|Deadly Punch??? Read comments at the end of article*
Houdini, along with the group headed to his dressing room, the time is a little after 11 a.m.. According to the Silverman biography, the dressing room at the Princess Theatre was about 8ft by 10ft. Houdini reclined on a couch in the back of the room while Smiley in Price sat in chairs a few feet from Houdini. Smiley was there to do another sketch of Houdini.
A few moments later there was a knock on the dressing room door and Julia Sawyer got up to answer the door and she let Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead into the room. He briskly walked over to Houdini and returned a book that he had borrowed. Houdini introduced Whitehead to the other boys, so it was more than just a first time meeting for them, which many of the older Houdini biographies make it sound like. Whitehead had met Houdini before. In fact, he met him several times before.
The Don Bell book about Whitehead says that Whitehead called on Houdini at his hotel on two occasions and mentions borrowing the latest copy of Scientific American. In this meeting, Whitehead is returning a book. When Whitehead entered he took over the conversation, irritating Smiley. Whitehead asked him about the miracles of the Bible and Houdini chose not to discuss that, but added that the stunts he did would certainly look like miracles in biblical days. Whitehead then asked if it was true that Houdini could withstand a punch to the stomach without feeling any pain. Now here is something I had missed before, Houdini tried to change the subject and pointed to his strong arms and shoulders. He even went so far as to let the students feel his arm muscles. When Whitehead again asked if Houdini could take a punch, Houdini again shifted focus to his arms.
My one question is, when did Houdini ever use punching him as a bragging point? 'Ladies & Gentleman, not only am I the greatest escape artist in the world, but you can punch me and I will feel nothing!' Really??? I don't think so. But regardless, Houdini agreed he could take the punch. Apparently Whitehead misunderstood this as an invitation to throw some punches. Houdini was still reclining when the barrage of punches flew. As I pointed out in the episode, it was not a single punch either. Whitehead hit Houdini numerous times before Price pulled him off.
There were only 4 people in that room when the incident took place. Houdini, Smiley, Price and Whitehead. The students all gave a deposition as to what they remembered. It was not viewed as a criminal act and Whitehead was never arrested.
A few minutes after the punches, Smiley finished his sketch of Houdini, and he signed it and gave it to the magician. When Houdini saw the sketch he mentioned to Smiley, "you made me look a little tired in the picture....the truth is I don't feel so well". I think if we look back at what had been taking place; Houdini had been nursing a broken ankle, he was under enormous amounts of stress over the million dollars worth of lawsuits, he was receiving death threats, he was not getting much sleep at all, and now he just got hit with a barrage of punches to the stomach. I also can't help but wonder if back in Providence R.I. just a short time before when Bess got food poisoning, if perhaps Houdini had also contracted a small case of that as well. I'm guessing of course. But we know he did not look well and here he admits to not feeling well either.
The students left around noon and Houdini prepared for the show. He still had a show that night to do and the Saturday performances before they were to leave for Detroit.
J. Gordon Whitehead after this point almost vanishes from history. Author Don Bell spent 20 years digging up information on Whitehead and discovered he lived the life of a recluse. If he were alive to see the name of the book Bell wrote, "The Man Who Killed Houdini" I imagine he would be glad he never went out in public. But is it fair to say he killed Houdini? I understand it makes an exciting story and certainly very intriguing. But according to Bell, Whitehead met with Houdini at least two times following the October 22 incident in the dressing room. So if he really had murder on the mind, you'd think Whitehead would have finished him off. I think it's very likely that someone would have attempted to kill Houdini and possibly succeeded, but his own stubborness about not going to the hospital and attending to his health issues really was his undoing.
Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead died of malnutrition in 1954. He is buried in an unmarked grave. I have a photo of the plot of grass where he is buried over at my DeadConjurers blog. It's interesting to me that of the almost 50 graves pictured on the site, the one that is most viewed is actually Whiteheads. The number of views even dwarfs that of Houdini's grave.
*The photo at the top of the page is actually a staged photo with Houdini and the fellow with the boxing gloves on is Jack Dempsey. I thought it made a pretty good picture to add to this particular article which is really about a deadly punch, but I also wanted to point out the photo is NOT from the actual event on Oct 22.
|This is all thats left of the Princess Theatre today.