Monday, May 5, 2014

The Pickleman punch

McGill University's Union Hall.

We all know J. Gordon Whithead punched Houdini in the stomach in his dressing room at the Princess Theater in Montreal on October 22, 1926. It's debated whether or not the punch caused or just masked his fatal appendicitis, but all agree that Whitehead's punch was the start of a chain of events that would lead to the magician's death on Halloween. But in his seminal work, The Man Who Killed Houdini, author Don Bell uncovered evidence of two other punches delivered by McGill University students during Houdini's stay in the city that might extend that chain a little further back.

One of those punches is said to have occurred in the lobby of the Prince of Wales Hotel. However, that incident is questionable as it only comes via second-hand sources, so I'm going to save it for another time. The punch I want to discuss today is the first of the three for which there is strong evidence. This punch or "test" occurred on October 19, 1926, when Houdini was giving his lecture at McGill University. Bell calls it "the Pickleman punch."

Bell first learned of the Pickleman punch from a former McGill University student named Dr. William Cohen. Dr. Cohen said that a student named Gerald Pickleman had tested Houdini with a blow at the McGill Union Hall (today the McCord Museum). Unfortunately, Dr. Cohen could not remember specific details, although he did recall Houdini putting a needle through his cheek during this same meeting with students.

Eventually, Bell tracked down a key eyewitness to the Pickleman punch, another former McGill student named Jack Hausner. Bell interviewed the 84-year-old Hausner in Palm Beach, Florida in 1991. As you'll see, Hausner confused it with the Whitehead blow, as would others. Hausner recalled:

"It was in a public room where students went to socialize -- to shoot a game of pool or snooker. Houdini was passing through and we engaged him in conversation. He was very warm when we met him.

I remember clearly his challenge to anyone within the group to punch him -- with all his might! -- in his stomach so that he could demonstrate his powers of concentration to withstand physical pain and survive unharmed.

I must differ with you concerning the identity of the person who delivered the blow which apparently resulted in his death a week or two later. That person was not Gordon Whitehead, as you believe. If my memory serves me correctly, it was an undergraduate known to many of us at the time, name Gerald Pickleman (or Pickelman). ... He came from a family who lived in upper New York State.

Pickleman was a pretty burly fellow, but as far as I knew he wasn't a boxer and didn't work for the McGill Daily, although anyone could have contributed an article from time to time. Houdini had time to prepare himself. The blow wasn't unexpected. Pickleman was 170 pounds or so, five feet seven or nine. It was just one blow."
Site of the Pickleman punch?

Gerald Pickleman died in 1981, but Bell was able to find his widow, Annette Pickleman, who independently confirmed the events at Union Hall:

"Gerry told the story many times," she said, "whenever Houdini's name came up, but in later years people hadn't discussed it with him as much. It wasn't a thing he boasted about, but nor was it a secret or anything he ever tried to hide. He had the normal guilt a person would have. He was a sensitive man, not the kind of person who would go around punching people. He wasn't aware [that the punch had caused Houdini's death] until after the autopsy. That's when he began to talk about it."

What's tragic here is it appears Pickleman blamed himself for delivering the blow that "killed Houdini." But one can see how this happened. After Houdini's death, the newspapers only reported that he was struck by a "student of McGill University." In fact, the name of J. Gordon Whitehead did not appear in print until 1953. So it's understandable that Pickleman believed that he was the "McGill student" who fatally injured Houdini. Poor guy.

Now, I'd be remiss in not mentioning that Dr. William Tait, head of the McGill psychology department, who had invited Houdini to give his lecture at the University that day, denied that Houdini was struck by a student at the meeting. He said Houdini left in a taxi immediately after the lecture. But he may have been unaware of the informal meeting with the students (which could have happened before the lecture), or was trying to protect the University. He also said Houdini appeared ill at the meeting.

