In 1925, the year before his death, Harry Houdini was almost fanatical in his attempts to debunk and expose fake Spiritualists. He even went so far as to post a $10,000 bond in the cities he visited as guarantee against his standing challenge: if any medium could prove they did indeed possess supernatural abilities, the reward was theirs. Unfortunately for those who claimed the ability to commune with the dead - like Boston’s famed medium “Margary” - no one who accepted Houdini’s challenge ever triumphed over the great magician.
In 1923 Scientific American formed a committee, comprised of both believers and skeptics, tasked with finding a medium possessing genuine Spiritualistic powers. This group of inquisitors, on which Houdini served, was comprised of both believers and skeptics. In March 1925 it announced it had failed to uncover an individual that could pass its tests.
Houdini made more waves for Spiritualists when, in August 1925, he accepted the role of “celebrity instructor” at New York’s police academy. There he gave a 3-month course on how to recognize the deceptions of mediums and mind readers. But Houdini wasn’t satisfied with educating only those who simply enforced the laws - he wanted to influence those who created the laws as well. Six months before his death, one of Houdini’s employees testified before a congressional committee whose proposed legislation would regulate (and restrict) the activities of mediums in the nation’s capital.
That Houdini made the Spiritualists furious is well-known. He regularly recieved death threats, although he was never deterred by them. Yet, during his final days it was only reported that Houdini was fighting for his life after collapsing on a Detroit stage. No one speculated that his illness and subsequent death were in any way suspicious. It was not until some weeks after Houdini died that the first headline asked, “Was Houdini Murdered?”
So... is it possible that the Spiritualists played some role in the death of their debunking nemesis?
We have only public record and contemporary reportage to review, but the timeline and events following Houdini’s death seem clear.
On October 25, 1926 newspapers across the nation reported that Houdini was in the hospital and in very serious condition. An operation to repair a burst appendix was performed too late to staunch the spread of peritonitis throughout his body. A second operation was equally ineffective. He died early on the afternoon of October 31st - Halloween day.
On November 1st, news of his death spread from coast to coast, and around the world. Some obituaries, like that in the New York Times, mentioned a blow to the stomach Harry Houdini had received from a Canadian college student. The cause of death in this and other obituaries, however, was reported as peritonitis spread by the ruptured appendix, the same cause of death recorded on his death certificate.
On November 2nd, tucked in among the much smaller headlines, appeared a small story detailing a statement made by Houdini’s family. Houdini’s death, they said, was actually the result of a punch delivered on October 22nd to a reclining and unprepared Houdini by McGill University student (and, some say, boxer) J. Gordon Whitehead. But Whitehead was never investigated nor charged with harming Houdini in any way.
It is not clear how he was convinced to speak at an insurance inquiry, however, in a statement to New York Life Insurance Company, Whitehead admitted stiking a blow to Houdini’s abdomen. This, in turn, lead the insurance carrier to honor its “double indemnity” clause, a clause that applied only if Houdini died due to accidental rather than natural causes. Instead of the $25,000 policy payout, therefore, Bess Houdini received the remainder of the full $50,000 payout in July 1927.
As for Whitehead, in 1954 he died in obscurity in Montreal. He apparently never completed his university degree, nor did he ever publicly comment on Houdini’s death. A thorough search revealed no indications of Whitehead’s ties to Spritualism, nor were stories found of a Spiritualist circle claiming his as a member.
But, while some argue in favor of the Whitehead theory, others believe the Spiritualists used a more hands-on approach. In 2007 Houdini fans and conspiracy lovers were excited to hear about the possible exhumation of the magician’s body. The reason: tests were to be performed to see if Houdini had, in actuality, been poisoned by the Spiritualists. The body has never been exhumed or tested, and the event is regarded by many as an effective publicity stunt.
Our conclusion? Harry Houdini died as a result of a rampant infection. His appendix rupture may or may not have been worsened by Whitehead’s fists and Spiritualist are - at least in this case - innocent of wrongdoing. PnC