Monday, June 2, 2014

The Prince of Wales assault


We all know J. Gordon Whitehead punched Houdini in the stomach at the Princess Theater in Montreal on October 22, 1926. That punch started 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.

Recently we looked at the first of these, "the Pickleman punch," which took place at the McGill University Union Hall on October 19. Today we have what might be better described as an "assault" on Houdini in the lobby of the Prince of Wales Hotel on McGill College St., just a few blocks west of the Princess Theater.

In 1990, Gilles Larin, the grandson of the Prince of Wales owner, Francis Larin, related to Bell the remarkable story, which he said was part of family lore. He heard it from his father and grandfather, although the only eyewitness was the night clerk, Honore Larin (Francis' brother). Here's the story as told in Bell's book:

After giving a performance Houdini usually had a meal and relaxed in the Prince of Wales lobby, reading newspapers. In the back of the  hotel was a tavern [Pig & Whistle] frequented by McGill students. It had a door leading to the lobby, but when the hotel closed at 11 p.m., the students usually went out through the rear exit leading to the lane in back.

But that particular night when Houdini was there waiting to board the overnight train that would take him and his company to Toronto, Buffalo, etc. and then to Detroit, three or four students who were rather drunk spilled out of the tavern into the lobby. One of them, mimicking the act that Houdini presented in his show where he dared anyone to hit him in the stomach walked up to Houdini, who was sitting in a lounge chair reading a newspaper, and, without any warning, hit him through the newspaper in the stomach, a crunching blow. Houdini, doubled over in pain, said, "You shouldn't have done that," then got up, very slowly, and walked out of the lobby.

Larin goes on to say that while this incident was "much discussed" the next day, there was no police report filed and Houdini was already gone. The timing of this is interesting. If Houdini was waiting for the train to Detroit, then this happened after the Whitehead blows, which would have made this especially painful (and damaging?). It's generally accepted that Houdini's appendix ruptured while on the overnight train to Detroit.

It's also interesting to speculate whether Houdini's unidentified assailant that night suffered the same confusion and guilt that Gerald Pickleman experienced. After Houdini's death, it was only reported that he had died as result of being punched by a "McGill University student." The name J. Gordon Whitehead and the details of the dressing room punch did not become public until 1953. Any student who struck Houdini that week would assume they were the student in the news reports. Houdini's words, "You shouldn't have done that," would have certainly haunted this student. (Unless he was too drunk to recall the incident at all.)

This one is a bit harder to accept than the Pickleman punch, which still had living eyewitnesses into the 1980s. While I find no reason to not believe this happened, second hand accounts are by their nature unreliable, especially when they are over 80-years-old. Still, it's a curious piece of the puzzle that is the last week of Houdini's life.

Related:

27 comments:

  1. Rose Mackenberg swore under oath the following:
    "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. He stated that he was lying down when the blows were struck and that he was not prepared for them. Mrs. Houdini was present when Mr. Houdini stated this to me. We had supper together. He was continually rubbing his stomach. I asked him whether he felt pain and he answered that he did. He showed evidence of suffering throughout the evening performance and complained continually about pains in his groin. He was unable to sleep after the performance that night. At about 2 o’clock Mrs. Houdini and I were called Houdini complained of pains and cramps. Mrs. Houdini rubbed him and I administered to him as best I could. Not having slept all night, in the morning he was drowsy and laid down most of the time until the matinee, which he never did ordinarily he almost fell asleep a number of times during the matinee performance. At about 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon the following day he complained of awful pains in his stomach. I asked him where he felt pain and he replied; “just where I got the blows.” After eating a slight supper he again complained of more pain and indigestion. At about 6:30 I gave him a Sedlitz powder and he was lying down until about five minutes before the curtain went up for the evening performance. The first act in the performance lasts for about an hour. When he tried to raise his left foot to step in a cabinet used by him in a vanishing illusion, he was unable to raise his foot in order to step into the cabinet. He stood helpless for a minute or two complaining of sharp severe pains in his stomach and was compelled to call upon James Collins, his assistant, to help him conclude the performance and to do a number of things which Houdini ordinarily did himself, including the pulling of many yards of silk out of a glass bowl. Noticing his condition I stood in the wings to take him off after the first act. His face was pale and pinched there was cold perspiration on his brow. I told him he had a cold sweat and put a towel around his neck and laid him down in his dressing room. I had to assist him in undressing. At one time he stood up and said that he had terrible cramps. Nevertheless he went on for his second act and when he came off complained of still being in pain. He had to leave Montréal that night for Detroit and on the way to the railroad station and at the station itself he was very sick and constantly complained of pains in his stomach. I took him in a restaurant to get a cup of hot boiled water and took a bottle of black coffee for him on the train. He was unable to sleep all that night after leaving Montréal and constantly stated that he had pains in his stomach."
    I see no room in the timeline for the Prince of Wales punch.

