|Was Houdini Killed?
Sam J. Smiley
WAS HOUDINI KILLED?
S. J. Smiley
WAS HOUDINI KILLED?
One Sunday morning in November prominent Detroit surgeons in consultation came to the
conclusion that Harry Houdini’s acute condition of peritonitis had been brought about, a few days
previous by forcible blows struck to the abdomen.
When the great Houdini’s death ensued, newspaper headlines flashed the cry, “MCGILL STUDENT’
S BLOWS KILL HOUDINI!”
These headlines in electrified me; for, “a few days previous” I had personally witnessed several
blows being forcibly struck to Houdini’s abdomen, in a dressing room of the Princess theater at
The circumstances surrounding those fateful moments are still is clear to me as if all had occurred
It might perhaps strike one as curious that I had not revealed before this, what I knew of the events
leading up to Houdini’s death. The truth of the matter is, I was for a long time in great fear of the
consequences attendant upon my revealing what I knew, and particularly was I hesitant about
involving a McGill student. Further, in the brief period that I had come into contact with Houdini, I
have learned to respect and admire and even to venerate him for his extraordinary and boundless
courage, his manifold talents and sterling character, to such an extent that I could not bring myself
to discuss in public matters pertaining to the demise of this admirable man.
However, even such reticence is subject to strain. Various and varied were the accounts I read here
and there of events which were most familiar to me. Recently, I came across a further account; it
was so erroneous that I decided to throw all compunctions overboard and to enable any would-be
chronicler of the great Houdini to render at least the account of the twilight of his life with due
It was October 1926. Houdini was performing a further week at The Princess Theatre in Montréal.
Professor Tait, the head of the Psychology Department at McGill University, at all times highly
interested in the theories held and expressed by Houdini, took advantage of the latter’s presence in
Montréal to invite him to lecture before the University students.
“Mr. Harry Houdini will lecture at the McGill Union at four o’clock this afternoon. He will debunk
spiritualists, mediums and other fakers.” Such was Professor Tait’s brief announcement. That
memorable lecture was heralded, too, in the college paper, The McGill Daily, in its issue of October
The event was greeted with great enthusiasm by the students. At four o’clock that Tuesday the
McGill Union was crowded with eager students who had come to get a more personal glimpse of
Houdini and to hear his tirade against ignorance and the rackets of the “Spiritual” world.
I was an Arts Junior at the time; and I, too, had come to this meeting, anxious to see the great
Houdini at close quarters and to hear him castigate the Spiritualists and others who impose upon
the unsuspecting and the credulous. But, more particularly, I had come to make a sketch of
Houdini; for, ever since I can remember I have been interested in drawing, and have rarely allowed
an opportunity of sketching a prominent person “in action” to slip by.
The meeting was opened almost on schedule. Professor Tait ascended the slightly raised platform;
he was followed immediately by Houdini, who was accompanied by his wife and his secretary. The
learned professor, without much ado, introduced the principal speaker in a few remarks.
Houdini advanced to the center of the platform with a slight limp spell due, as I afterwards learned,
to an accident which occurred a few weeks prior during a performance in a theater in Albany or
Rochester (I don’t remember which). Of medium height, with pale, drawn face and dark shadows
under tired eyes, this man certainly did not seem the formidable Harry Houdini who had filled half a
world with awe and admiration. Yet, when he began to speak in his earnest, forceful tones, one
could sense the power of the man: his magnetic personality, his nerves of steel, his complete lack
of fear, his supple, super-trained muscles, those all-seeing eyes, his extraordinary willpower, his
How well I remember that illuminating lecture. The great Houdini took us into his confidence. In a
vivid conversational manner he first impressed upon his auditors that though he was President of
the “Magicians” organization of America, no such elusive supernatural quality as one associates
with the term “magic” ever entered into any of his apparently wondrous feats; all his performances
were “stunts” and “tricks” depending upon iron nerve, highly developed dexterity, perfect
coordination of eye, brain, and muscle of the performer, and upon optical illusion. He decried any
attempt to attribute supernatural powers to himself; he was a clever sleight-of-hand performer and
stuntman, and he was ready to admit it. What most people lacked he said was the ability to SEE; if
only people would educate their eyes (and their brains), they would readily see through practically
every one of his seeming “miracles.” He went on graphically to describe a number of his “stunts”
and “tricks,” but would not reveal how they were done... He explained also, how the imagination
magnifies, if it does not actually “cause,” much of our pain; that many of his feats were
accomplished through an almost total absence of fear. By way of illustration he stuck a needle
(after taking septic precautions) through his cheek, just as one would stick a pin through some
cloth; no blood oozed forth, there was not the slightest manifestation of pain or discomfort...
