Archive for May, 2007

Why we should dig up Houdini

May 13, 2007

In April, forensic experts announced their intention to examine the exhumed remains of escape artist, Harry Houdini.  They hope to determine whether the renowned showman was poisoned after his last performance on October 24, 1926, killing him on Halloween.  Some people say leave the dead in peace, but if scientific methods unavailable back then can solve a mystery that still commands attention, why not use them?

Houdini was 52 and in excellent physical condition when a young man responded to his challenge to punch him in the stomach, hitting him before he was ready.  He suffered the effects the following day and ended up in Detroit’s Grace Hospital.  Apparently his appendix had ruptured, causing fatal peritonitis, although no autopsy confirmed this diagnosis (and the death certificate placed the appendix on the wrong side).  Despite his risk-taking career, his sudden demise shocked the world.  Houdini was buried in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, and now, more than eight decades later, his grandnephew, George Hardeen, seeks the truth.  He initiated the exhumation, but some critics claim it’s a publicity stunt for a book.

A recent biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, published last year by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, revisited rumors that Houdini was murdered and detailed suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.  Their chief suspects were members of a group called the Spiritualists, because Houdini had devoted himself to debunking their séances.  He even offered a cash prize for proof of their claims, which was never collected.  Not surprisingly, say the authors, Houdini received several anonymous death threats.  It makes for enticing, albeit controversial, reading.

Still, it seems unlikely that a team comprised of busy and prominent professionals would engage in this venture just to sell someone’s book.  Heading the team is James E Starrs, professor of law and forensic science at the George Washington University, who has organized twenty exhumations, including those of Jesse James and Albert DeSalvo, the so-called Boston Strangler.  Also on board are forensic pathologist Michael Baden, anthropologist William Bass III (founder of the “Body Farm” in Tennessee), and toxicologist Bruce Goldberger, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. 

With other scientists and technicians, they intend to analyze the fingernails, bones, hair, and any remaining soft tissue for signs of lethal poisoning.  Detectable metal-based poisons might still be evident, says Starrs, which justifies the project.  He adds that decisions to do an exhumation are never simple, but “some notable people die surrounded by legends and half-truths, making it legitimate to exhume their remains in an age where science can supply answers to the cause and manner of death, especially if the person in question has historical significance.”  Houdini seems a viable candidate.

Besides the potential state of the remains, other factors motivate the dig.  Starrs thought that Kalush and Sloman had pinpointed items of “an extraordinarily suspicious nature.” First, Houdini apparently suffered from ptomaine poisoning of unknown origin a few weeks before he died.  Second, a doctor had injected Houdini with an “experimental serum,” and no one knows what it was.  Third, the death threats. 

“Houdini was an enemy of the Spiritualists,” Starrs notes, “and according to this biography, one of the other anti-Spiritualists traveling the same terrain as Houdini also died under mysterious circumstances.”

In fact, the biography includes a letter written two years before Houdini died, in which Spiritualist devotee Arthur Conan Doyle (once Houdini’s friend) hinted that a “payday” was coming and Houdini would “get his just desserts very exactly meted out.”  Conan Doyle apparently meant that angry spirits would do the deed, but who knows?

A surprising presence at last week’s press conference was Anna Thurlow, the great-granddaughter of the medium, “Margery,” whose husband, Le Roi Crandon, was one of spiritualism’s most ardent proponents.  She fully supports the exhumation, even if it means learning that Houdini was indeed a victim of foul play.

But there’s another question about this death investigation: would Houdini have approved?  Before he died, he vowed that if there was an afterlife, he’d return; he gave his wife a secret code by which to identify him and ensure that no one feigned contact.  Despite a decade of attempts, no medium ever duplicated his code.  Given his emphasis on evidence, it seems likely that the Great Houdini would have appreciated this science-based – and attention-getting – approach.


Blog rookie

May 12, 2007

kath-w-stiff-2.jpgI’ve written 30 books.  I’m currently at work on 3 more.  I write about the dead, whether vampires, ghosts, corpses or victims of violence.  I don’t know why; I don’t try to solve my own mystery.  That’s what keeps me writing.