Sunday, February 23, 2014

Interview with Karen Mann, daughter of Jacques Price

Karen Mann and her father Jacques Price.
A highlight of last year's Official Houdini Seance in Nova Scotia was the attendance of Dr. Karen Mann, the daughter of Jacques "Jack" Price. Price was one of the three students in Houdini's dressing room in Montreal on October 22, 1926 and witnessed the punches by J. Gordon Whitehead. Those punches lead to Houdini's death nine days later on Halloween.

Now I'm honored to share a Q&A interview I was able to conduct with Dr. Mann via email. While she isn't able to answer all our deepest questions or help confirm or dispel the many conspiracy theories that have grown up around this incident, it's still incredible to hear from someone personally associated with the most infamous moment in Houdini history. So without further ado, here's Karen!

WAH: First, can you please tell us a little about yourself?

KM: I am the only child, and only daughter of Jacques Price and his wife Margo. I live in Halifax Nova Scotia. I am a university professor in medical education, and although I have 'officially' retired, I still work at things I love, like teaching, and am probably employed about 75%of time. My husband and I live in Halifax, and he too is partially retired from the University. I have three grown children, and we have 8 almost 9 grandchildren.

WAH: Can you tell us a little about your father, Jack Price, and what happened to him after McGill University?

KM: After McGill, my dad found his way to University of Toronto, where he studied civil engineering, graduating in the late 30s. I think he worked for some time before he went to university. It was in Toronto that he met my mother, who was from Niagara Falls. They married in 1940, and moved to Nova Scotia, via Prince Edward island. My dad served in the Royal Air Force in the War, as a squadron Leader, who taught calculus to pilots. He spent his work life as a self-employed civil engineer, a profession which he loved.

Jack Price sat center on Oct. 22.
WAH: Do you remember when you first learned that your father was one of the students in the dressing room on Oct. 22, 1926, when Houdini was punched?

KM: I learned about it from Donald Bell, who was researching and writing a book called The Man Who Killed Houdini. He contacted me as he had been trying to find my dad without success. He had gone to the UK, and found my dad's sisters who were still living in Blackpool and Preston, in the North of England. He found them through the local Synagogue, which was also how I learned that my dad was Jewish. Someone told him there, that my dad had a daughter in Halifax, and as Halifax is a small place, he found me without too much difficulty. I think it was sometime in 1992.

WAH: Do you remember exactly what your father told you about that day?

KM: I asked my dad about the incident, and the first thing he said was 'I didn't do anything wrong'. I think back on that now, and realize that there may have been a lot of questions around exactly what happened, and he was very cautious. He did tell me a little about it, just as the incident has been reported.

WAH: Did your father ever hint that he thought J. Gordon Whitehead deliberately tried to injure Houdini that day?

KM: WE didn't discuss it. At the time, I didn't know enough about the story to ask those questions.

WAH: Some think that Houdini's lawyer, Bernard Ernst, manipulated the details of the dressing room incident to aid his insurance claim for an accidental death. Did your father ever say anything about being manipulated or that his affidavit wasn't the full truth of what happened?

KM: No, he didn't. We didn't get to chat about it again. My mom died shortly thereafter and my dad within a few months. He was also a very private man all his life.

WAH: Did you know if your father went to see Houdini's lecture at McGill, or if he had ever seen Houdini perform on stage?

KM: I think he had. I think he was interested in meeting him, and so was happy to go backstage with his friend, Sam Smilovich.

Sam Smilovich in 1994.
WAH: Did your father stay in contact with Sam Smilovich after college? Did you know Sam?

KM: I don't know for sure; however when I spoke with him, I remember his being aware of what had happened with Sam following their time together, so they must have done in some way, perhaps not directly.

WAH: Did your father ever tell you what happened to the sketch Sam did of Houdini that day in the dressing room?

KM: No- wouldn't it be wonderful to see!

WAH: Did your father talk about the dressing room incident in public? Was it general knowledge among his friends that he was one of the eyewitnesses to the punch that may have killed Houdini?

KM: Absolutely not! He was reluctant to talk about it even with me. And when Don Bell called him following my conversation with him, my dad told him he didn't want to discuss it. No one knew. My mother was unaware even, until I told her.

WAH: Finally, how was the seance in Nova Scotia? Any strange phenomena occur?

