Harry Houdini’s egregious demise has been covered so extensively in books and movies that the very subject reminded me of a nineteenth century crime scene: so many writers have visited that territory, coming away with sensational theories the way Victorian era gawkers scurried off with bloody souvenirs, that nothing new remained to be discovered. Or so I thought.
In The Man Who Killed Houdini, Don Bell focuses on J. Gordon Whitehead, the McGill University student who fatally punched Houdini in the magician’s Montreal dressing room on October 22, 1926. Whitehead later swore in an affidavit that he had pummeled Houdini in the abdomen at the latter’s invitation to prove that his stomach muscles were strong enough to withstand any blow. Days later, the legendary magician died of a ruptured appendix that was assumed to be the result of that demonstration.
Whitehead disappeared from the public eye after the ensuing investigation died down, and no writer or researcher could discover what happened to him. Conspiracy theorists surmised that he might have been the deadly tool of the spiritualist community, whose mediums Houdini had delighted in exposing as frauds. Less imaginative minds dismissed the whole tragedy as an unfortunate accident. Sensing that Whitehead was the key to unlocking the truth, Don Bell embarked on a quest that lasted twenty years and took him all over Canada and the United Kingdom.
The Man Who Killed Houdini is investigative journalism at its finest. Bell tracked down and interviewed former McGill students Sam Smiley and Jacques Price, who had been present in the dressing room when Houdini was struck. (Price recalled that the punching was so violent that he actually pulled Whitehead off, shouting, “For God’s sake, stop!!” Smiley thought that the tall, gangly student behaved too strangely for the affair to be an accident.) Bell also contacted Whitehead’s former girlfriend and younger brother, both of whom proved to be defensive interview subjects, as well as the mysterious puncher’s former neighbors, who were more forthcoming with what they knew. The end result is a book that sets the record straight on who J. Gordon Whitehead really was and what his life was like in the aftermath of Houdini’s death.
Be forewarned: The Man Who Killed Houdini does not validate any conspiracy theories. Bell does not prove that vindictive mediums used Whitehead to stop Houdini’s anti-spiritualist investigations. But Whitehead’s final years leave the reader with a nagging suspicion that the magician’s death was not a mere accident either.