I do believe the Pickleman punch happened as independently described by William Cohen, Jack Hausner and Annette Pickleman (by way of her husband). I also believe it's likely that this "punch me as hard as you can" challenge and successful first demonstration at Union Hall is what motivated the drunken students at the Prince of Wales to test Houdini and, of course, J. Gordon Whitehead in the dressing room at the Princess Theater on the fateful day. You might even say Houdini's death began here.

Union Hall is today the McCord Museum in Montreal.

Related:

UPDATE: Thanks to our friends at the Houdini Museum in Scranton and Joe Notaro, here is a photo of Gerald Pickleman from the 1929 McGill yearbook.

71 comments:

  1. A few extra notes on this post:

    The precise chronology of Bell's investigation went: Dr. Cohen, Mrs. Pickleman, Jack Hausner. But it read better to save Mrs. Pickleman until last.

    Bill Kalush uses the spelling Pickelman in The Secret Life of Houdini. I went with the spelling in Bell's own book.

    I sent an email to McGill to confirm that the McCord was Union Hall in 1926, but I didn't hear back.

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  2. We have just quoted Don Bell on The Magic Cafe from his last minute private notes in response to John's post there. Bell was going to send them to publishers to get the book out. His son did not follow his fathers outline. How could he?

    The various punches..

    How Bell makes a strong case that there was foul play..., Whitehead...either sent by spiritualists...,had a personal score to settle with Houdini..., in any case intentionally wished to injure if not kill Houdini..

    "discussing all the findings -- the case for the prosecution (of Whitehead)"

    This agrees with what we have been saying in previous posts here and in our website for many years as well.

    More on Bell who had several more chapters planned that he outlined about Whitehead. All as we reconfirm our findings in our search for the truth of how and why Houdini really died. The most asked question on the tours of The Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA and the original Houdini Museum in NYC at The Magic Townhouse. Not the Bernard Ernst story believed for decades.
    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    For more details go to

    http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/viewtopic.php?topic=543242&forum=18&92&start=90

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    1. Thanks. I encourage everyone to check out that thread at The Magic Cafe. But hopefully we can stay on the topic of the Pickleman punch here.

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  3. We know there is only one known photo of J Gordon Whitehead, but how about a photo of Gerald Pickleman (or Pickelman)?

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  4. A picture of him might be found in the college year books which I think are available. I think we came across them in our research about Whitehead but not sure where. Online I would guess.

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    1. http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/viewbook.php?&campus=downtown&book_id=1929#page/58/mode/1up
      There are a number of photos. I included one link above. Thanks for the tip.

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    2. There are also some other nice photos of other McGill students like Smiley.

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    3. These are incredible! Great find. How are we only coming to these now? Wow.

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    4. I've added the Pickleman yearbook shot to the story. Thanks Joe, Dorothy and Dick. I'm also relived to see I went with the correct spelling.

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  5. http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/search.php?q=whitehead
    I just typed whitehead in my search and found some amazing results.
    http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/viewbook.php?&campus=downtown&book_id=1926#page/356/mode/1up

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  6. http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/viewbook.php?&campus=downtown&book_id=1926#page/256/mode/1up
    Above is a link to a W. G. Whitehead.

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    1. If you click to the next page you will see a photo of a whitehead on the McGill Rowing Club and then on the next page you will see Gerald J Pickleman and J. G. Whithead names listed under ARTS 28

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    2. http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/viewbook.php?&campus=downtown&book_id=1926#page/356/mode/1up
      The Pickleman and Whitehead names actually appear here as opposed to the next page.

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  7. The Pickleman punch occurred before the lecture. Houdini was hanging out with members of the Banjo and Mandolin Club of which Gerald Pickleman was the president. Apparently, Houdini invited the boys to punch him in the stomach and Pickleman took him up on it.
    Whitehead said he attended the Houdini lecture. If he heard about the Pickleman punch, he may have wanted to duplicate it. In the dressing room, it was Houdini who said his abdominal muscles were such that he could duplicate a strong man's feat involving the stomach muscles.
    Gordon Whitehead asked if he could test Houdini's stomach muscles with a punch. Houdini gave his permission and set himself.
    What did Whitehead do that Pickleman hadn't done?
    Joe Notaro, that is fantastic. Well, we've had a look at the assassin.

