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Houdini

11/03/05 12:00AM By Joe Citro
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(HOST) Among his Halloween reflections, commentator Joe Citro has been thinking about a seventy-nine year-old mystery.


(CITRO) Halloween means many things to many people: ghosts, witches, inflatable lawn ornaments, costumes, and candy. But for me October thirty-first can't pass without my thoughts turning to Harry Houdini, the magician who died on Hallowe'en, 1926.

As this year's holiday slips away, I've been reflecting on errors
I've made in previous years.

In 2002 I told you about a book called The Man Who Killed Houdini.

What I failed to make sufficiently clear was that the book
had not yet been published. Listeners tried unsuccessfully
to find it.

I want to take this opportunity to correct my error and announce that the book is now available.

Most of us know a little about Houdini's passing. Backstage,
after a performance in Montreal, Houdini was approached by three McGill students curious about his remarkable physical condition.

One asked if he could really sustain a blow to the solar plexus. Houdini said yes, but before he could brace himself, the student let loose a powerful punch.

Nine days later Houdini died of a ruptured appendix - the direct result of that impact.

Have you ever wondered what became of the man who threw the punch? Did he suffer legal repercussions?

Was he plagued by guilt? Did knowing he'd killed Houdini alter the course of his life?

In 1990 author Don Bell decided to track down the Montrealer who dealt Houdini's fatal blow. Ten years of research and his enter- taining prose combine in a real-life mystery story that reveals everything possible about this historical phantom.

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.

Mr. Bell located and interviewed the two witnesses: Sam Smiley, a lawyer in his eighties, and Jacques Price, who, like Whitehead, vanished after the incident.

Mr. Bell's detective work leads to an inescapable possibility: that Mr. Whitehead's violence was no college prank. It may have been a deliberate assault fueled by organized Spiritualists. After all, for years Houdini had been waging war against them, exposing frauds and ruining reputations. Could Mr. Whitehead's action have been retaliation. . . or punishment?

Mr. Bell gives us the first and best look, ever, at the mysterious Mr. Whitehead. . . including his photograph.

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.

Sadly, the author did not live to see his book's publication in 2004.

It's called The Man Who Killed Houdini.

The author is Don Bell.

And this is Joe Citro.

Novelist Joe Citro is a native Vermonter who lives in Burlington. His new book is titled, "Weird New England."
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