Saturday, July 11, 2015

Houdini death photo keeps us guessing

Discussion has once again flared-up over this remarkable photo of what is said to be Houdini in death. This photo comes from the collection of Jon Oliver who says it was once part of a private scrapbook put together by Bess Houdini. Jon received the photo from Bessie's niece, Ruth Kavanaugh, and on the back Bess herself has written: "This is the last photo of Houdini."

There was some speculation that this could be Houdini alive during his Summerfield's furniture store test in September 1926, which was a repeat of his Buried Alive test out of water (more on that here). However, Perry from NJ comments that Houdini's fingers appear to be bound together with "some sort of elastic material" to hold them in place, which certainly suggests this is a corpse.


What do we think? Alive or dead? I'm afraid I'm the one who suggested the possibility that this was the Summerfield's test, but I'm coming back toward the belief that this is indeed the dead Houdini, most likely taken in Detroit before or during his return trip to New York. (It was widely reported that Houdini was returned to NY, and later buried, in his glass-topped Buried Alive casket).

But the circumstances of this photo are still puzzling. Why is he propped up as if on display? What is he wearing? Are his fingers bound? Who is the man in the background? And who took this photo and why?

I'm preempting my planned post today to re-share this photo for those who might have missed it on the first round, and provide a place for comment and discussion. It is a weird and remarkable image. Alive or dead, Houdini always keeps us guessing!

Thanks to Jon Oliver and Patrick Culliton.

Related:

77 comments:

  1. the one thing that gives me pause here is how informally he seems to be dressed. I realize that the showing/wake was not until he was brought back to nyc, and maybe redressing a body once embalmed is easier than I would think, but I would think that it would have made sense to have dressed the body for burial/showing at the same time as the embalming in Detroit. That aspect does make me wonder.

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    1. Make me wonder as well. But my thinking is this is some sort of standard burial shroud or hospital garment. The mortician in Detroit probably didn't have any clothes to put him in. But he knew HH would be delivered to another mortuary in NY who would do the final dressing of him for the funeral and burial, etc. So this was temporary. That's why I think this was taken in Detroit or during transport.

      Then to flip-side it: if you look at photos of Rahman Bey's buried alive, he is dressed in a long white robe-like garment like this. So was this Houdini's preferred costume for his above water buried alive, which suggests this could be Summerfield's?

      See, we can find support for both theories. But I'm thinking the first is correct and this is a temporary garment.

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  2. This is Perry from NJ aka Anonymous. I never saw his bound fingers until last night when I zoomed in on his hands. I thought this was Houdini performing his last buried alive type stunt but no way now. This is Houdini dead either being loaded up for his trip to NY or unloaded in NY.

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    1. Ah, hey Perry. Sorry, didn't know who Anonymous was. Good work on the figures. I see something there, not quite sure what it is, but like you, it's enough to tilt me back toward the idea that this is HH dead.

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  3. Hi John--Sorry about my last post in the Shelton Pool blog. When I finished and published it, you had already hit the brakes on this photo and I was too late. I agree with the first part of your speculation that the embalmer in Detroit most likely did not have the suit for HH and threw over the blanket as a temporary cover. Lets keep in mind that this all happened unexpectedly.

    This photo is eerie, and no doubt would have pleased HH. He went out in a blaze of macabre glory. I wonder, did that photographer take more pictures? Bess' handwriting on the back of this photo pretty much seals the deal that this is HH on his way to Machpelah.

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    1. No worries, Leo. I figured we needed a proper place to discuss this photo. And I think a lot of people might not know what we're talking about because I originally posted this a few years back when we had a lot less traffic.

      Bessie's writing on the back... See, I made that work in my Summerfield's theory by suggesting it still could still be HH's last photo because that test was done in late September 1926. So last photo alive. But that did require some metal gymnastics. It's more logical that this is the LAST photo.

      Wasn't the show all shipped back to NY while HH was in the hospital? (The story goes that the casket was mysteriously left behind.) Presumably, when the show went back, so did his trunks with his clothes. We know HH wore pajamas in the hospital.

