Saturday, February 28, 2009

Time to bury the Houdini exhumation

Back in March 2007 the AP broke the news that the family of Houdini (reportedly represented by George Hardeen) was going to exhume the body of the great magician to investigate the possibility that he was poisoned. This was an old murder conspiracy theory championed as credible in the 2006 biography The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.

So what happened? It’s been two years and Houdini still rests in his grave. Unfortunately, the truth of this event is now as murky as the poisoning theory it was meant to dispel.

The authors assured me as of last year that it was sincere and was in the hands of the lawyers. I’ve no reason to doubt them. The popular media, on the other hand, has largely concluded that it was just a publicity stunt.

The Washington Post was the first to suggest something was rotten in their coverage of the March 24 news conference. Held at the American Jewish Historical Society, the paper noted "it was impossible to take a photo of the event without including a blown-up copy of the cover of The Secret Life of Houdini hanging being the news conference principals." A little digging by the paper revealed the media spectacle was not orchestrated by the family of Houdini, but was organized and paid for by the authors in conjunction with the PR firm Dan Klores Communications.

As time wore on, the authors said legal issues were delaying the exhumation, which seemed credible after the Hinson-Blood family and members of the magic community raised objections. “We want to do this the right way,” Sloman told the Daily News. “We don't want to offend anyone.”

But that same article revealed that the parties involved never filed legal papers to preform an exhumation, and that George Hardeen had pulled out, saying, “I am not intimately involved in this.”

Now, two years later, all the parties have gone quiet.

So what happened here? Was this a sincere attempt to investigate a controversial theory as the authors claim? Was it a crass publicity stunt as the press claim? Or was it some combination of both (which is what I’m now prone to believe). And was it harmless?

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Houdini exhumed. I freely admit I have a morbid curiosity to see the famous bronze casket and what remains of the old boy (not to mention the letters from mama buried under his head). Granted, if I were family, I might feel differently, but certainly Houdini wasn’t above prying the lid off deceased family members. He did exactly this with both his father and half-brother Herman when he had their bodies moved to the Machpelah family plot. I also would have loved all the publicity it would have generated (Will Houdini be inside?) and the Discovery Channel documentary that was vying to cover the event.

But to have gone this far would have required joining a collective conspiracy of belief in the poisoning theory, which most Houdini historians, including myself, find highly dubious. In the end, there was just no sincere reason to do this, and maybe that’s why it never happened.

For better or worse, the proposed exhumation of Houdini is now a part of the Houdini story. One day it would be nice to exhume the full truth.

Exhumation timeline:


  1. Houdini was present as they exhumed his brother
    and father because he had to by law. A family member has to identify the body when opening a
    Many members of the family asked me to fight this horrible pr stunt.
    Houdini attacted many frauds, but in the proper way. Not to upset the innocent.
    Ask yourself this, would you want a bunch of people there as some jerk comes up with an idea that your mother or father where killed and innsisted they be exhumed forcing you to watch your loved ones decaying body.
    Houdini was under constant medical attention, and blood drawen daily to moniter his condition.
    Do you think the doctors back then where so stupid that they would not have seen something that should not have been there!
    Harry H Hardeen remembers his uncles funeral well, as well as what took place. His words to me was they had no way to counter act the poisons in his system.
    Marie Blood, Ruth Kavanaugh were children when he died, but had vivid memories of what happened when Houdini was buried.
    I lost all respect for Kaloush for the pain he brought to people to try to sell a book.
    And a horrible book at that. One of the wosrt ever written.
    Jon Oliver

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jon. I'm not sure I blame Bill for any of this. We know he loves Houdini and magic history. I think the publisher, PR company, and Sloman are responsible for the sensationalism related to this book.

  2. The whole affair reeks of being a cruel publicity stunt. Even it it could be proven he'd been murdered, and even if a suspect could be identified, justice would not be served as he or she would be long dead anyway. But I think it's just nonsense. Houdini wasn't murdered. And if he was, then surely we already know it was Gordon Whitehead's punches that caused his death, and there is your suspect. Let Houdini rest in peace.

  3. There is no need to address the "exhumation" of Houdini's relatives since you can't bloody well relocate bodies without digging them up first!

    As to the poison theory, Kalush and Sloman in their excellent biography presented powerful evidence that Houdini and his wife Bess had been poisoned before, though Houdini himself attributed one instance to food poisoning. I have read--and find unreliable--the claim that Houdini, whenever he could, tried to obtain poison immunity.

    Yet the Kalush/Sloman bio gives awful indications that Houdini simply had a rotten appendix for years until it finally killed him. The doctors when they operated found Houdini's appendix was over a foot long and actually snaked across his entire abdomen. Not good!--and no poison would be needed to finish THAT job.

    No doubt Houdini was well acquainted with poisons and the chances people might have had to poison him--no doubt he trained himself to avoid this, as royal family members and other are taught to do. As to the exhumation, what boggles the mind is no one ever thought of it the moment our technology could handle it.

    I have no stupid desire to see Houdini (for law enforcement purposes and under general law, they'd NEVER show him anyway). However, I do wish to know a scientific study has been carried out to address the possibility he was poisoned. Even then, what would be gained? He may as well have poisoned himself to keep any secrets from escaping his lips.