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Halloween with Houdini

11/07/02 12:00AM By Joe Citro
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(Host) Commentator Joe Citro spent Halloween remembering the fate of Harry Houdini.

When people think of Hallowe'en, most imagine ghosts and ghouls and bags of
candy.

But there's another contingent -- and I'm among them -- who think of Harry
Houdini. He died on Hallowe'en, 1926, and for anyone interested in magic,
the holiday can't pass without remembering the greatest escape artist of
all time -- one who couldn't escape death.

And the circumstances of that death rank among Houdini's greatest secrets.

Backstage after a performance at Montreal's Princess Theatre, Houdini was
approached by three McGill students who'd heard about his remarkable
physical condition. One asked if he really could sustain a blow to the
solar plexus.

Houdini said yes, and offered to demonstrate. But before he could brace
himself, the student let loose one heck of a haymaker.

Nine days later Houdini died of a ruptured appendix, resulting from that blow.

I've often wondered what happened to the man who threw the punch? Did he
suffer legal repercussions? Was he plagued by guilt? Did knowing he'd
killed Houdini affect the rest of his life?

But I've never sought the answers.

Then, a couple months before Hallowe'en this year, I happened into a tiny
bookshop in Sutton, Quebec. There I struck up a conversation with its
owner, Don Bell. We had a lot in common. When talk turned to writing,
magic, and magicians, he described the book he'd just written about "The
Man Who Killed Houdini."

Mr. Bell, who lives part-time in Montreal, is well known as a chronicler of
local characters. He decided to track down the Montrealer who dealt
Houdini's fatal blow. And he came away with a book full of surprises.

First, the assailant Joscelyn Gordon Whitehead did not deliver a single
blow to Houdini's solar plexus -- it was a veritable avalanche of blows. In
fact, Mr. Whitehead's two companions had to pull him off.

How did Mr. Bell learn this? He located the two students: Sam Smiley, a
lawyer in his eighties; and Jacques Price, who, like Whitehead, vanished
after the incident.

Mr. Bell has done major detective work, and I don't want to give away his
punchlines. I'll just say there's evidence Mr. Whitehead's act was no
college prank. He was connected to organized Spiritualists -- and for years
Houdini had been waging war against them, exposing frauds and ruining
reputations.

Mr. Bell also discovered a fascinating connection between Frank Gilmore
-- the father of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore -- and Houdini. Mr.
Gilmore believed he was Houdini's illegitimate son, and he hated the father
who refused to acknowledge him.

There are many other astonishing twists in Mr. Bell's true-life detective
story. But it's his story, not mine - and he should tell it.

This is Joe Citro.

Joe Citro is a novelist and native Vermonter who lives in Burlington. His new book with Philip Baruth is "Vermont Air: Best of the Vermont Public Radio Commentaries."
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