age of 56. Is that the age he would have been as of that date? 18182 is the certificate number so assume death certificate. W452 is the "soundex" number..dont know what that is. Could be Kukol or another Frank Williamson but the question now is can we look up the death certificate?

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  63. Great article! My friends and I are doing a huge school project on Harry Houdini and the legacy he left behind, you seem like you are very fascinated with this subject and would be a great source to direct us to other books, articles, or websites relating to this topic.
    Thanks

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  64. Whoa! That's super interesting and that project sounds like a blast!

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    1. Thanks! We thought so too :) Looking forward to presenting it!

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  65. Just re-reading this thread and noticed that in one of Patrick's posts, the Jimmy Collins statement mentions that the incident happened at around 5pm whereas Whitehead's mentions 12pm. Wondering why such a big discrepancy?

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  66. that's a lot of coments

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  67. If the trauma that caused the appendicitis was a one in a million shot, then if Whitehead wanted to murder Houdini, how was he certain that this was going to cause the appendix to burst?

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  68. Exactly Michael, the Whitehead murder theory is bunk. If he wanted to kill Harry, he could have stabbed him in the abdomen with a hidden knife or shot him with a small pistol.

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  69. The murder theory is illogical on so many levels I don't even waste my time on it. Not a fan of conspiracy theories as history. It's junk and a distraction, IMO.

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