Houdini waxed warm on the whole purpose of his address. Mercilessly he flayed spiritualists,
mediums and other fakers; he lashed at their nefarious practices with all the zeal and fury of a
crusader. These spiritualists and mediums were racketeers of the worst kind. Arrogating to
themselves supernatural powers and an ability to communicate with departed spirits by means of
“hocus-pocus,” they were mulcting people of fortunes by playing upon their tenderest and most
reverential feelings. They were fakes; and all they professed to do and all powers they claimed to
possess were simply humbug. He made one reserve; he was not attacking, he pointed out, those
who clung to the spiritualist religion, quite different from the “racketeers” who extort money from
poor and troubled people who seek aid from the spiritualists and mediums. This “industry” of
imposing upon the ignorant and the credulous had reached almost gigantic proportions; its
business activities were flourishing and the profits derived reached annually into millions. He,
Houdini, was prepared to back every statement he made. He was at all times ready to expose any
medium or spiritualist, to reveal what really constitutes a “séance.” He had in fact been a medium
himself, and was well acquainted with all the tricks. In the past he had exposed several “séances,”
on every occasion that presented itself. He recounted, in particular, that he was privileged to
expose a well-known medium at a “séance” attended by the late Sir Conan Doyle; and that, though
the famous author admitted the exposure he still clung to his belief in spiritualism... So strongly did
Houdini feel on the subject that he had no hesitation in pledging himself to devote most of his
energy and direct much of his effort to the debunking of the spiritualist racket and in combating the
very powerful organization that had been built up on gullibility and ignorance.
The spiritualists and mediums, the world over, were well aware of his efforts and intentions, Houdini
said; they hated him with a deadly hatred. And, as if a cruel fate had put the words in his mouth, he
closed his address with the ominous exclamation, “if I were to die tomorrow, the Spiritualists would
declare an international holiday!”
The man and his lecture fascinated me. Though I hung onto his every word; I was able to make a
sketch of the distinguished speaker during the course of the address. It is indeed a curious fact, but
it is possible to concentrate on one’s drawing and, at the same time, to drink in all that the person
sketched is saying. In this particular instance, I came, I saw Houdini for the first time, I listened most
carefully and imbibed all he had to say, and I made a pencil sketch which, though not meritorious, is
one of my cherished possessions.
Now, it happens in most every college man’s life, that sooner or later he succumbs to the spell and
becomes a Fraternity man. I was no exception to the rule. During my very first year at McGill I was
initiated with all due ceremony into, and invested with all the trappings, symbols, insignia, and
secrets of, one of the “better” houses on the campus.
To be a Fraternity man means to be ignorant of the true meaning of the word “privacy;” the most
sacred thoughts and things become the property of those “brethren” who are at all interested. And
so, although I had unpretentiously put away the sketch I had made of Houdini, it wasn’t long before
the less repressible among my “fratres” who were with me at the lecture had unearthed the sketch
and exhibited to all and sundry about the House. Two of the gentlemen, in particular, were loud in
their praise, and urged me to show it to Houdini and to obtain his autograph. I did not show any
readiness to yield to the urge. Whereupon the same two gentlemen without any further argument,
took the sketch in question (contained in a sketchbook), and, told me that they were to attend a
Houdini performance at the Princess theater that evening and that after the performance they
would go to Houdini’s dressing room there to obtain his autograph to the sketch; and, not waiting
for any remonstrances (as if that would of done any good!), They departed, sketch and all.