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  4. This is what I see: If you blow up the image, you can see what appears to be a string, twine or something wrapped around the middle knuckles. The lower half of the body is covered in a white sheet. He’s wearing a short sleeve white shirt with a collar. Then, just barely visible above the metal frame you can see the nose and nostrils and a glimpse of a face. It’s hard to tell iif this is a ‘Test” or a death photo. But the bound hands and lower half wrapped in a sheet suggest that it’s a corpse. Why would he cover his lower half for any reason? It wouldn’t be for warmth, since he’s wearing what appears to be a short sleeve shirt. So, perhaps it’s a sheet that initially was covering the entire body, then pulled down to show that it was indeed the body of the late HH.

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    1. Hey, I've never really noticed the collar before. Seeing that, and the short sleeves, this does appear to be in the style of the loose comfortable shirts we see on him in several photos inside 278. And, yes, the lower part is just a sheet. It's not one piece as it appears.

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    2. Here's a good look at HH in his comfortable shirt. Could be the same style. Could be the same shirt! Houdini at home -- "looks human".

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  5. Why would he not be completely wrapped up? Why leave his face and arms exposed? Generally when you leave a hospital dead they wrap the entire body in a shroud including arms and head. The tied together fingers seal the deal for me that he is dead but why wrap the body as if it were to be in some way on display? I also notice his hands appear very white and his right arm appears very dark with what appears to be a large dark blotch on his forearm. Assume body fluids are pooling. Perry from NJ.

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  6. Hold the phone. What is that framed object behind the box? Could it be a large framed mirror???? Looks as if the person in the suit is standing with one shoulder behind that framework.....whatever it is. What does John Oliver say about this photo? Perry from NJ.

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    1. Watch out. This is how I went down the rabbit hole to my Summerfield's theory. That framed whatever could be a poster. The man could be an assistant. The platform the casket is propped up on is described in the articles on the test. And we know this is the casket he used that day.

      But fingers tied...fingers tied...that suggests otherwise. As does Bess's notation on the back.

      Maybe Jon will chime in here. All he's every shared with me is what I've include in the post. Maybe Jon can send us a scan of the writing on the back?

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  7. Another earth shattering observation. Look closely at the glass top reflections. I see a line of people that are positioned in front on the box. Is Houdinis body on display here? Perry from NJ.

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    1. I see what you're looking at. No sure those are people. But possible!

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  8. If we were able to enhance this photo in some way so it was clearer that would help. We're Houdinis assistants normally dressed so formally as it appears that gentleman is dressed? Could it be that the Houdini family had a private viewing once the body came back from Detroit? To me, and I don't know exactly why I would say this but, it appears the photo was taken outside. Perry from NJ.

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  9. What I see in that reflection is what appears to be a telephone pole in the center and relatively large group of people standing in a V shaped formation in front of the box.

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  10. Yes. I can make out hair and what look like faces to the left and right of the telephone pole reflection. As you look at it it becomes that much more clear.

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    1. Yeah, I can see that.

      In the Summerfield test, it was reported that the casket was propped up on display in the window, presumably facing out toward the street. Hmmm...

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  11. So if somehow this is that test we are seeing all this through the front window of that furniture store? To the right it looks like glare perhaps from taking a photo at an angle through glass. Or at least ones imagination can interprete it this way. Perry from NJ.

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    1. Somehow you've discovered evidence that appears to confirm BOTH the alive and dead ideas. :)

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  12. This photo is incredibly confusing. The tied fingers should seal the deal. However why would Houdinis body be on display in this fashion? You can see there is a platform where the box is sitting there is no doubt. However Houdinis body is not dressed for viewing. The other point is that Houdini went through several weeks and several operations where he probably was not able to eat comfortably so he could not have been in great shape to "view" in this manner. Certainly after a mortician was able to fix him up yes but not in what appears an informal viewing such as this. Again very confusing.

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  13. Another point for clarification. There are at least two caskets. The one that Houdini was shipped back from Detroit is this glass topped casket "liner". This is what is within that packing crate being unloaded from the train in NY in that famous photo. The bronze coffin is what Houdini was buried in at Macpalah cemetery. Supposedly he is hermetically sealed in that coffin liner which is then within the bronze casket.

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  14. I always thought that the bronze casket we see in that train station photo was the one HH ordered for his buried alive in the sandbox effect. The glass topped coffin seems too flimsy for this trick. So what we see in the train station photo is just some type of packing crate? I thought that was the bronze casket that he would eventually be buried in.

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  15. Did he have a string for ringing a bell while underwater?

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  16. I believe he was brought back to NY within that glass topped coffin liner. If you look at the packing crate that arrived in NY that contained Houdinis body it does not look big enough to hold that very large bronze coffin.