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    1. So it was before the lecture then? Bell doesn't specify.

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  8. Well, Gerald Pickleman's name and photo are not on the Mandolin Club's page. But, he said he was president of the club and I assume at some point he was. In the 1927 McGill yearbook, Gerald Pickleman is listed as Secretary-Treasurer of the Banjo and Mandolin Club.

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  9. Great work Joe Notaro! You have to be the World's most patient drill down person ever! We found these yearbooks as we were looking to see if Whitehead was a boxer or if he wrote for the college paper. We were also looking for the comments about Houdini having the look of death on his face, or whatever, that we had found years ago and now have seemed to have faded away. If you should find any of the above it would be of interest to us to add to our "How and why Houdini really died" theory, which is where we have been spending most of our spare research time. There are still a half a dozen important leads we have to explore that could lock it all up.

    Again great work!

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

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  10. What was all the talk about there being no record of Whitehead attending McGill? Obviously he did attend.

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    1. Yeah, that's what I was thinking.

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  11. Based on all this evidence its obvious that Houdinis boasts leading to Picklemans punch gave fodder for Whitehead to do the same...this time with disastrous consequences.

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  12. Super work all around! Thanks to all you fine sleuths!

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  13. Looks like that chap , "Wallace Irwin Whitehead (Wallie) " is listed on the pages Joe mentioned and here

    http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/viewbook.php?campus=downtown&book_id=1926#page/50/mode/2up

    But initials incorrect here, as mentioned.
    http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/viewbook.php?&campus=downtown&book_id=1926#page/256/mode/1up

    The photos are all of the the same person

    Then we have J G Whitehead listed. Food for thought.

    Great work Joe/John.

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    1. Pretty sure that's an entirely different Whitehead.

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  14. This is the page linked with "J G Whitehead"
    Photo of all the students. Anybody spot the culprit !

    http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/viewbook.php?campus=downtown&book_id=1926#page/58/mode/2up

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    1. This is incredible. We know Whitehead had thinning hair, was tall, and was older than an average student -- 30. There is a guy near the center back that meets all these requirements.

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    2. JG is in this Arts 28 group photo and Warren is in the group photo for Arts 27

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  15. The different initials and names for Whitehead in the 1926 yearbook are very confusing. Plus, it says Wallace Irvin Whitehead aka Wallie was born in Farnum Que July 27, 1904. J Gordon Whitehead was born in Scotland 11/25/1895. The plot thickens.

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    1. I think there are a few Whiteheads. J.G. is our man.

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    2. JG is Arts 28 and WG is Arts 27

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    3. Check out Bell on page 245-246 and chapter 13. In the chapter 13, A Brother Found, Bell does not give the first name of Gordon’s brother to protect the family. Bell makes reference to a younger brother Gordon on page 90, but on page 91 we find out that Gordon was really the older brother by 8 years, which coincides with Gordon and Wally’s birthdates In fact Gordon was the oldest of the family and his brother was the youngest.

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  16. I think the "W. G " is more likely a "typo" error at the printers ?
    "I" before "G" ?

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  17. Page 246 of the Bell Book mentions Wallace.

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  18. Aah..yes. Cheers. :-)

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  19. The Kellock book and many other sources made it clear that the fatal punch was delivered in Houdini's dressing room. So, Pickleman should have known fairly early on that his punch wasn't the punch, but, I know he was haunted because I'm a Vietnam Vet and I understand such things. Smilovitch really suffered when he realized he had witnessed the fatal punch. Gordon Whitehead may have been slow to accept that his blow had killed Houdini, but, when he did, it destroyed him. See, Houdini pretended he wasn't hurt. Houdini himself said, "that poor kid. He didn't know."
    Pickleman is listed as President of the Banjo & Mandolin Club in the 1929 McGill Yearbook.

