Friday, May 9, 2014

Is this J. Gordon Whitehead at McGill in 1926?

Recently our friends at the Houdini Museum in Scranton and Joe Notaro of HHCE turned up an amazing archive of yearbooks from McGill University. Of course, it was a student from McGill, Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, who punched Houdini in his dressing room at the Princess Theater on October 22, 1926. Could these books give us our first look at Whitehead as a student?

There is only one known photo of Whitehead, taken almost 25 years after the Houdini incident when he was in his 50s. Because he never graduated, there is no individual yearbook photo of him as a student. However, this group shot of the "Arts '28 Class" in the 1926 yearbook is said to include a "Whitehead, J.G." (as well as Gerald Pickleman, who also "tested" Houdini that week). Unfortunately, it doesn't specify which student is Whitehead.

Click to enlarge.

Sam Smilovitz (aka "Smiley"), who was also present in the dressing room, gave a good description of Whitehead. Smiley described him as: "At least six foot two – wearing a blue gabardine coat that seemed much too small for him. An oldish looking young man about 27 or 28 years of age [he was actually almost 31]. He impressed one as being the very genteel type of student. His face was ruddy, his hair very thin on top; his frame was powerful though loosely-knit, and his neck was inordinately long."

My candidate for Whitehead is the individual below. He seems to match Smiley's description quite well -- right down to what might be his blue coat -- and I just feel like he might be our man.


What do you think? If this is indeed J. Gordon Whitehead, it is only the second known photo, and the only one taken at the time of the Houdini punch. Wild indeed.

Thanks to Dorothy Dietrich, Dick Brookz, and Joe Notaro. You can check out all the McGill Yearbooks HERE.

Related:

21 comments:

  1. Why don't you post side by side the known photo of Whitehead and this one side by side. I seem to notice a definite similarity especially around the lower part of his face. Perry from NJ.

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  2. Side by side and about the same size might be a good idea.
    Dorothy Dietrich & Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World
    Dedicated Entirely to Houdini

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    Replies
    1. Don't have time to do it this weekend, but you can pull down the shot of older Whitehead HERE and check it out.

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  3. It might be Whitehead. This whole episode has cleared up a bit more for me. Whitehead saw Houdini earlier take a midsection punch from Pickleman and asked about that in the dressing room. I always thought it was a strange question to ask, but not in the context of the Pickleman scenario.

    Also, Houdini was a fan of professional boxing. It isn't inconceivable that he would fantasize about taking punches the gut as boxing pros are trained to do.

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    1. For many years it was thought the punch thing came out of the blue -- I even said in a documentary that I'd never heard HH make that claim before -- but Bell's discovery of the Pickleman punch really changes the story.

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  4. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniMay 10, 2014 at 4:58 AM

    Still a mystery on who whitehead is after 87 years.

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    Replies
    1. Have you read the Bess book, John? He really uncovered a lot about Whitehead.

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  5. Bell had to have seen the yearbook, with the group shot, yet there is no mention of it. He does mention the graduation photo of Wallace Whitehead, but says that there are no photos of Gordon Whitehead at Old McGills, and since he never graduated, McGill Alumni Association had no address or other information about him. He dropped out of McGills in 1926, almost immediately after the Houdini incident. His marks were such that they suggest he might have dropped out in any case, according to a record-keeper in the Registrars Office.

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  6. To John Hinson...
    Our mission to solve that mystery for many years. According to these yearbooks it seems he was not on the rowing team or head of it as claimed by many for decades.

    From the yearbooks he does not appear to have been a divinity student as also claimed, although he did challenge Houdini's belief in the bible and took over the conversation and tried to turn it to religion. When Houdini backed off on the subject, joking about it to Whitehead's dismay, Whitehead then insisted on turning the conversation to Houdini's stomach muscles. Houdini tried to deflect it to other parts of his body, but Whitehead persisted and finally punched him several times. Because of this many said Whitehead was a boxer, but the yearbooks do not bear this out. Although Don Bell did find Whitehead stole a book on prize fighting and Whitehead served time in prison for it. Houdini did prepare for the Whitehead punches though poorly, so they were not unexpected as also claimed for decades.

    These yearbooks have opened up a lot of new questions.

    You are correct in saying it is still a mystery on who is Whitehead after 87 years.

    Dick Brookz and Dorothy Dietrich
    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World
    Entirely Devoted to Houdini

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    Replies
    1. Have you guys ever noticed that in Houdini's full evening show program it specifies that he will not answer any questions related to the Bible during the Q&A section? Interesting.