Knowing persons may rant at College Fraternities and the like; but there is much to be said in their
favor. They train their members to “bring home the bacon.” No matter how great the task, whether it
be to place a tack on a professor’s chair or to push a peanut with one’s nose along the main street,
or some other formidable task before which even mighty Hercules would’ve paled, done it must be.
The selfsame gentlemen who had undertaken to obtain Houdini’s autograph to my sketch,
accomplished what they had set out to do, and more. After the performance they forthwith
proceeded to Houdini’s dressing room, showed him the sketch and asked him to autograph it.
Houdini generously autographed the sketch in the following manner:
Born April 6 – 1874
And he gave them a message for me; he was highly pleased with the sketch, and would I be so kind
as to attend his dressing room at the theater at eleven o’clock on Friday morning, to make a
drawing of him for himself!
Friday morning arrived. I was so impatient to fulfill the commission given me by Houdini that ten-
thirty o’clock found me in front of the Princess theater, with an acquaintance of mine, Jack Price,
also a student at McGill. The two of us anxiously watched the slow minutes pass, when, at about 10:
50 Houdini arrived at the theater with his wife, his secretary and a woman who was referred to as
his nurse. There were other persons, passers-by, who were curiously examining the chains,
manacles and other paraphernalia forming part of the Houdini entertainment exhibited at the
entrance of the “Princess.”
Houdini lingered at the entrance speaking to the onlookers, and discussing some of his exploits. His
nurse impatiently urged him to eat; whereupon he rejoined that he was not at all hungry, and that if
the pangs seized him he would get something to eat; and showman that he was, he then drew a
“hot dog” from a person’s coat lapel.
Just as Houdini was on the point of entering the theater, I approached him and introduced myself.
Houdini smiled. He remembered the sketch he had autographed, and the request he had made
through my friends. He bade me follow him.
We soon reached Houdini’s dressing room, which was just off the left-hand side of the stage. The
room was rather small, and measured about ten or eleven feet by about eight or nine.
Only three of us entered; Houdini, my friend, and myself. His secretary was about to enter, but
Houdini told her that on this occasion she might remain out. Houdini then shut the door of the little
dressing room, and confidentially explained to us that he never permitted himself to be alone with a
newspaperman or any other person, and that he always had his secretary with him to take notes of
every interview; but added with a smile that on this occasion he “guessed it was all right.”
Houdini then made himself comfortable, and with collar open at the neck and shirtsleeves rolled, he
reclined on the small couch along the wall opposite the door. My friend sat facing the center of the
couch. I was seated at the foot of the couch, and since Houdini was bolstered up by several
cushions, I was able to obtain a full view of his face. A third chair, near the door and almost in a line
with Houdini’s head, was empty.
Houdini appeared to be in the best of spirits that morning. He was affable and kind, and he did all
he could to make us most comfortable, to impress upon us that he was “one of the boys.”
He apologized for having to recline on the couch but pointed out that he needed all the rest he
could get since the accident which occurred a few weeks before during a performance and which
had caused him to limp. By force of will, he said he schooled himself to conceal that limp during his
performances at Montréal, but when he was offstage, he was obliged to “take things easy.”
He requested the privilege of reading part of his mail, before beginning to pose. I naturally
assented. Imagine my surprise when I watched those deft fingers of Houdini literally unpaste the
envelopes. And this was no stagey performance; it was easy to see that as a result of well-formed
habit, this man’s every muscle was directed, on every occasion, in a skillful manner only.
Here was Houdini at close quarters. The first impression that I had obtained at the McGill Union was
fully confirmed. His sallow complexion, his tightly drawn skin, the dark shadows encircling his tired-
looking deep set-eyes, the muscles about the temples and at the sides of the mouth twitching
nervously – here was a picture of a man who was a little weary and much in need of a long,
carefree vacation. His mouth and eyes were tense and firm; they revealed the overwhelming desire
and the tremendous will to fight fatigue and illness with the mind.
My drawing of Houdini began, and as I was putting in the mainlines and noting the features and the
expression and character of my sitter, he was discussing some events of his personal history and
“let us in” on matters of great interest; he smilingly told my friend and myself how he came to be
called “Houdini.” He had entered this world bearing the name of “Harry Weiss.” In his youth he had
been a great admirer of the celebrated French “magician,” Houdin; and so, when young Weiss
joined the circus, at the age of 18 or 19, and had difficulty in choosing a stage name, he adopted
the name of “Houdini.” The name “Houdini” was like magic; it captured the imagination; it stuck...