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    1. It sounds like Pickleman and his wife never read much about Houdini beyond the initial reports which I don't think specified the dressing room or any details. It really sounds like he went to his grave thinking he was the "McGill student" that fatally injured Houdini. It's really tragic.

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    2. You are correct John. I am Jerry's grandson and the family to this day believed that my grandfather was responsible for Houdini's injury.

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    3. Thank you for commenting Steve. Maybe you can show the family this post and let them know it wasn't your grandfather's doing after all.

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  20. These yearbooks are amazing. Smiley's yearbook shot HERE. But I can't seem to find Jacques Price.

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  21. I spotted someone else. let me get on a mac and I might be able to pull him out. I am not at all sure. The whole bunch of these ARTS students look like Houdini killers to me. Pickleman and Whitehead's names are on page 253.

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    1. "The whole bunch of these ARTS students look like Houdini killers to me. "

      LOL.

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  22. Norman Bigelow, who was one of the first to go public attacking the hard to believe Bernard Ernst rendition of what happened in the death of Houdini, has no reason to lie on this. He interviewed Sophie Rosenblatt. he says… “Sophie said she always believed Houdini was murdered. …When I asked Sophie why she thought Houdini was murdered she said”, “You should have seen how they (Spiritualist) hated him.” “I heard the same thing from Gibson and others. .. Sophie said at the time she was pressured by McGill University and others not to say Houdini was murdered. She was threatened with lawsuits.”

    Sophie Rosenblatt in Montreal was tending to a very sick Houdini where ever he went. She may have known of Houdini’s prior bouts with stomach pains as also talked about by Gertrude Hills. One writer said he had the look of death on his face when he interviewed Houdini the beginning of the week.

    In an interview in the Milwaukee Journal, April 5, 1931, Sophie said,“"Houdini's first thought on coming out of the anesthetic," "Don't let them blame that poor kid," Houdini said “"he didn't know." Houdini may have meant Whitehead did not know what they knew,,, i.e. that Houdini already had stomach problems.

    Interestingly among Houdini’s last words to Bess were, “We are licking them!” He could have been referring to his spiritualist enemies that he also told Fulton Oursler about when he told Fulton Oursler, “Probably I am talking to you for the last time. They're going to kill me”

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    1. I'd really don't what to see this devolve into yet another argument about Whitehead's motives and Ernst conspiracies. We already have a few posts FILLED with that, and there's The Magic Cafe thread. Be great to keep this focused, more or less, on the Pickleman punch.

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  23. They've hijacked another thread with the oldest most used up crap. Write a book, Scranton people, we're on to other things here.
    This gentleman stood out to me.
    http://houdinisghost.com/gordon.jpg

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    1. Hmmm. There is something...intense...about him.

      Think this group photo deserves its own post. "Where's Whitehead?"

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    2. This is only for houdinisghost. You all would not be doing any of this on this thread had we not given out the tip about the yearbooks having pictures and being online. It comes from our deep down research and knowledge.

      Respectfully
      Dorothy and Dick

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    3. You did indeed and what a terrific find! Sorry I omitted you in my thanks in the update. Update updated. :)

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  24. BTW, was McGill an all-male school? Or was this just typical of Universities at the time. I see no women anywhere.

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  25. Go through the whole yearbook for 1928 or 1929. There were definitely women at some part of the school. One of those years, violins were included in the Banjo and Mandolin Club (any ukeleles?) and at some point the club played a local theatre for a week. Pickleman was in the club.

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  26. Yes, we have anecdotes and memories based on Bell's research, but I have to ask: Why didn't even one news reporter of the day uncover the Pickleman punch? And why wasn't Pickleman mentioned in any affidavits? And why didn't Bess or anyone associated with Houdini ever mention Pickleman to anyone in the years following Houdini's death? Am I missing something? I just haven't seen any compelling evidence.

