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Did a Canadian kill famed escape artist Harry Houdini? Did a Canadian kill famed escape artist Harry Houdini?
Did a Canadian kill famed escape artist Harry Houdini?

The story has been told through the years that when Houdini visited Montreal in October, 1926 he was hit in the stomach by a McGill University student. Houdini died in Detroit, Michigan less than two weeks later, and many have said it was the blow he took that ultimately caused his death.

But who was this student, why did he hit Houdini, and was he ultimately responsible for the great magician's death?

Houdini was visiting Montreal to perform at the Princess Theatre and was invited to McGill by the Dean of the faculty of psychology to talk to students. There are varying descriptions of just when and how Houdini came in contact with the student who hit him, and in fact, some news reports of the day wrote that Houdini was hit in a friendly sparring match with a newspaper reporter.

However, the student whose name appears most often in published reports was Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead of British Columbia who was either an arts student or studying theology at McGill. According to the book The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, by Ruth Bradon, a number of students asked if it was true that Houdini could withstand a blow to the stomach without feeling any pain. Houdini said yes. One eye witness, Jack Price, said Whitehead hit the escape artist about four times before Houdini asked him to stop. Price said it appeared Houdini was in pain because he'd had no opportunity to prepare his muscles for such blows. Whitehead was apparently more than six feet tall, quite strong and probably did catch Houdini off guard.

Houdini left Montreal shortly thereafter and went by train to Detroit. By the time he arrived there, he was feeling ill and saw a doctor. He was diagnosed with acute appendicitis, but still managed to perform a show. He was rushed to hospital the next morning and had his appendix removed by a Dr. Charles Kennedy. Houdini remained in hospital for a few more days, apparently getting better at one point and then taking a turn for the worse. He died on Oct. 31 of what doctors described as peritonitis brought on by a ruptured appendix. In another Canadian connection to all this, Dr. Kennedy concluded that Houdini's appendix must have ruptured sometime on the train ride near St. Thomas, Ontario.

Although people then assumed it was the blows from Whitehead that caused the death, Bradon says the consensus today is that it's medically impossible. She says such a blow might have ruptured the large intestine but not the appendix. She believes Houdini was already suffering from appendicitis before he reached Montreal.

As for Whitehead, information provided by McGill University's archives suggests the student was never investigated for any wrongdoing in Houdini's death. As well, a professor of psychology denied that any punching took place after Houdini delivered his lecture at McGill. It's possible, however, that the blow took place at a different time in Houdini's dressing room. In the end, Houdini's widow was apparently the beneficiary of an insurance policy worth $25,000 that doubled if the escape artists's death was deemed accidental rather than from an aggressive action. Her New York lawyers inquired about the Montreal incident, but signed an oath saying Whitehead had no intention of hurting Houdini. Apparently Whitehead later accepted a job as a religious minister in the U.S. and disappeared into anonymity.

Copyright © Randy Ray and Mark Kearney, The Trivia Guys.
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