Team to Test Houdini's Body for Poison
Forensic Experts to Conduct New Tests on Harry Houdini's Body to See if He Was Poisoned
By LARRY McSHANE
Posted: March 22, 2007
Dr. Jim Starrs measures Houdini's gravesite Thursday,
March 22, 2007 in the Queens borough of New York. For
all of his death-defying stunts, Harry Houdini couldn't
escape the Grim Reaper: the unparalleled performer,
age 52, expired on Halloween 1926. Eighty-one years
later, Houdini's great-nephew wants to exhume the escape
artist's body to determine if enemies poisoned his renowned
relative for debunking their bogus claims of contact
with the dead. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
NEW YORK (AP) - For all his death-defying
stunts, Harry Houdini couldn't escape the Grim Reaper: He died
on Halloween 1926, apparently from a punch to the stomach that
ruptured his appendix. But rumors that he was murdered have persisted
for decades. Eighty-one years after Houdini's death, his great-nephew
wants the escape artist's body exhumed to determine if enemies
poisoned him for debunking their bogus claims of contact with
"It needs to be looked at," George Hardeen told The Associated
Press. "His death shocked the entire nation, if not the world.
Now, maybe it's time to take a second look."
Houdini's family scheduled a news conference for Friday to
give details on the plans. Prominent New York lawyer Joseph
Tacopina is helping clear any legal hurdles to the exhumation.
A team of top forensic investigators would conduct new tests
on Houdini's body, said Hardeen, whose grandfather was Houdini's
The circumstances surrounding Houdini's sudden death are as
murky as the rivers where he often escaped from chains, locks
and wooden boxes.
The generally accepted version was that Houdini, 52, suffered
a ruptured appendix from a punch in the stomach, leading to
a fatal case of peritonitis. But no autopsy was performed.
When the death certificate was filed on Nov. 20, 1926, Houdini's
body brought by train from Detroit to Manhattan had already
been buried in Queens, along with any evidence of a possible
Within days, a newspaper headline wondered, "Was Houdini Murdered?"
A 2006 biography, "The Secret Life of Houdini," raised the
issue again and convinced some that he might have been poisoned,
including George Hardeen, who lives in Arizona and is the chief
spokesman for the president of the Navajo Nation.
The likeliest murder suspects were members of a group known
as the Spiritualists. The magician devoted large portions of
his stage show to exposing the group's fraudulent seances. The
movement's devotees included Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan
In the Houdini biography, authors William Kalush and
Larry Sloman detail a November 1924 letter in which Doyle said
Houdini would "get his just desserts very exactly meted out
... I think there is a general payday coming soon."
Two years later, Houdini by all accounts a man in extraordinary
physical shape was dead. Kalush and Sloman say that "the Spiritualist
underworld's modus operandi in cases like this was often poisoning"
possibly arsenic, which could be detected decades later.
The authors also suggest that Houdini might have been poisoned
by "an experimental serum" injected by one of his doctors at
Detroit's Grace Hospital.
Houdini took the Spiritualists' death threats seriously, but
he traveled without security, often accompanied only by his
"If someone were hell-bent on poisoning Houdini," the authors
wrote, "it wouldn't have been very difficult."
The team working on the exhumation includes internationally
known forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden and professor James
Starrs, a forensic pathologist who has studied the disinterred
remains of gunslinger Jesse James and "Boston Strangler" Albert
Baden, who chaired panels reinvestigating the deaths of President
John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.,
pointed out a pair of oddities in Houdini's death certificate:
It noted his appendix was on the left side, rather than the
right. And the diagnosis of appendicitis caused by a punch was
Starrs said he was long familiar with the story of Houdini's
death, and believed the fatal injury was the result of an accident
until he read the Houdini biography.
"My eyebrows went up when I read this book," Starrs said. "I
thought, `This is really startling, surprising and unsettling,
and at bottom, suspicious in nature.'"
The exhumation plan received support from a surprising source:
Anna Thurlow, the great-granddaughter of "medium" Margery, whose
husband Dr. Le Roi Crandon was one of the Spiritualist movement's
biggest proponents and one of Houdini's enemies.
During a 1924 "seance," Margery channeled a "spirit" named
Walter who greeted Houdini with a threat: "I put a curse on
you now that will follow you every day for the rest of your
"With people that delusional, you have to question what they're
capable of,'" Thurlow said. "If there's any circumstantial evidence
that Houdini was poisoned, we have to explore that."
Article at: abcnews.go.com