Sunday, November 24, 2013

Getting punchy

Last month I did a post about whether it was medically possible that the punches to Houdini's stomach delivered by J. Gordon Whitehead really did cause his fatal appendicitis (result: it's possible). That post kicked off a firestorm of discussion -- over 100 comments and counting -- about Whitehead and his motives in throwing those punches. The comments have proven to be more interesting and informative than the post itself!

Front and center in the action is Houdini author and expert, Patrick Culliton. To aid in some of his points, Patrick has now posted to his website Houdini's Ghost the sworn affidavit of J. Gordon Whitehead. It's a remarkable read that contradicts the established account of what happened, right down to saying that it took place on October 21, not October 22.

Whitehead goes on to say that Houdini not only encouraged the initial punch, but egged him on to punch him repeatedly, and that the other students in the room, Sam Smiley and Jack Price, didn't voice any objections. This wildly different from what Smiley and Price themselves reported in their own sworn statements. Whitehead also says he visited Houdini on two more occasions after the dressing room incident, and confirms that he was at Houdini's lecture at McGill.

Most biographers discount the Whitehead affidavit when reconstructing the dressing room incident and instead rely on the statements by Smiley and Price. Therefore, this isn't a version that is generally known. It's fascinating stuff, so click the link below and have read at Houdini's Ghost:


  1. So no real controversy as I see it. All the affidavits collaborate more or less one another. Whitehead spoke to Houdini regarding health and fitness....Houdini used as an example his strength and ability to take punches and offered Whitehead to hit him which he did. Unless there was some master plan for everyone to lie this can be the only conclusion.

  2. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniNovember 24, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    Very interesting on the affidavit but it is still a puzzle,on what had happen.

  3. In reading all this please remember Whitehead in giving his statement thought he was under risk of being charged with murder. So he ws careful in what he said or admitted. On the other hand the other two modifyed their testimony to Ernst and Bess Houdini's liking. Whitehead refused to change his, probably feeling he was in too deep already. Ernst was upset with Whitehead not going along with modifying his statement to help Ernst's case, and Ernst attacked Whitehead for it.

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

  4. If you study that illustration above, it appears that Whitehead landed his blow on Houdini's solar plexus instead of the lower right abdominal area.

    Time to rethink the rethinking of the rethinking on the Houdini punch.

  5. At no time during the investigation into Houdini's death were the police called, consulted, or informed that a possible crime had been committed.
    It was not a criminal case. Whitehead gave his statement to a representative of NYLIC in the middle of March, 1927. He is a bit confused. Four and a half months have passed. According to Sam Smiley, Montreal attorney, Harry Cohen had interviewed Whitehead (presumably) the previous month when he first interviewed Price and Smilovitz (Smiley). Bernard Ernst said that his representative had been unable to obtain Whitehead's sworn affidavit. That would appear to be a false statement. Whitehead, in his single sworn statement, says he met Houdini face to face on Thurs. Nov. 21, 1926. This appears to be a mistake in his memory as does his current address (he gets the street number right, but, gives a street where he had previously lived. Whitehead corrects that with a handwritten, initialed note).

  6. In terms of the time of day and the length of the visit, Whitehead is in agreement with Smilovitz and Price--the visit lasted from about 11:15 A.M. to about 1:15 P.M.. Jimmy Collins says in his sworn statement that "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 steel himself against blows or bad effects there from, but that these blows were struck at a time when he was not prepared for them." This is typical of what happens when a period of months have passed before statements are taken--memories get confused. Sophie Rosenblatt states: "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." So who's right?
    Whitehead was impaired--he had a steel plate in his head, he'd been paralyzed, and he'd lost twelve years between graduating high school and starting at McGill (he did not do well at McGill, his mid term grades were not good and he did not finish the school year). So, certain details in his statements (such as his address) are confused. One affidavit seems more trustworthy than all the others, and that is Julia Sawyer's. She states: "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." and that fits what Whitehead said: "The conversation was then continued and turned to the question of keeping fit. Houdini remarked that he could duplicate a famous strongman feat of supporting the pivot of a bridge over which was driven an automobile containing at least five people;
    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;
    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;"
    There is are problems with the four affidavits of Smilovitz and Price. Again and again, the wording of both boys' statements are identical to each other. They are obviously being led by the attorney, Harry Cohen. They are being led to omit any discussion Houdini might have had about his stomach muscles. And they are insistent that Houdini was struck unexpectedly. But, at the ends of their lives, both Smilovitz and Price each told Don Bell that Houdini had "set himself" to receive the blows to his stomach. In their affidavits, Smilovitz and Bell claimed the punches landed below the belt and on the right side--where the appendix should have been. Whitehead says he struck Houdini above the navel and toward the left side. The punches were fair body blows by boxing standards.
    In later years, Smiley would say that both boys intervened to stop the punches. In his second affidavit, Price says he said something like "stop--are you crazy," but, does not say he physically restrained Whitehead--or even stood up.

  7. Why would Harry Cohen lead Smilowitz and Price to omit discussions regarding Houdinis stomach muscles?

  8. To make it seem that the punch in the stomach was entirely Whitehead's idea.
    Also, Whitehead admitted the big thing. He punched Houdini.
    It was pretty much established all around that Houdini gave his permission for Whitehead to punch him in the stomach.
    The whole case for double indemnity rested on whether or not Houdini was struck "unexpectedly." without having time to prepare.
    The truth is that Houdini did "prepare" or "set himself" for the blow, but, that had to be squelched.
    Another problem: Whitehead, almost five months later, remembers the wrong date of the punching incident, initially gets his own address wrong and he says he called upon Houdini at the Mount Royal Hotel (as opposed to the Larin family story that Houdini stayed at the Prince of Wales Hotel).

  9. From what I have read if fecal matter gets into the appendix appendicitis can occur in as little as three days and can turn life threatening soon after. Perhaps the punches pushed fecal matter into Houdinis appendix?

  10. In the case of a traumatic appendicitis, the symptoms: terrible pain and nausea begin immediately. Within a matter of hours the victim's temperature starts to go up. The blood count goes up. The organ starts to swell like a balloon. When the appendix bursts, in the absence of sulfa drugs, the patient is almost certain to die of peritonitis (a staff infection that infects the entire peritoneal cavity)--and even if sulfa drugs are used, and they didn't exist in Houdini's time, the patient may die.
    I've explained before that had Houdini been standing, his body would have "taken" the punches. But with his back flat against the couch, the punch or punches compressed the space in the peritoneal cavity. This compression is what forced the fecal material from the intestine into the appendix---as one of Houdini's surgeons said, "like being kicked by a horse." If the fecal material is soft, there is a chance it will work its way out of the appendix and the attack can subside. A slim chance. If the fecal material is hard, it can fill the appendix and plug and block the rupture that allowed the material to enter the appendix.
    Was Houdini taking any opiates to keep from limping when he was onstage? We don't have his records and we don't know.
    I will post all the statements from Houdini's doctors. Some of them didn't believe in "traumatic" appendicitis. Many doctors still don't. But Houdini's case made believers out of all the doctors that treated his final illness.



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