|McGill University's Union Hall.|
We all know J. Gordon Whithead punched Houdini in the stomach in his dressing room at the Princess Theater in Montreal on October 22, 1926. It's debated whether or not the punch caused or just masked his fatal appendicitis, but all agree that Whitehead's punch was the start of a chain of events that would lead to the magician's death on Halloween. But in his seminal work, The Man Who Killed Houdini, author Don Bell uncovered evidence of two other punches delivered by McGill University students during Houdini's stay in the city that might extend that chain a little further back.
One of those punches is said to have occurred in the lobby of the Prince of Wales Hotel. However, that incident is questionable as it only comes via second-hand sources, so I'm going to save it for another time. The punch I want to discuss today is the first of the three for which there is strong evidence. This punch or "test" occurred on October 19, 1926, when Houdini was giving his lecture at McGill University. Bell calls it "the Pickleman punch."
Bell first learned of the Pickleman punch from a former McGill University student named Dr. William Cohen. Dr. Cohen said that a student named Gerald Pickleman had tested Houdini with a blow at the McGill Union Hall (today the McCord Museum). Unfortunately, Dr. Cohen could not remember specific details, although he did recall Houdini putting a needle through his cheek during this same meeting with students.
Eventually, Bell tracked down a key eyewitness to the Pickleman punch, another former McGill student named Jack Hausner. Bell interviewed the 84-year-old Hausner in Palm Beach, Florida in 1991. As you'll see, Hausner confused it with the Whitehead blow, as would others. Hausner recalled:
"It was in a public room where students went to socialize -- to shoot a game of pool or snooker. Houdini was passing through and we engaged him in conversation. He was very warm when we met him.
I remember clearly his challenge to anyone within the group to punch him -- with all his might! -- in his stomach so that he could demonstrate his powers of concentration to withstand physical pain and survive unharmed.
I must differ with you concerning the identity of the person who delivered the blow which apparently resulted in his death a week or two later. That person was not Gordon Whitehead, as you believe. If my memory serves me correctly, it was an undergraduate known to many of us at the time, name Gerald Pickleman (or Pickelman). ... He came from a family who lived in upper New York State.
Pickleman was a pretty burly fellow, but as far as I knew he wasn't a boxer and didn't work for the McGill Daily, although anyone could have contributed an article from time to time. Houdini had time to prepare himself. The blow wasn't unexpected. Pickleman was 170 pounds or so, five feet seven or nine. It was just one blow."
|Site of the Pickleman punch?|
Gerald Pickleman died in 1981, but Bell was able to find his widow, Annette Pickleman, who independently confirmed the events at Union Hall:
"Gerry told the story many times," she said, "whenever Houdini's name came up, but in later years people hadn't discussed it with him as much. It wasn't a thing he boasted about, but nor was it a secret or anything he ever tried to hide. He had the normal guilt a person would have. He was a sensitive man, not the kind of person who would go around punching people. He wasn't aware [that the punch had caused Houdini's death] until after the autopsy. That's when he began to talk about it."
What's tragic here is it appears Pickleman blamed himself for delivering the blow that "killed Houdini." But one can see how this happened. After Houdini's death, the newspapers only reported that he was struck by a "student of McGill University." In fact, the name of J. Gordon Whitehead did not appear in print until 1953. So it's understandable that Pickleman believed that he was the "McGill student" who fatally injured Houdini. Poor guy.
Now, I'd be remiss in not mentioning that Dr. William Tait, head of the McGill psychology department, who had invited Houdini to give his lecture at the University that day, denied that Houdini was struck by a student at the meeting. He said Houdini left in a taxi immediately after the lecture. But he may have been unaware of the informal meeting with the students (which could have happened before the lecture), or was trying to protect the University. He also said Houdini appeared ill at the meeting.
I do believe the Pickleman punch happened as independently described by William Cohen, Jack Hausner and Annette Pickleman (by way of her husband). I also believe it's likely that this "punch me as hard as you can" challenge and successful first demonstration at Union Hall is what motivated the drunken students at the Prince of Wales to test Houdini and, of course, J. Gordon Whitehead in the dressing room at the Princess Theater on the fateful day. You might even say Houdini's death began here.
|Union Hall is today the McCord Museum in Montreal.|
- Review: The Man Who Killed Houdini
- The McGill explanation
- Time to rethink the rethinking on the Houdini punch