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  17. May be if they tide his hands together so they would not move around during travelling.

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  18. Unless there is a third coffin. I would expect that the escape where he was to be buried under tons of sand required a gimmiced coffin. The glass topped liner I do not believe was gimmiced since it was designed for his endurance stunts. The bronze coffin he was buried in along with the liner I believe is just a bronze coffin. So I would expect that his coffin escape under sand could possibly be still in existence today somewhere.

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  19. I thought that packing crate in the train station photo WAS the large bronze coffin HH was buried in, and the glass topped coffin was inside this. I guess not.

    I believe the fingers were tied to keep the hands in a clasped position. Most likely to prevent the arms from swinging around during shipment.

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  20. The white crate unless I am totally mistaken is and looks like a white crate. A bronze casket would look like bronze which is a mixture of copper and tin providing a copperish color. So my thought always has been that the white crate was the carrying case for the glass topped box used for Houdinis endurance stunts. At least this is my interpretation.

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  21. Down the rabbit hole...
    I'm starting to think that this is the 'test' and not a death photo. The casket is propped up on display in a window. Therefore, I think that he's alive and on display. If this was his corpse, why would they prop it up at an angle anyway? It seems like an awfully strange way to view a dead body. And the string over the knuckles? It might simply be something on the film and not actual;y there. After all, if this was a dead body, why would it be needed? There appears to be no wiggle room in the casket, so the arms and hands would probably not need to be fixed in place by a string. Also, rigor mortis would have already taken place so a bind just doesn’t seem necessary. But, I could be wrong.

    And what of Bess’, "This is the last photo of Houdini.”? She could have meant that this was the last photo of Houdini professionally. Maybe the last photo of him at work.

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  22. Not sure I see elastic holding his hands together. That may just be the way his hands look. Patrick Culliton has a great image of houdini’s hands for comparison at: http://www.houdinisghost.com/hands.html
    I believe we can see the four fingers of his right hand and two fingers of his left, so they are not exactly interlaced. His thumbs which would be at the top are not visible. If you try to duplicate your own hands to match Houdini’s, it is not a natural position IMHO.

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    1. I agree. Probably no string, He may just have had a few pronounced wrinkles on the skin of his knuckles.

      Or, if they were injured at some point, he had what’s known as boxers' knuckles.

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  23. I zoomed this photo to 300% on my laptop and can clearly see something over the fingers. If HH was alive in this coffin, why is there a blanket over his lower body? If he was inside of it for publicity, wouldn't better photos of this event exist?

    Joe's observation that the fingers are not exactly interlaced is further evidence that this is a dead body. A live person would naturally interlace his fingers correctly. It happens automatically. The embalmer must have put the fingers together in a somewhat interlaced manner and wasn't going to fuss over the placement of each finger. He knew the next funeral operator was going to dress the body and it meant that the hands would be released.

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  24. Very confusing. I don't understand why anyone would display any dead body in this manner. The coffin is obviously being purposefully held upright.......why?

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  25. Back from the rabbit hole...
    Maybe it is a string. Close up on the right index finger. You can see where the string crests over the top edge of the finger. And, maybe rigor mortis made interlacing the fingers difficult. So maybe he is dead.

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  26. And they are displaying Houdinis dead body dressed in a short sleeved shirt and hospital sheets in a glass topped coffin liner........for what reason?

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    1. Good question. As John stated, there is evidence that confirm BOTH the alive and dead ideas.

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  27. Could it be that our interpretation of the photo is invalid? Although we are interpreting that the box is being held at an angle for display maybe it's actually laying flat and in process of being carried/dropped off at the funeral home?

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    1. Maybe it was temporarily lifted to an angle for some purpose. For transporting or for photographs.

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  28. Houdini has to be dead here....

    Hands held together by string.

    Hands interlaced in a very unnatural position.

    Lower body draped in a hospital shawl or sheets

    Hands pale white in color and what looks like wounds and dark discoloration on his forearms.

    Dead Houdini being transferred from the funeral home in Detroit to NY prior to or after being boxed/unboxed from the white carrying case. Perry from NJ.

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  29. Could this have been some kind of ramp or slide under the coffin for loading into a truck or the train? Perhaps we're looking at the coffin being prepped to be slid up or down from the truck/train? The coffin had to be loaded into a truck in order to ride to the train station.

