Houdini is struck in the stomach by Smiley.  What?

smiley yearbook

Samuel J. Smilovitz a.k.a “Smiley” was the art student who sketched Houdini during his lecture at McGill’s Union Hall on October 19, 1926. Houdini was so impressed with the sketch that he invited Smiley to come see him backstage at the Princess Theater and do another for him. Smiley invited a friend, Jacques Price, and together they visited Houdini on October 22. It was during this visit that a third student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who was unknown to both Smiley and Price, joined the gathering. The rest is Houdini history or is it.

According to Frank Koval in the Illustrated Houdini Research Diary, Houdini is struck in the stomach by Smiley on October 22nd.  What?

And according to Walter B. Gibson in The Master Magicians, all three students delivered punches, which would have included Smiley.  What?

During the week of October 17, 1926, Houdini appeared in Montreal, and one morning toward the end of his engagement, a group of college students [Smiley, Price, Whitehead] stopped at the theater to interview him.  Houdini talked about the physical fitness needed in his escapes acts, and demonstrated how he could brace the muscles of his abdomen to offset heavy blows.  One student, then another, delivered punches at Houdini’s invitation.

As a third hesitated, Houdini relaxed, thinking the youth had given up the idea.  Instead, the student made a belated swing.  Houdini received the punch off guard, and it nearly crumpled him, but he managed to brush it off as if had not hurt him.

That night, he complained of a pain in his side, which grew steadily worse.  When the show reached Detroit, he was running a fever, but still insisted upon giving his performance when he learned that the theater was sold out.  That was Houdini’s last show.  He collapsed at the finish and was rushed to hospital, suffering from an acute case of appendicitis.  Surgeons operated immediately, but peritonitis was so far advanced that they were unable to save the patient’s life.  He died on Halloween, 1926.

All of this said, the full story of the events leading to Houdini’s death was first told, to the best of my knowledge, in a well-written, detailed article by Stanley Handman which appeared in the Canadian Weekend Picture Magazine for 12th September, 1953.

But wait a minute!  Sam J. Smiley is the source of the article.  It is believed that Stanley Handman gave his column that week to Smiley.

As far as I know, Smiley’s 1953 article is the first time that Whitehead’s name was first publically mentioned as the one that struck Houdini in the stomach.  What?

And a letter from Ernst, Fox and Cane to Smilowitz says:

“we understand you and your friends were in Houdini’s room, and one of your friends struck the blows, and so forth, we understand it was purely accidental. Our sole interest is in collecting on a double indemnity accident insurance policy for Mrs. Houdini.  Would you help by telling us what happened?”

Notice the only name they have is Smilowitz because he had given Houdini the sketch and his address.  We know Jacques Price was Smiley’s friend, but what about Whitehead?

So who punched Houdini in the dressing room at the theatre?  Smiley, Price, Whitehead or some other young man?

Wallace Irvin Whitehead 1926_0051

According to Silverman’s book,

[Smiley] identified the young man as Whitehead, a first-year student at McGill, and some biographers of Houdini have identified him further as J. Gordon Whitehead, but the only freshman  with that surname, according to the school’s yearbook, was named Wallace (Wallie) Whitehead, a good-looking twenty-two-year-old with slicked-down hair, manager of the class hockey league.


Believed to be J. Gordon Whitehead at McGill

Since Silverman’s book, both Wallie and Gordon Whitehead have been found at McGill and they may have been brothers. What?

Whitehead, Smiley and Price were the only ones besides Houdini who knew what happened in the dressing room.

While anyone of the three students could have punched Houdini in the dressing room, the only real evidence that it was only J. Gordon Whitehead (30 years old) and not Wallace I Whitehead (22 years old), Smiley or Price is the affidavit from a J. Gordon Whitehead that has recently been made available.

According to the affidavit from J. Gordon Whitehead (3/16/1927),

I struck Houdini quite moderately and he smiled and laughingly said – “Why! Hit me.” I hesitated and he repeated – “Hit me”; I struck him a second blow slightly harder than the first, he gave not the slightest indication of any discomfort at either of the blows.  Both blows were struck on the left side of his body and above the navel.

The first affidavits from Samuel  Smilovitz (2/10/1927) and Jacques Price (2/14/1927) don’t mention Whitehead by name, they refer to him (“about 25 years of age“) as the Third McGill Student and first year student of McGill in Arts.  Interestingly, their second affidavits (SM 4/19/1927 JP 4/16/1927) do mention his name was Whitehead.  The affidavit (11/26/1926) from Houdini’s First Assistant, James Collins, mentions that Houdini was in the company with one Smilovitz and two other students (no names given) of McGill University, Montreal…On such occasion one of the said students struck Houdini with two blows in his stomach merely for the purpose of showing his resistance to blows.  Other affidavits from Sophie Rosenblatt (2/15/1927), Julia Karchere (5/7/1927), Julia Sauer (5/7/1927) mention that Houdini stated he had been violently struck a number of times by a student (no name given) of McGill University.