Karen Mann
KM: The séance in Nova Scotia was a wonderful experience from start to finish. I felt very pleased to be there and really enjoyed meeting all the people who are so interested in and knowledgeable about Houdini. I'm not sure whether we actually heard anything, as our medium was unable to play back the tape very clearly. He (the medium) said that he could hear chains clanging- whether Houdini's or those of a ghost purported to live in the Citadel where the séance was held. My most enduring thought about the séance is that I really felt it connected me with my dad, who died in 1993. I especially appreciated the opportunity to say a few words about him.

Please join me in thanking Dr. Karen Mann for sharing her recollections of her father with all of us here at WILD ABOUT HARRY.

Photos from The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell. Also thanks to Bruce MacNab for making this possible.

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  1. Thank you Karen for the interview. It's a bit strange that Price would not confide more about that incident with his own child, but some people can become taciturn about parts of their lives.

    Did John forward an image of Smilovich's dressing room sketch?

    1. I found it more amazing that he didn't even tell his wife. But as Karen says, he was a very private man.

      I'm a bit haunted by the idea that he might have thought he did something wrong. I wish he knew that we all known it was just the opposite. He's the hero of the moment. By all accounts, he was the one who spoke up ("Hey, are you crazy?") and stopped Whitehead's punches.

  2. Great interview. My guess is that the reason Price was so tight lipped about the incident, wasn't so much about the incident itself, but more likely it was because of the aftermath that followed. This was a seminal moment in the early part of the 20th century; a major entertainer and future legend had just died. Price was there, and although he had nothing to do with the punching, later on, knowing that it led to HH's death, it must have caused him some kind of trauma. Not to mention the inquiry that surely followed. And as the 20th century rolled on, and HH became more famous, maybe Price became more insular on the subject.

    1. Excellent points. And also know that the name of the student who did the punching was not publicly revealed until 1953. All that was ever said up to that time was that it was a McGill student who visited him in his dressing room. So you can see how maybe he feared guilt by association.

      I also think he just might have been unusually private person. I mean, his daughter didn't even know he was Jewish?

    2. I agree. Just imagine talking to someone, then witnessing them getting into a car accident, then a week later they're dead. When people ask you about it, your reaction usually is, "I don't want to talk about it." Now imagine that the person that died is very famous and for the rest of your life you feel guilt by association.

  3. You know, I wish now I would have asked Karen if she recalls ever seeing the Tony Curtis Houdini movie with her father. I've always wondered what these men thought when the movie came out, including Whitehead (who would die that year). They might have breathed a sign of relief to see Houdini die in the Torture Cell.

    1. That would've been interesting to find out what their reaction was to the movie. My bet, Price never saw it.

    2. Probably not in the theater. But that sucker was on TV all time from 1970s on. They could have come across it. Wild to think of the family sitting and watching the movie and Jack privately thinking about the man he met that fateful day. I might have to harass her again with this question.

    3. That scenario, the family watching it on tv, would make a great movie, or short story.

  4. Great interview, very interesting….makes one want to "crawl" into the mind of Karen's father and have known his thoughts.

  5. Is it also possible that Price felt guilty that he could have done more to stop Whitehead that fateful day? When tragedy strikes somebody close, it's easy to torture yourself with guilt.

    Smilovich looks like the classic old French artist with his beret. When I see photos of Price, Smilovich, and Whitehead, it is a reminder that these were living people and not just names in a book.

    1. The Bell book is the only place I've even seen photos of these 3 men. Bell is convinced that Price is a dead ringer for Houdini.

    2. Good point. Maybe guilt haunted him for years. Maybe he felt he could've stopped Whitehead just before or just after the first punch.

  6. Good interview, John. Thanks for posting this.

    1. Thanks David. It was really an honor to be able to interview Karen and share it here.

  7. Wow, this is an amazing interview, well done John! It's too bad Karen didn't get more info out of her very private father, but as she said, she hardly knew what to ask him at the time, never mind how important such questions might be.

    It's great to see photos of Price as a younger man and Smilovich - crazy to think they were still alive just twenty odd years ago! Good thing Don Bell did his research when he did, eh?

    1. I know! They were both around into the 1990s. Why didn't we ALL talk to them!? But Don Bell really did the leg work to find them. His book is amazing. Easily one of the most important books ever produced on Houdini.

  8. Thanks for this.

    A great interview!

    Thanks for your good thoughts on Don Bell's "The Man Who Killed Houdini."

    A lot of people had brushed this book aside and poo-pood it. As you know we have done our best to promote it, and see it is finally getting the attention it deserves.

    Hope because of all this it goes into a second printing.

    Too bad Don Bell did not live to see all this!

    Dorothy Dietrich & Dick Brookz
    Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

  9. What is your phone number, so I can interview you for a project in school
    Thanks! -Tessa