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The Man Who Killed Houdini Paperback – September 28, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
The late Don Bell's gripping examination of Houdini's mysterious death dismisses popular theories and possible perpetrators, eventually zeroing in on a reclusive divinity student who all but disappeared after he sucker punched Houdini and caused the ruptured appendix that would soon kill the vaudevillian escape artist. In the wake of Houdini's death, innumerable potential culprits surfaced, not least among them the spirit mediums Houdini frequently ridiculed. Bell, however, identifies J. Gordon Whitehead, a self-described divinity student, as the punch thrower. The book documents Bell's search for witnesses and corroborators in an alternately dry and creepy fashion. A visit to Whitehead's grave in Montreal maintains an air of expectancy, and Bell's visit to Whitehead's hometown seems to suggest the intrepid reporter was being shadowed, either by his own paranoia or Houdini himself. The eeriness mounts as Bell gets closer to Whitehead, a man who seemed to want to give the impression he was hiding something. While scrupulously researched, the book will appeal mostly to Houdini enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists. Photos.
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Top customer reviews
I have not read any other book about Houdini's death but this is probably the best example of painstaking research and investigation on the subject. The research is very detailed and shows Don Bell's commitment to his mission. That's likely to be the reason why his work unearthed very rare information that had never before seen the light. Highly recommended.
I thank Mr. Bell in spirit for doing this work.
I got a kick out of visiting Whitehead's grave and seeing his old street where he used to live. I found out that I had lived across there 15 years after his death. Certainly a small world.
Within the first few chapters, author Bell rewrites Houdini history by discovering that the magician was attacked (or at least "tested") three separate times during that fateful week in Montr?al. A native of Montr?al, Bell finds independent eyewitnesses to each of these other, non-lethal "punches" who readily corroborate the facts. It's a stunning discovery.
Unfortunately, Bell doesn't investigate these other incidents in detail, but remains focusing in the final and most infamous dressing room attack by J. Gordon Whitehead. Bell's hypothesis is that Whitehead may have been acting as an agent for spiritualists. Considering Houdini's vehement anti-spiritualist crusade, this is not a far-fetched theory. Trouble is, absolutely nothing is known about J. Gordan Whitehead (and some have even questioned whether or not he even existed).
It's Bell's search for the phantom Whitehead (which takes up a good middle of the book) that presents my only criticism with the book. Bell describes in detail every step of his 20 year investigation, including his many false leads. Okay, dramatizing a few false lead is entertaining and adds to the detective story (not to mention makes the eventual discoveries all that more exciting), but Bell relates EVERY false lead, devoting whole chapters to lines of inquiry that never pan out. This does becomes a bit tiresome after a while.
However, when Bell finally gets on the right scent and starts uncovering the life and death of "the man who killed Houdini", the book again becomes fascinating. I won't spoil it, but somehow J. Gordon Whitehead turns out to be both a complete surprise and exactly what we would expect. Bell also tracks down the elusive witnesses to the dressing room incident, Jack Price and Sam Smiley. Thanks goodness Bell did this investigation when he did, as most of these key players are now deceased (including the author himself).
In the end, Bell is never able to pin a conspiracy on spiritualists, nor link Whitehead to the movement. There is also a nagging feeling that there is still something untold in all this. But in this age of sensationalized conspiracy theories as entertainment, it's refreshing to finally get book that admits the truth of its own findings (even though this tends to relegate them to smaller publishers, as is the case here). But this honesty also legitimizes this book as a real investigation by a real investigator. And what Bell delivers in The Man Who Killed Houdini is far more interesting than any conspiracy, and of much greater value to the serious scholar of Houdini and magic history. This book is a must.