Last night on the History Channel, Brad Meltzer′s Decoded team asked the question was Harry Houdini murdered? Houdini died on Halloween night, October 31, 1926 after failing to escape from a water chamber on stage in Detroit, Michigan. Days before, while in Montreal, Canada, Houdini was struck by a college student, Jay Gordon Whitehead, who caught the performer unprepared and injured his appendix. Houdini, ever the showman, continued on with his performances despite having a ruptured appendix and a raging fever. But as we will learn, there may be more to the story behind the death of one of the world′s first global celebrities.
Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. He started his showbiz career as a trapeze artist, then as a contortionist at the age of 9. At 15, he began his career as a stage magician, calling himself Harry Houdini. His early days were spent toiling in carnivals and sideshows. In 1899, Houdini began his major claim to fame as an escape artist after breaking out of handcuffs. The following year, Houdini′s success as an escape artist earned him a tour through Europe. After breaking out of a jail in Scotland Yard, Houdini became all the rage, performing from the UK through Germany and Russia for three years. He was the toast of crown heads and the ordinary people alike.
The Decoded team get a good deal of background information from modern magicians like Lance Burton and others. Its here where they learn that Houdini had many enemies, namely from the spiritualists movement of the time. Houdini, who did believe in an afterlife, sought out many of the mediums who were popular, but only to learn that they were frauds. So Houdini began on his mission to expose them. Back in his carnival days, he, too, did seances and acted as a medium for people to communicate with their dead loved ones. So he knew how the tricks were performed and executed.
A modern day medium, John Stenston, tells the Decoded team that Houdini would employ detectives to aid him in exposing the charlatans. Often he incorporated this in his own stage performance, giving free tickets to local mediums in the town Houdini visited, then calling them out before the entire audience. He exposed some 80 mediums as frauds, giving his information to local police. This made the spiritualists of the time very unhappy, including a former friend of Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Doyle, like many people of that time, had lost loved ones during World War One. Seeing mediums to contact those who died was a very common and widespread practice. Doyle enthusiastically supported mediums, and when Houdini began his war against them, Doyle sided with the mediums. Some say that there was literally a Psychic Mafia. Even Houdini, himself, would tell friends that there were large numbers of mediums who not only wished him dead, but held seances and sought his death by psychic means.
So was Jay Whitehead a hitman for the mediums? There are those who believe so. Another odd coincidence is that at about the same time, Houdini′s wife, Bess, was also sick, showing all the signs of food poisoning. Could Houdini and his wife had been poisoned? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a trained physician who authored the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, regularly wrote to his many medium friends about how they had to stop Houdini by any means necessary. Did Doyle plot the perfect crime to off Houdini?
Roger Dreyer, another Houdini expert, tells the Decoded team that while Houdini had many enemies in the world of psychic mediums, he may have had other, more powerful enemies that would have wanted him dead. We learn that Houdini may have been a spy for the British government. He apparently met, by chance, Chief Inspector William Melville of Scotland Yard while taking a boat to Europe. Melville was the head of Special Branch, the forerunner to today′s MI5 and MI6. Dreyer says that Melville may be the inspiration for ′M′ in the James Bond series.
Melville′s personal diaries have recently been published and show references that could mean Houdini was working for him while touring Europe. In one passage, he says he received a letter from ″HH″ while in Germany and rushed the letter to the War Office. When you think about it, who better than a traveling magician and escape artist could be a spy? Houdini was extremely physical, in top shape. He could pick locks, break in or out of anything, anywhere. Using the cover of his performances gave him access to any nation. A former CIA agent confirms to the Decoded team that a hundred years ago, magicians were ideal recruits for spies. Even Lincoln hired one during the Civil War.
But the ″HH″ reference could also show another motive for murder. The Houdinis had once met and became friends with author Jack London and his wife. It turns out that in her diary, London′s wife refers to an ″HH″ as her secret lover. Did Bess find out and arrange for her husband to die? Affidavits from the three college students, including Whitehead, on the nature of Houdini′s injury helped Bess collect double indemnity on the insurance claim, which ruled his death as an accident. There is even a record of Bess thanking at least one of the witnesses for his statement and paid him $200.
So the History Channel program, Brad Meltzer′s Decoded, investigated whether or not Harry Houdini was murdered last night. After reviewing all of the evidence, both Mac and Buddy are convinced that his death was indeed an accident caused by natural causes and a bad series of unrelated events. However, former prosecutor Scott is not so convinced. He thinks there is enough evidence to take a case to a Grand Jury, pointing the finger at Houdini′s wife, Bess, as the one person who had the motive and opportunity. Harry Houdini may have had many enemies in the world of spiritual mediums and maybe even from his days as a possible spy for the British. But as often is the case, the most dangerous enemy is a woman scorned and Bess may have been such.