    That framed object is still a mystery to me. Perhaps somebody held it up to pose it for a photo next to the coffin. If it is a framed poster of HH, it may have been there to identify the occupant of the coffin in photographs. Are we looking at a cropped photo? Maybe.

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  30. I doubt they would load or unload any dead person in an open casket in public let alone Houdini. We know fairly certainly that this glass topped box was packaged in a wooden case for transit. So this photo had to be taken prior to boxing at the funeral home in Detroit or after Unboxing at the funeral home in NY.

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  31. You would think more photos would have been taken and not just this one.

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  32. Great discussion. So many great questions. Afraid I'm at a loss for answers at this point. What I really want to see a photo from the Seummerfiled's test -- see what HH wore on that days -- so we can confirm it or rule it out entirely. What a mystery this photo is.

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  33. Another question is why take such a photo in the first place? All you see is his hands and nostrils so you cannot ID who the person is in the box. I would expect this type photo IF this were a stunt. If he were dead I would better expect a photo that shows That indeed it is a dead Houdini in the book.

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  34. If you all can't figure this out do you really think Bessie spent hours studying it to decide it was his "last image?" Hw do you know that someone didn't give her this image 20 years later and told her it was a picture of Houdini? Also someone could have made it up or it could be a image of some other stunt man

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    1. That's a valid consideration. But I think Bess would recognize Houdini's buried alive box, and whatever was going on with the body, she was probably right there. But it possible Bess annotated this after the fact. And if this is Summerfield's, it's possible she just found this photo among many, saw that it was HH in the box she knows he was buried in, and assumed it was taken after death. But like I said, this requires a little mental gymnastics. I like going with the simplest idea -- that Bess knew exactly what this pic was and that's why it was put into a special family scrapbook.

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  35. Guys...his hands are being held together via string and they are clasped in a very un natural position..he is dead here. Whatever the circumstances as to why the photo was taken is a side note. This is Houdinis body either in Detroit or NY.

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    1. I tend to agree this is the dead Houdini. But I would still love to know the circumstances of when, where, and why this photo was taken.

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  36. Assuming this is Summerfield's, HH really went out of his way to look dead: blanket over the lower body, fingers tied, and splotches on his right forearm. I also wondered if this was really HH, but we have all seen many photos of his hands and these hands do look like his.

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    1. Those definitely look like his hands. His hands are pretty easy to recognize. But when I first saw this pic, I was thrown because I thought the dark patch on his arms was hair, and HH didn't have arm hair that thick and dark. But maybe it isn't hair. Or maybe the contrast on the pic is making normal arm hair pop out dark for some reason.

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  37. Do the Jews normally put bodies on display after death? Also people saying the fingers are tied. Tied to what? If the dark marks on the finger is string then what is it tied to in order to keep it in place? Has anyone considered that this may be a dummy display at Sid radner's place or at a Madam T's wax museum?

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    1. Remember where this came from -- a private Bessie scrapbook. I think that would preclude it being a dummy or some wax museum display.

      Not sure about Jewish customs, but we know there was an open casket at the Elks club.

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    2. The fingers are tied to each other in a probable figure 8 pattern. That would have been strong enough to hold the hands in place until the body reached the N.Y. funeral home. HH never has hair that thick on his arms. We're seeing some type of splotch there.

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    3. Just because it was in her private collection doesn't mean it is authentic. How would she be able to tell if you all can't tell? Can you see the conversation? "Ms. Houdini here is a picture I took of your dead husband being wheeled into the Elk's club.10 years ago." and her replying "Oh let me see a picture of my dead husband in a coffin" Not likely she even looked but just wrote on the back and put t in her collection

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    4. I just don't think it is him. The dark hairy arm and the watch. If the hairy arm is a phantom shadow then so is the fingernails

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  38. My wife is a OR nurse. She says they could have started an IV in that location for several reasons...

    Inability to find an open vien on the opposite side of the arm.

    Too many IVs so this area had to be used.

    His fingers are tied together by the funeral home in Detroit to keep his hands and arms in place.

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  39. After 2 weeks in the hospital and two operations Houdini must have been a wasted sight. I am sure he had little solid food during that time.

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  40. The guy in what appears to be a black suit, black tie and white shirt is certainly dressed like a funeral home employee that's for sure. You know if there is this one photo there had to be more.

