Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The eyewitness - Smiley's sketch

While examining a large cache of research papers this weekend, I came upon this remarkable image from Henry Gordon's World of Magic. This is a sketch made by McGill University student, Sam Smilovitz (aka Smiley), who was witness to the infamous dressing room assault on October 22, 1926 at the Princess Theatre in Montreal. That started a chain of events ending in Houdini's death on Halloween.

This is not the portrait sketch Smiley was doing of Houdini at the time (I've always wondered what happened to that). This appears to be a sketch he made later, probably for the insurance company deposition, showing the position of each man in the dressing room at the time of the incident.

Sketch by Sam Smiley of scene in Houdini dressing room, Friday,
October 22, 1926. Whitehead is at the left, Smiley at the right.

In the drawing we see Houdini reclining on his dressing room couch or cot. Smiley is on the right with a sketch pad in hand. Jacques Price is in the center. And, of course, J. Gordon Whitehead, who administered the fateful blows, on the left. Interestingly, Whitehead appears to be bald (or balding). In the lower right, Smiley has sketched the action of the blows themselves. This sketch also gives us a good idea just how small the dressing room at the Princess really was.

Over the years, illustrators have offered up their own versions of what the incident looked like, mainly in books about Houdini aimed at children. Below is a sampling.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Top (left to right): Escape King: The Story of Houdini by John Ernst. Illustration by Ray Abel, 1975; The Great Houdini by Monica Kulling. Illustration by Anne Reas, 1999; The Great Houdini by Anne Edwards. Illustration by Joseph Ciardiello, 1977.

Bottom (left to right): Harry Houdini Master of Magic by Robert Kranske. Illustration by Victor Mays, 1973; Houdini by Laura Alden. Illustration by Betty Raskin, 1989; A Picture Book of Harry Houdini by David A. Adler and Michael S. Adler. Illustration by Matt Collins, 2009.


  1. Incredible! ANOTHER amazing find! What you have here is the next best thing to having a photo of the incident. An eye witness drawing of one of the four people present at the time. Although....did I read correctly that Bess was also in the room when the fatal blows were struck?

  2. I agree, this is the best thing next to a photo. It really is an amazing artifact. If you read Bessie was in the room...I don't believe that's correct. There is no mention of Bess in either Jack Price or Smiley's depositions. Just the three men.

  3. The only issue and/or problem with the illustrations, is there is a slight difference in the stories--- accounts--- of the three witnesses.

  4. Did Whitehead go to jail for this?

    1. No, it was considered an accident. Nothing malicious.

  5. Drawing makes it look pretty malicious