The Man Who Killed Houdini


The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell (Véhicule Press) is the story of J. Gordon Whitehead, who, as the accepted story goes, was chatting with Houdini in Montreal, along with three McGill students, when he unexpectedly punched Houdini in the stomach in order to test Houdini’s claim that he was able to withstand hard blows “without personal injury.” But Whitehead’s motive was more malicious than that. Don Bell discovered in his research that Whitehead did not stop pummelling until one of the other students intervened. Within days, Harry Houdini was dead from a ruptured appendix. Rumours that J. Gordon Whitehead was a hit man, hired by spiritualists whose livelihood suffered from Houdini’s exposés, began to spread. Houdini was known for discrediting fraudulent mediums. (He’d had his own disillusioning experiences when attempting to communicate with his deceased mother.) By the end of this book, and I’m not giving anything away here, the rumour of Whitehead being a hit man is never substantiated. What we have is a pieced-together portrait of Whitehead as a disturbed, guilt-ridden soul who passed his final days as a recluse in a downtown Montreal apartment. It’s uncanny how similar he is to Mark David Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon half a century later. Harry Houdini was tremendously popular and revered in his day. The difference is that Chapman had intended to cause Lennon’s death, whereas Whitehead probably intended to stop at injury. Don Bell’s writing is comparable to that of James Ellroy in The Black Dahlia, an investigation of a murder for which there is no conclusive evidence. In stories like these you simply follow the author on a journey to where the sidewalk ends (if I may borrow a film noir title). Don Bell passed away a year before his book was published so we’ll never know if he’s pleased with the finished product, unless we find someone to channel his spirit.

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Jill Mandrake writes strange but true stories and leads Sister DJ’s Radio Band, featuring rhythm and blues covers, post-vaudeville original tunes and occasional comedy bits.


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