Listen to the Podcast Version of this Story
(some elements dramatized):
Did Vengeful Spiritualists Murder Harry Houdini?
© 2020, Stephanie Hoover - All Rights Reserved. Permission Required for Re-Use or Distribution.
In the years 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 a guarantee against his standing challenge to any medium that could prove they possessed supernatural abilities.
Unfortunately for those who claimed such abilities ‐ like Boston's famed medium "Margary" ‐ all of the great magician's challengers failed.
Margary was a darling of the 19th century Spiritualism movement and many were furious when she was exposed. This led more than one observer to wonder…
Did Spiritualists kill Harry Houdini?
In 1922, the magazine Scientific American, at Harry Houdini's suggestion, went about forming a committee to investigate Spiritualist manifestations. Composed of both believers and skeptics, it was tasked with finding a medium possessing genuine supernatural abilities. Self-proclaimed "psychic investigator" Houdini was a named member of this committee, although he was quite open about the fact that several of his co-members - and most of their testing criteria - failed to meet his standards.
Story Continues after Advertisement
From Clouded in Mystery Publisher Stephanie Hoover:
Of particular concern to Houdini was a series of articles written by Scientific American's associate editor J. Malcolm Bird. Bird was enamored with a Boston medium by the name of Mrs. Mina Crandon, wife of surgeon L.R.G. Crandon. For her seances and Spiritualistic performances, she went by the stage name Margary.
The magazine had promised to pay a reward to the medium it chose as most probably authentic. Bird had already made up his mind that Margary would win the $2,500 prize - even though he admitted to Houdini that she was only right "fifty to sixty percent of the time." Nonetheless, Bird's articles about the medium were glowingly complimentary.
Houdini was characteristically blunt in his opinions on Bird's stories and in a July 1924 article to Scientific American publisher O. D. Munn he said:
"These articles are the worst piffle I ever read paralleled only by the tommy-rot written about Mrs. Guppy who was said to have floated through the air, a plate glass window and solid brick."Houdini convinced Munn to accompany him to Boston where Houdini would personally test Margary's abilities.
Upon their arrival, Houdini and Munn found that Bird had preceded them - and, astonishingly for a supposedly objective journalist, he was staying as a guest in the Crandons' home.
Houdini's first seance with Margary occurred on July 23, 1924. He sat on Margary's left, his leg pressed tightly against hers.
What no one in attendance knew was that Houdini had spent the day with a tight bandage wrapped around his right leg, just below the knee. The resulting swelling caused the magician's leg to be especially tender. He could detect even the slightest brushing against his skin. By this means, it was easy for Houdini to detect all of Margary's tricks. The "supernatural" abilities she claimed - such as ringing a bell hidden in a box and tipping cabinets without touching them - were simply a product of Margary's sleight of hand (and, as it turned out, sleight of foot.)
The enraged Houdini wanted to expose Margary immediately, but Munn insisted he wait until they returned to New York. Once back in the city, Munn made the extraordinarily expensive decision to stop the presses to prevent Bird's latest article about Margary from running.
Bird retaliated against Houdini by leaking stories to newspapers, including one with the headline "Houdini the Magician Stumped" by Margary.
By August 25th of 1924, Houdini was ready for one final test - and exposure - of the fraudulent medium. He'd built a box from which only Margary's head and arms could protrude. Without the benefit of the use of her nimble, athletic limbs - or the cover of darkness under which she usually performed - Margary was fully revealed as the skillful huxter she was.
When it was clear she could never hoodwink Houdini, Margary resorted to threats.
"If you misrepresent me from the stage," she warned Houdini, "some of my friends will come up and give you a good beating."
In March 1925, the Scientific American committee announced that it had failed to uncover any individual that could pass its tests. As such, its reward offer was permanently rescinded.
Houdini made more waves for Spiritualists a year later when he accepted the role of "celebrity instructor" at New York's police academy. There he gave a three‐month course on how to recognize the deceptions of mediums and mind readers. But Houdini wasn't satisfied with educating only those who enforced the laws ‐ he ultimately also wanted to influence those who created the laws.
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 received death threats which he laughingly brushed aside. But none of the conspiracy theories surfaced during his final days when it was accurately reported that Houdini was fighting for his life after collapsing on a Detroit stage.
It was not until some weeks after Houdini died that the first headline asked "Was Houdini Murdered?" Only then did reporters ponder if Spiritualists played some part in his death.
So... is it possible that Spiritualists were the real masterminds of the well-concealed murder of their debunking nemesis?
Based on the publicly reported timeline, it seems unlikely.
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.
Houdini died early on the afternoon of October 31st, 1926 ‐ Halloween day.
On November 1st, news of his passing spread worldwide. Some obituaries, like the one in the New York Times, mentioned a blow to the stomach that Harry Houdini had received from a Canadian college student. The cause of death in this and other obituaries was reported as peritonitis spread by the resulting ruptured appendix. This was the same cause of death recorded on his death certificate.
On November 2nd, several newspapers ran a smaller story in which Houdini's family described his final hours. Houdini's death, they confirmed, was 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.
Though considered by many to be the villain in Houdini's untimely end, Whitehead was never investigated nor charged with any crime. And, surprisingly, he even agreed to be interviewed by Houdini's life insurance company.
In his statement to New York Life, Whitehead admitted striking a blow to Houdini's abdomen.
This, in turn, led 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 they initially offered Houdini's widow Bess, she received the full $50,000 payout in July 1927.
As for Whitehead, he died in obscurity in Montreal in 1954. He apparently never completed his university degree, nor did he ever publicly comment on his unfortunate encounter with Harry Houdini.
While some conspiracy theorists suggest that Whitehead was actually an agent of vengeful Spiritualists, a thorough search by this author revealed no ties between Whitehead and the Spiritualism movement. And, I've uncovered no Spiritualist circle that claimed him as a member.
Even more outlandish than the Whitehead theory is the one that proposed Houdini had actually been poisoned by Spiritualists.
In 2007, Houdini fans eagerly accepted the news of the possible exhumation of the magician's body. Testing would supposedly occur to confirm this poisoning hypothesis.
As of this date, Houdini's body has never been exhumed let alone tested, and the event is now regarded as a publicity stunt.
So what conclusions can we draw about whether or not Houdini was murdered by Spiritualists?
It is clear that Harry Houdini died as a result of a rampant infection that even his strong body could not conquer.
His appendix rupture may or may not have been worsened by Whitehead's fist but Spiritualists are ‐ at least in this case ‐ innocent of wrongdoing.☁