We all know J. Gordon Whitehead punched Houdini in the stomach at the Princess Theater in Montreal on October 22, 1926. That punch started 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.
Recently we looked at the first of these, "the Pickleman punch," which took place at the McGill University Union Hall on October 19. Today we have what might be better described as an "assault" on Houdini in the lobby of the Prince of Wales Hotel on McGill College St., just a few blocks west of the Princess Theater.
In 1990, Gilles Larin, the grandson of the Prince of Wales owner, Francis Larin, related to Bell the remarkable story, which he said was part of family lore. He heard it from his father and grandfather, although the only eyewitness was the night clerk, Honore Larin (Francis' brother). Here's the story as told in Bell's book:
After giving a performance Houdini usually had a meal and relaxed in the Prince of Wales lobby, reading newspapers. In the back of the hotel was a tavern [Pig & Whistle] frequented by McGill students. It had a door leading to the lobby, but when the hotel closed at 11 p.m., the students usually went out through the rear exit leading to the lane in back.
But that particular night when Houdini was there waiting to board the overnight train that would take him and his company to Toronto, Buffalo, etc. and then to Detroit, three or four students who were rather drunk spilled out of the tavern into the lobby. One of them, mimicking the act that Houdini presented in his show where he dared anyone to hit him in the stomach walked up to Houdini, who was sitting in a lounge chair reading a newspaper, and, without any warning, hit him through the newspaper in the stomach, a crunching blow. Houdini, doubled over in pain, said, "You shouldn't have done that," then got up, very slowly, and walked out of the lobby.
Larin goes on to say that while this incident was "much discussed" the next day, there was no police report filed and Houdini was already gone. The timing of this is interesting. If Houdini was waiting for the train to Detroit, then this happened after the Whitehead blows, which would have made this especially painful (and damaging?). It's generally accepted that Houdini's appendix ruptured while on the overnight train to Detroit.
It's also interesting to speculate whether Houdini's unidentified assailant that night suffered the same confusion and guilt that Gerald Pickleman experienced. After Houdini's death, it was only reported that he had died as result of being punched by a "McGill University student." The name J. Gordon Whitehead and the details of the dressing room punch did not become public until 1953. Any student who struck Houdini that week would assume they were the student in the news reports. Houdini's words, "You shouldn't have done that," would have certainly haunted this student. (Unless he was too drunk to recall the incident at all.)
This one is a bit harder to accept than the Pickleman punch, which still had living eyewitnesses into the 1980s. While I find no reason to not believe this happened, second hand accounts are by their nature unreliable, especially when they are over 80-years-old. Still, it's a curious piece of the puzzle that is the last week of Houdini's life.