I remember asking him about his experience in the movies, for I was one of the youngsters who
thrilled to the exploits of Houdini in that breathtaking serial, “The Iron Man.” The work, he said, was
extremely difficult but highly interesting; he added that he would not return to movie work, because
somehow or other, the returns proved to be rather meager for himself... Quite naturally we came to
the subject of his skill and power. He pointed out to us that his “stunts” and skill and peculiar
knowledge formed his stock in trade and were to remain his secrets. He stated, however, that in a
year or two he would write a book containing most of these “secrets,” but would withhold the
publication of such book for a good number of years. He once again emphasized that most of us
require further considerable education as far as the eye is concerned; if only we could SEE, we
would be able to see through most of his “stunts.” As for his skill in untying knots, and opening
locks and in extricating himself from manacles and straitjackets, that skill and ability was developed
by assiduous practice and careful study. He then went on to tell us that his profession, as he
practiced it, required absence of fear and complete control of nerves and muscle. To serve by way
of illustration, he told us of his experience of being buried alive for several hours. Though a bell
could be sounded in case of emergency by the occupant of the “coffin,” Houdini had remained
buried so long that those who witnessed the feat ordered that he be disinterred. Houdini explained
that the feat was simple enough; it demanded only courage, sang froid and an ability to remain
absolutely still. He affirmed that one could live in a small space with very little air for a comparatively
long period, provided that person did not become agitated and nervous. People suffocate from lack
of air, within a brief period, because they become frantic and scream and yell and hammer at a wall
or door; by “carrying on and getting excited” they consume rapidly that little quantity of air
remaining. He then illustrated what he meant by keeping still – mentally and physically; and surely
enough it seemed as if his heart had stopped beating and as if his breathing had ceased.
While Houdini was thus discoursing and I drawing, there was a rap at the door, and Houdini’s
secretary ushered in a rather tall individual – he must have been at least six foot two – wearing a
blue gabardine coat that seemed much too small for him, and carrying three or four books under
his arm. The newcomer appeared to have known Houdini and had, in fact, come that day to return
a book Houdini had loaned him a few days before; his name was Whitehead, and he was the
theological student at McGill University.
Whitehead was an oldish looking young man about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years of age. He
impressed one as being the very genteel type of student. His face was ruddy, his hair very thin on
top; his frame was powerful though loosely-knit, and his neck was inordinately long. He spoke softly
with an exaggerated Oxford accent.
With the advent of Whitehead the conversation continued anew, and though I was disturbed from
time to time by the fact that Houdini had to turn his head to answer Whitehead’s numerous queries
(for he was an enthusiastic talker) I found a good deal of interest in what was said...
It seems that Houdini had been a detective for many years and had aided in unraveling so many
mysteries and had read so many detective stories, that he boasted of being able to piece together
any detective story, unknown to him of course, by hearing three or four paragraphs from different
sections of such story. Whitehead, who had a mystery book with him, tried the experiment; he read
excerpts from three or four different sections of the book, and Houdini apparently was able to give
the gist of the story. At this juncture Houdini made an observation which I shall always remember,
“think of the trouble I might have caused if I had used my talents for ill.”
More conversation and then Whitehead asked Houdini another question. “What is your opinion of
the miracles mentioned in the Bible?”
Houdini tactfully replied, “I prefer not to discuss or to comment on matters of this nature. I would
make one observation, however, – what would succeeding generations said of Houdini’s feats had
he performed them in Biblical times? Would they have been referred to as ‘miracles’?”
Whitehead appeared to be somewhat taken aback at this statement.
It was at this point that Whitehead began to manifest what seem to me an astonishing interest in
Houdini’s physical strength. Then, out of a clear sky, Whitehead asked, “is it true, Mr. Houdini, that
you can resist the hardest blows struck to the abdomen?”
Houdini did not appear to be very proud of his abdominal muscles. In an apparent attempt to divert
attention from his abdomen, he ignored the question and exclaimed, “my forearm and back muscles
are like iron! Feel them.”