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    1. I think the Pickleman punch was probably a pretty typical thing in Houdini's world. He met a group of students before a lecture. Put a needle through his cheek and let a student punch him. The punch didn't injure him, so it's not really legally or medically applicable to what happened later. Bess wasn't there. There were no reporters there. And he could have done this ALL the time for all we know. We do know he did the cheek thing a lot.

      For me there is very compelling evidence in that Bell found 3 people who, without being giving the information before hand, independently recalled the Union Hall punch and identified Pickleman. That's actually more evidence than we have for a lot of incidents in Houdini's life.

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    2. Also, some reporters did investigate the punch enough to get a denial from William Tait that anything had happened at the lecture. So that suggests that at least some reporters had heard something about this. But I think that denial was were most "investigations" ended. They weren't as obsessed with this as we are. :)

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    3. My main doubt centered around Bell being the only source (apparently the only person to speak to Cohen, Hausner, and Pickleman's widow), but I see your and Patrick's points. Houdini obviously did these punch tests more often than once known, and the Pickleman punch was just another demo—a nonevent. That would explain why Houdini wouldn't have mentioned it to Bess, or if he did, why Bess wouldn't have given it a second thought or told anyone about it, not to mention why others before Bell didn't learn of Pickleman. Anyway, as usual, thought-provoking stuff, John.

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  27. Because when Houdini took the Pickleman punch, it had no physical effect on him. Houdini had incredibly strong abbs. It was just a stunt. A stunt he had performed more than once--we know that. He'd been a boxer. I am surprised that Pickleman never figured out that he wasn't the deliverer of the death blow. The dressing room story was very common going all the way back. Maybe he thought they were still talking about him. I think Nusselman thought he was the bad guy too.

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    1. This Nusselman thing is new to me. That wasn't in Bell, was it?

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    2. Thanks, Patrick. Makes more sense now. And perhaps even more info about Pickleman will rise to the surface as a result of John's piece.

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  28. Yes. He was a boxer and Bell did write about him. But, Houdini told Collins and Rosenblatt and maybe others that the Whitehead punch earlier that day was the first time a blow like that had ever hurt him. So, we know he was a "punch me in the stomach" guy. The only time it ever hurt him was when he tried it lying on his back.

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  29. Im confused....is the photo of WG Whitehead THE Whitehead? If not...... Is there a photo of J G Whitehead in any if these yearbooks??

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    1. I don't think WG is our Whitehead. He looks too young to me (Whitehead was 30-31). There is a photo that has JG among a large group, but we don't know which one he is. That's as close as we've come at the moment.

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  30. I think Smilovitz said Whitehead had thinning hair. Can we match him forensically with the one known photo?

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  31. Yes. Older, tall, with thinning hair. Look at Smiley's sketch. That's why I like this guy.

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  32. Thats him. He looks older...thinning hair and I see a resemblance with photo of the older Whitehead in the bookstore.

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  33. He definitely fits Smiley’s description of a rather tall individual, at least six foot two, oldish young man about 27 or 28 [he actually was 30 almost 31], face ruddy, his hair very thin on top, his frame powerful though loosely-knit, and a neck that was inordinately long.

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    1. Is that the exact description from Smiley, Joe?

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  34. Pretty damn close. Here is the exact description:
    he must have been at least six foot two – wearing a blue gabardine coat that seemed much too small for him, and carrying three or four books under his arm. The newcomer appeared to have known Houdini and had, in fact, come that day to return a book Houdini had loaned him a few days before; his name was Whitehead, and he was the theological student at McGill University. Whitehead was an oldish looking young man about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years of age. 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. He spoke softly with an exaggerated Oxford accent.

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  35. If you buy the Pickleman punch, the idea that Houdini's appendix was already diseased is seriously compromised. I don't think that anyone suffering a diseased appendix would allow someone to punch him in the stomach. I'm speaking as an appendicitis survivor.

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    1. Good point, Patrick. The needle through his cheek certainly would have been enough to impress the students.

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