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    1. Did they go direct from the theater to the train or was there downtime back at the hotel? That's where the opening would be.

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  2. This bothers me:
    Gilles Larin: "One of them, mimicking the act that Houdini presented in his show where he dared anyone to hit him in the stomach, walked up to Houdini, who was sitting in a lounge chair reading a newspaper, and, without any warning, hit him through the newspaper in the stomach, a crunching blow. Houdini, doubled over in pain, said, 'You shouldn't have done that,' then got up, very slowly, and walked out of the lobby."
    Rose Mackenberg states: "He had to leave Montréal that night for Detroit and on the way to the railroad station and at the station itself he was very sick and constantly complained of pains in his stomach. I took him in a restaurant to get a cup of hot boiled water and took a bottle of black coffee for him on the train."
    This isn't coming fourth hand.

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    1. You're right. I wrote second-hand, but this more removed than that. It's the night clerk to the grandfather to the father to the son to Bell.

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  3. Like I said, I believe the Picklemen punch has met a standard of proof. This one really hasn't. I was surprised to see it included as fact in the Kalush book.

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    1. I don’t have the Bell Book in front of me, but I am assuming that he was in the hotel lobby waiting for transport to the train station, as opposed to in the lobby waiting to board the overnight train?
      Also, Francis Larin was the owner of the Prince of Wales Hotel from 1919 to 1930. What was Honore Larin’s (night clerk’s) relation to Francis?

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    2. Honore was Francis' brother. I went back and clarified in post.

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  4. I wonder how close the hotel is/was to the train station? I knew Ozzie Malini who was with Houdini that night. Did any of the company have a bite to eat in the hotel restaurant before they went to the train? I would doubt that most of the assistants stayed at the Prince of Wales. They may have, but, the assistants liked to find cheaper digs like theatrical boarding houses.
    I have just scoured Alexander and Newspapers.com to try to find any account of Houdini challenging anyone to punch him in the stomach onstage ever. All we have is Gilles Larin and a hundred year old man, Al Hirschfeld (who adds money to the challenge), although this has the potential to become an urban legend.
    If the Pickleman punch is real --( I think it is. Whitehead never mentioned punching Houdini to anyone that we know of after he gave his statement. He might tell someone he'd known Houdini -- but Bell only turned up two, as I recall, very similarly to Pickleman) -- then, the prankster in the Larin story might have heard of that punch. Just saying.
    Also, if Houdini had a diseased appendix, I don't think he would have allowed the Pickleman punch or the Whitehead punch. Did Houdini actually perform three shows in Montreal and the one in Detroit after the Whitehead punches? In traumatic appendicitis, the symptoms begin instantly. Remember when Houdini told Smilovitz that the portrait made him look tired. "You made me look a little tired in this picture. The truth is I don't feel so well." He shouldn't have felt well, he'd been suffering from traumatic appendicitis for almost an hour.

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    1. Sid Radner told me that Rose Mackenberg told him she once "tested" Houdini with a punch to the stomach.

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    2. As far as I can tell by looking at an old map from 1923, and comparing it to a modern map via google maps, it looks like the old Canadian Pacific Railway was a few miles away from The Prince of Wales Hotel and both are now long gone.