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    1. He's actually dressed a lot like how Houdini dressed. Wouldn't we have egg on our faces if this turned out to be HH standing beside Rahman Bey? :)

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  41. Another observation......the box is sealed and is obviously being moved... Left right up and down....even as we see here......tilted. No one can reach into that box and position or reposition Houdini if he is dead. YET it appears that his head is not tilted to one side or another. Looks like he is staring straightforward. I find this odd since if he were dead and was being moved a slight movement of the box one way or another could easily tilt a dead Houdinis head to the left or right. After embalming rigor Mortis eases.

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  42. If this photo was taken by a newspaper photographer, there has to be plenty more floating out there. Perhaps they're in the archives of the journals that covered this. HH might have been the most publicized man on the planet next to the President. The press had to have been on the trail of his coffin from Detroit to N.Y.

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  43. Thoughts from the rabbit hole...
    I think this is a deceased HH in the process of being transported, not displayed. My guess is that it’s on it’s way to the funeral home to be properly dressed. A string holds the hands together as rigor mortis probably made interlacing the fingers difficult. I think the dark right forearm could be from blood pooling under the skin, or just shadow due to a foreshortening effect. Finally, Jewish customs don’t normally allow for displaying of the body to the public.

    By the way, isn’t this ironic. This entire Houdini dead or alive photo debate seems like something that he would have loved.

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    1. I think I'm with you on all points, Mantoo. Interesting that Jewish custom doesn't normally allowing viewing of the body, because HH did lay in state at the NY Elks Club, and it was open to the public. But HH tended to do his own thing, especially when it came to death rituals (no graven images in Jewish cemeteries - bah!). And he was competing with Valentino's recent mega funeral.

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    2. Yes, exactly what I was thinking, HH did his own thing.

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  44. Somewhat related... There's a pic of HH flagging the start of an auto race in Worcester MA , and on the back on that photo is written "last picture of Harry." It appears in Silverman's notes book, page 179.

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    1. That is also the same time her opened the Worcester SAM which I was the Secretary of. I remember reading the minutes of it but don't remember if there was any pictures

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    2. Interesting! I'd love to read those minutes.

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  45. We're looking at the body of HH being transported, so what is supporting the coffin at that angle? I think it's a ramp of some sort to slide it into whatever was going to transport the coffin to its destination, or it has already been unloaded.

    Whatever we see on his right forearm doesn't appear to be a shadow to my eyes. Shadows start from one edge and go from there. This spot is isolated on both sides. Could be the IV damage that another poster mentioned. HH was poked, prodded and carved at Grace.

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    1. I can see that happening by the shippers: "Who we shipping?" "Houdini!" "really? Open it up I wanna see the guy." and someone snapped a image. But I don't think this is it

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  46. I started a thread on the Genii Forum back in 2009 asking if anyone could identify Houdini's last photograph. I was intrigued by an article in a Linking Ring issue where Jay Marshall identified the pic of HH posing in front of a glass showcase that contained his library as his last photo. I knew that could not have been the last photo of HH. Here is the link to that Genii thread. Sorry, I don't know how to tidy up the link with a few words. I just cut and paste:

    http://forums.geniimagazine.com/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=26658&p=215163&hilit=last+photo+of+houdini#p215163

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    1. Wow, you were actually able to have a sustained discussion about Houdini on Genii? That's a magic trick. When I post there, I hear crickets.

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  47. If this is a photo of Houdini then no one was allowed to take it. Why would someone take a photo like this if there is a mirror showing who it is. This was a "spray and pray" photo. A sneak shot hoping to get a good one. As a photographer I would want a obvious identifiable photo.

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  48. That thread took me to the Worcester checkered flag photo as the last picture of HH. But I believe you may have provided the final photo, John. So you, with the help of Jon Oliver, get the prize. Unless it's that funeral home photo that Kevin Connolly provided. It's the one where see HH's nose jutting above the edge of the coffin.The final alive photo still hangs in the balance. Could be that checkered flag picture unless someone took a photo after that.

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    1. Pat Culliton, via Jon Oliver, was actually the first person to reveal this image. I believe Pat first put it up on his site and then published it in Houdini The Key. I first saw this image at Pat's house.

      The funeral home photo is its own mystery. It appeared in a trade magazine and is identified as Houdini. But the casket doesn't really match the one he was buried in. There's also another open casket photo on Corbis, or maybe its the NYT photo site, but you can't see HH in that one.

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