We did and found how near human muscles can approach iron in rigidity and strength.
Again Whitehead manifested interest in Houdini’s abdominal muscles. “Is it true that your stomach
muscles can stand very hard blows?”
Houdini repeated, “my forearm and back muscles are extremely strong. They’re like iron.”
Once more Whitehead returned to the abdominal muscles, as if it were all-important to establish
their power of resistance to external force.
“Would you mind if I delivered a few blows to your abdomen, Mr. Houdini?” he asked.
Whether it was a matter of professional pride or whether Houdini felt that it would hurt his prestige
to refuse – I do not pretend to know. Before I knew it Houdini had accepted the challenge and then
and there he lay supine, but apparently not quite ready to receive Whitehead’s blows. Hovering
over his outstretched form, Whitehead, with elbow bent, suddenly struck four or five terribly forcible,
deliberate, well-directed blows to Houdini’s abdomen.
My friend, who, at the time showed more presence of mind than I, interposed and held back
“Are you mad?” he fairly shouted in indignation.
Even the great Houdini appeared to have had enough. With a wry smile (that I can still clearly
picture), Houdini made an arresting gesture with his hand and mumbled almost inaudibly, “that will
The atmosphere in the little room was charged and tense at that moment. My friend and I felt
particularly uncomfortable. Houdini resumed his pose, and I rapidly added the finishing touches to
It was now a little after noon, and we made ready to leave. I gave the drawing to Houdini, who
expressed himself as highly pleased with my effort. He asked me to sign and date my drawing; I was
proud to comply.
Then as Whitehead, my friend and I, were about to leave, Houdini smilingly remarked to me “you
made me look a little tired in this picture. The truth is, I don’t feel so well.”
And after the customary salutations, he thanked me and said, “I’ll write you the near future. I can
get in touch with you at McGill...”
That was the last time I saw Houdini.
From then on events moved rapidly, and I followed them with the greatest anxiety. Houdini had left
Montréal the day following to fulfill an engagement in Detroit. On the train, I learned, Houdini had
suffered a severe appendicitis attack. Arrived at Detroit he was rushed to Detroit hospital, where he
was forthwith operated upon.
The most prominent Detroit surgeons found that Houdini’s peritoneum had burst, and that the
rupture was due to heavy blows that were struck to the abdomen “a few days previous.”
Houdini struggled valiantly for his life. He put forth supreme efforts and brought to bear his
tremendous powers of mind and of will, and was thus able, to the great astonishment of the medical
men, to keep alive for some days. But towards the beginning of November, Houdini gave up the
struggle and sank into the everlasting sleep... The spiritualists the world over were now able to
declare their holiday!
Some weeks later, while attending a lecture given by Professor Stephen Leacock, a friend of mine
advised me that there was a letter for me at the Dean’s office. I was somewhat surprised because
the persons I corresponded with certainly knew my address; this was the only time a letter was
addressed to me, care of McGill University.
I hastened to the Dean’s office and was given a letter bearing a New York postmark. I tore the letter
open; it was from Messrs. Ernst, Fox and Cane, New York attorneys and contained in substance the
following: that they were acting on behalf of Houdini’s widow; that I had been in Houdini’s dressing
room at the Princess theater in Montréal on Friday morning, October 22, 1926, for the purpose of
making a drawing; that while I was in the dressing room it appeared that blows which were held to
have been fatal by prominent Detroit surgeons were struck to Houdini’s abdomen; that the
information I would give would not be used for purposes of prosecution since it was felt the event
was purely accidental in nature, but that they were interested only in recovering for their client on a
double indemnity insurance provision.
Under these circumstances I felt it my duty to relate what had occurred. My friend, Jack Price, and I
accordingly signed affidavits setting forth the pertinent facts.
I later learned that, after due investigation, the insurance company in question came to the
conclusion that Houdini’s death was the direct consequence of those blows which Whitehead had
delivered to his abdomen.
And so, the great Houdini who, throughout an active life, had defied death so successfully, was at
last, it seemed, laid low by a student’s fateful, ill-advised blows!