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    2. Very interesting, indeed. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Yes, we know. It would have been too controversial. Create on stage a no win situation. But it was why he was able to so clearly and quickly respond to Whitehead on the issue, since it was a planned answer. However, Houdini was working on a controversial book with H. P. Lovecraft called "The Cancer of Superstition" which it seems would have attacked all so called miracles or supernatural events alluded to in any religion, whatever.

    Correction on the above post. When we said Whitehead was not a boxer or divinity student, that is at least only as far as the McGill info or yearbooks are concerned. Who knows from other directions, although according to Donald Bell Whitehead's brother did not know of him being a boxer but did say something to the effect.... If he punched you, you would know about it! And I think Smiley said Whitehead was a divinity student.

    Dick Brookz and Dorothy Dietrich
    The Houdini Museum

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  8. Whats clear is this was not about trying to murder Houdini. If you are trying to seriously hurt someone you dont just punch them in the belly 2-4 times. Perry from NJ.

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  9. Fine work on this! As to Houdini's boxing skills - he was not just a fan, he was a champion prizefighter himself, since his youth. See "Houdini's Forgotten Years" at http://www.houdinifile.com/2014/02/houdinis-forgotten-years.html .

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  10. We have put the two pictures side by side about the same size here..
    http://houdini.org/houdinimurdered.html

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

    ReplyDelete
  11. J. Gordon Whitehead is also listed in the 1927 yearbook. Not sure I see our guy from the 1926 yearbook.
    http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/viewbook.php?campus=downtown&book_id=1927#page/64/mode/1up
    http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/viewbook.php?campus=downtown&book_id=1927#page/65/mode/1up
    http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/viewbook.php?campus=downtown&book_id=1927#page/332/mode/1up

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  12. Remember that line from The Godfather Part II? "If history has taught us anything, it says you can kill anyone." If Whitehead wanted to kill Houdini, why didn't he just stab him in the dressing room with a knife? Hang around, wait for the other 2 guys to leave, and wammo.

    A pistol would also do the job. Punching your victim a few times might not get the job done.

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  13. Punches to the belly are never shots thrown with murder in mind.

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  14. Leo,
    We have better evidence than the Pickleman punch that Houdini did allow people to punch him in the stomach as a show-off stunt.
    Sophie Rosenblatt said under oath: "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. He stated that he was lying down when the blows were struck and that he was not prepared for them."
    HE STATED THAT IT WAS THE FIRST TIME IN HIS LIFE THE BLOWS REALLY HURT HIM.
    and Jimmy Collins said under oath: ". . . 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."
    So, Houdini had taken blows before and that they'd never hurt before. And he deliberately chose to allow Gordon Whitehead to punch him when he was lying down--and Houdini knew right away he had made a mistake. Naturally, he pretended he was unaffected.

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  15. Thanks for the clarification Patrick. My own thoughts on this is that Houdini was a boxing aficionado and body punches were just a part of his interest in the sport. It would explain his penchant for this show off stunt.

    When Houdini hung around with Jack Dempsey "the Manassas Mauler," I'm sure that Dempsey invited him to throw a few hits. Hey, if Dempsey asked Houdini to throw a few at him, it stands to reason that Houdini, with his incredible physique, would also challenge others to do the same.

    So, Houdini is running the college circuit and he is surrounded by young men in their early 20s who are in awe of him. He is already a living legend, so it makes sense that he would demonstrate his toughness and invulnerability. Anything less would have been a letdown to these young gentlemen. Unfortunately, this proved to be his undoing...

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  16. And in 1953, Sam Smiley wrote: "Only three of us entered; Houdini, my friend, and myself. His secretary was about to enter, but Houdini told her that on this occasion she might remain out. Houdini then shut the door of the little dressing room, and confidentially explained to us that he never permitted himself to be alone with a newspaperman or any other person, and that he always had his secretary with him to take notes of every interview; but added with a smile that on this occasion he 'guessed it was all right.'
    "Houdini then made himself comfortable, and with collar open at the neck and shirtsleeves rolled, he reclined on the small couch along the wall opposite the door. My friend sat facing the center of the couch. I was seated at the foot of the couch, and since Houdini was bolstered up by several cushions, I was able to obtain a full view of his face. A third chair, near the door and almost in a line with Houdini’s head, was empty.
    "Houdini appeared to be in the best of spirits that morning. He was affable and kind, and he did all he could to make us most comfortable, to impress upon us that he was 'one of the boys.'
    "He apologized for having to recline on the couch but pointed out that he needed all the rest he could get since the accident which occurred a few weeks before during a performance and which had caused him to limp. By force of will, he said he schooled himself to conceal that limp during his performances at Montréal, but when he was offstage, he was obliged to 'take things easy.'"

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