Saturday, March 24, 2007

Washington Post: Why not just hold a seance?

From left, George Washington University forensic science
professor James Starrs and authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman

The Washington Post has a very interesting article today about the proposed exhumation of Houdini to test for poisoning. This is starting to stink a bit. Here is the article in full:

Why Not Just Hold a Seance?
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007

NEW YORK, March 23 -- Determined to right a historic wrong, a group that included authors, lawyers and a forensic pathologist called a news conference Friday to unveil a bold campaign to exhume a dead book.

No, wait.

To exhume a dead body. Well, that's what they said, anyway. But the more they talked about exhuming the body, the more it seemed like the point was reviving the sluggish sales of a nearly moribund book.

Specifically, The Secret Life of Harry Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero, by William Kulash and Larry Sloman. Published in October, this door-stopper purports to reveal new and astounding elements of the great magician's life and death -- including the claim that he was murdered, a crime plotted by the husband of a spiritualist whom Houdini had debunked.

When this murder rap first surfaced in The Secret Life, nobody paid it much mind, probably because there is not a whit of remotely persuasive evidence to support it. But a couple days ago a public-relations firm in Manhattan issued a news release announcing that the "families of Harry Houdini" would call for the exhumation of their ancestor's body so that it could be tested for traces of poison. Further, the announcement stated, a noted law and forensic science professor at George Washington University, James Starrs -- whose previous celebrity disinterments included the outlaw Jesse James -- had agreed to conduct the tests.

"We are here today at the beginning of a historical moment," said attorney Joseph Tacopina, starting off the festivities and speaking before a few dozen reporters and photographers. "Advances in forensic science have increased our desire as a society to disinter the distinguished in order to solve outstanding mysteries. This is one."

The Houdini clan, it turned out, was represented by George Hardeen, a grand-nephew, who was later heard via speakerphone and identified by Tacopina as "the only known living descendant of the family." Tacopina said that he had received the consent of the cemetery in Queens where Houdini is buried, and that he has a "good and substantial case," which he stated is the legal standard to convince a court that a digging expedition is a good idea.

Exactly how compelling is this case? The standard account of Houdini's death is that on Oct. 22, 1926, while he was on tour in Montreal, a fan punched him in the stomach -- by invitation, but before he was ready for the blow -- rupturing an already inflamed appendix. (It's known that Houdini had been complaining of stomach pain at the time.) A doctor in a Detroit hospital tried injecting him with an experimental serum, but he died on Halloween, at the age of 52.

But authors Kulash and Sloman maintain that Houdini was the victim of a thuggish cabal of psychics. Houdini spent much of his career unmasking spiritualism as a fraud, and one of his favorite targets was one Mina "Margery" Crandon, a socialite who acquired a certain fame after claiming telekinetic abilities. Her husband, a prominent Boston surgeon named Le Roi Crandon, was supposedly a member of what the authors call "the Psychic mafia" and the man behind Houdini's poisoning. In the authors' telling, Crandon had a confederate inject Houdini with that serum in Detroit, and it was meant to kill him, not cure him.

Now, you would think that for this theory to hold water you'd need some link between Crandon and the physician who administered the serum, right? Nuh-uh.

"There is no connection between the two [men]," said Kalush in a chat after the news conference. "There might be a connection. What I'm saying is there is more to investigate there."

Don't just focus on the serum, Kalush said. Another revelation in The Secret Life is that after the initial punch, Houdini was attacked two more times, both times by men punching him in the stomach. Kind of a strange way to whack a guy -- send goons to repeatedly punch him in the stomach. But if that doesn't fly, Kalush says that Houdini could have been poisoned earlier in his tour.

"We don't have a day-to-day record of who was with Houdini on tour," Kalush said. "Crandon had a lot of connections. Do we have a smoking gun that Crandon had a friend in Houdini's camp who could have put something in his soup? No."

What we have here, to put it politely, is pure conjecture. Kenneth Silverman, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of Houdini!!!: The Career of Erich Weiss read The Secret Life and found the murder charge unconvincing.

"There's just no evidence given," he said. "I'll believe anything if you've got good evidence. But these are all very surprising and extreme conclusions. And the business about him being punched by a number of people sounds to me like utter baloney."

This wasn't the only story at the news conference that didn't quite check out. Hardeen, the grand-nephew, said he is not the only known descendant of Houdini. Far from it.

"There's lots of relatives out there," he said.

Well, did they sign off on this exhumation?

"I'm just speaking for myself. I don't represent the entire family, that's for sure."

Further, the man in charge of the cemetery in Queens said yesterday he hadn't given his okay to dig up Houdini's body -- nor is his okay needed.

"It's not up to me," David Jacobson explained, the cemetery's chairman of the board. "It's up to the courts."

Well, this is all starting to sound a little nutty, isn't it? Or not. The news conference, held at the American Jewish Historical Society, generated stories in the New York tabloids, and it was impossible to take a photo of Friday's event without including a big blown-up copy of the cover of The Secret Life.

It turns out this media spectacle was not orchestrated and paid for by the family of Houdini, as one might have inferred from Tacopina's opening remarks. It was organized and paid for by the authors, who hired the uber-crafty PR firm Dan Klores Communications to put it together. The idea, perhaps, was to goose sales of The Secret Life, which hasn't exactly burned up the bestseller list. It's sold a decent 24,000 since October, according to BookScan, which tracks most retailers, but the numbers are flagging. Last week, just 200 copies were sold.

So you can't help but feel sorry for Houdini, whose eternal peace could be disturbed for the sake of a hardback. One of his go-to stunts was escaping from a sealed coffin. If there's any justice in the world, here's hoping this misadventure ends with a bunch of people, huddled in a cemetery in Queens, gaping at an empty box.

UPDATE: Time to bury the Houdini exhumation.

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