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    3. Although there is an old photo of the legendary Princess Theatre, that has railroad tracks in front of it. And it looks like the train station in Montreal today is located within walking distance.

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    4. I wanted to post a shot of the location of the Prince of Wales today, but I couldn't find it on Google maps. It looks like 17-19 McGill College Ave has been absorbed into the school or the street name has been changed. Did you find that, Joe?

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    5. Yes. I just estimated where it would have been to get an approximately mileage for distance to train station.

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  5. Everybody else punched him in the stomach and the NURSE?

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  6. Here is the link to the 1923 map which has McGill College Ave on it:
    https://www.etsy.com/listing/115589459/1923-antique-montreal-canada-map-vintage

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  7. McGill's location isn't germane. We are looking at Houdini's path to the station after his Saturday night show. I didn't think to ask Ozzie Malini if he, his father and Houdini ate after the show. We need to know how long after the performance the train left. The assistants should have been packing the show during the show. How long after the show were they fully packed and ready to get them to the train station? Did Houdini and some others -- because Max Malini and his son saw the show and saw Houdini to the train station -- have a bite to eat at the Prince of Wales' restaurant?

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    1. It seems logical and likely that Houdini has time to eat after the show and some downtime back at the hotel. As you say, I'm sure the assistants oversaw the packing of the show on the train.

      Also recall that Houdini's train got in very late to Detroit. They had to scramble when they arrived. This delay could have been on the front end of the trip -- the train left late. Hence Houdini is still at the Prince of Wales at closing time for the pub.

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    2. I am amazed that he performed 4 shows (Friday evening Montreal, Saturday Matinee Montreal, Saturday evening Montreal, Sunday evening Detroit) after being punched Friday (10/22) by Whitehead. The last show in Montreal, was advertised to start at 8.15 in the evening. So if it started on time and ran for 2 ½ hours, it would have ended around 10:45.
      Per Jim Collins, After Saturday show, HH immediately laid down in the dressing room. He was sick at the railroad station at Montreal after his performance.
      Per Silverman, HH also planned to celebrate his last schedule show in Montreal with a champagne party. HH, Bess and entourage got to the train late that night.
      Per Milbourne Christopher, Train made a brief stop at London Ontario; Arrived late [Detroit], HH didn’t go to hotel, went straight to pitch in and helped the stagehands set up heavy gear [while in pain]
      Per Kalush, the show in Detroit was scheduled to start at 8:30, but there was a delay due to late arrival of personnel and equipment from Toronto… show started around 9…1000 mile journey from Montreal
      It sure would be nice to know when the train left, Montreal.

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    3. Well the 1000 miles may be an HH exaggeration; it is approximately 575 miles from Montreal to Detroit. And by car today would take about 10 hours 30 minutes and by train would take about 9 to 11 hours. Who knows how long it would have taken back in HH’s day.

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    4. Interesting the think that HH might have been in the hotel lobby to get away from Bessie's "champagne party."

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    5. Indeed. Although, Kalush and Christopher have the champagne party happening in Houdini’s Hotel room Friday night where Silverman states Saturday night. After reviewing the source that they both used, I may have to lean toward Kalush and Christopher on this one.

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  8. We can't dismiss the Gilles Larin family story. We can't prove it either. But, the cocktail party certainly makes it sound as if some of the company went back to the hotel for some legal booze before they returned to the land of prohibition.

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  9. If the cocktail party was on Friday, it has no relevance. Ken Silverman made a lot of mistakes. I found him remarkably close-minded on certain matters. However, he justified it well when he said (I'm paraphrasing a little), "In most famous lives there are at least three different versions of any given event. In Houdini's life, there are at least ten versions of any event."
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ema7lfEAMk

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    1. Love that. That should be the motto of this blog.

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  10. The link provided by Pat took me to a closed caption on Youtube that says:

    This video is unavailable.
    Sorry about that.

    hmmm........

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