Based on the evidence, I think it is obvious, who punched Houdini?

Is Whitehead also found at Old McGill in 1927?

J Gordon Whitehead’s name appears on the ARTS 29 list in the Old McGill 1927 Yearbook, but the guy we surmised was Gordon in the ARTS 28 group photo from the 1926 Yearbook, does not appear to be found in this ARTS 29 group photo. This sort of makes sense, since Gordon supposedly dropped out of school shortly after the Houdini incident; so it is possible his name still appeared as a student in 1927, but he wasn’t around for a photo.

McGills 1926 ARTS 29 J Gordon Whitehead 1927_00641927_00651927_0332

Whitehead is Found at Old McGill in 1926

W G Whitehead 1926_0256

Whitehead McGill Rowing Club 1926_0257

Is the Whitehead above, the same Whitehead as the one below?


J. G. Whitehead


UPDATE:  The answer is NO.

W. G. Whitehead real name is Wallace I. Whitehead and was from the ARTS ’27 class.

Wallace Irvin Whitehead 1926_0051

W I Whitehead ARTS 27 1926_0056

W I Whitehead 1926_0057

See the Don Bell book, The Man Who Killed Houdini, chapter 13 (A Brother Found) and page 246 for some more information on a possible connection between Wally and Gordon.

J.Gordon Whitehead was from the ARTS ’28 class, although he never graduated. He was born in Gourock Scotland November 25, 1895, graduated from Kelowna High School, British Columbia, in 1914, and dropped out of McGill in 1926, almost immediately after the Houdini incident.

J G Whitehead ARTS 28 1926_0058


1926_0059Whitehead and Pickleman 1926_0356


Source: yearbooks.mcgill.ca

Special thanks to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz for the tip that led me to find the McGill Yearbooks.

The Student and the BOOK?

Whitehead Image

J. Gordon Whitehead circa 1950

The student is J. Gordon Whitehead, but what is the deal with the BOOK.

Whitehead is the one that punched Houdini in the dressing room at the Princess Theatre in Montreal on October 22, 1926.

Returning a borrowed book was supposedly how he gained entry to Houdini’s dressing room that fateful day.

Where did the return a borrowed book idea come from?

This question intrigued me so, I decided to investigate further.

If you examine all of the affidavits, none of them mention Whitehead returning a book.

If you examine all of the biographies, Milbourne Christopher’s, The Untold Story, appears to be the first one to mention a borrowed book being returned.  So where did Christopher and the later biographers get the idea.

The following snippet from an article written by Bayard Grimshaw gives a clue:


The full story of the events leading to Houdini’s death was first told, to the best of my knowledge, in a well-written, detailed article by Stanley Handman which appeared in the Canadian Weekend Picture Magazine for 12th September, 1953. The account is so circumstantial, and contains so many independently verifiable facts, that there is no reason to doubt its accuracy.

The full article, with its five illustrations, was reproduced as a supplement to The Magic Cauldron in October, 1965.  [Abracadabra Magazine Saturday 23rd March 1974  page 230]

Sam J. Smiley [student that made a drawing of Houdini in the dressing room] is the source of the article.  It is believed that Stanley Handman gave his column that week to Smiley.

Below is a portion of the Was Houdini Killed? article by Smiley that is applicable to this post:

While Houdini was thus discoursing and I drawing, there was a rap at the door, and Houdini’s secretary ushered in a rather tall individual – he must have been at least six foot two – wearing a blue gabardine coat that seemed much too small for him, and carrying three or four books under his arm. The newcomer appeared to have known Houdini and had, in fact, come that day to return a book Houdini had loaned him a few days before; his name was Whitehead, and he was the theological student at McGill University.
Whitehead was an oldish looking young man about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years of age. He impressed one as being the very genteel type of student. His face was ruddy, his hair very thin on top; his frame was powerful though loosely-knit, and his neck was inordinately long. He spoke softly with an exaggerated Oxford accent.
With the advent of Whitehead the conversation continued anew, and though I was disturbed from time to time by the fact that Houdini had to turn his head to answer Whitehead’s numerous queries (for he was an enthusiastic talker) I found a good deal of interest in what was said…
It seems that Houdini had been a detective for many years and had aided in unraveling so many mysteries and had read so many detective stories, that he boasted of being able to piece together any detective story, unknown to him of course, by hearing three or four paragraphs from different sections of such story. Whitehead, who had a mystery book with him, tried the experiment; he read excerpts from three or four different sections of the book, and Houdini apparently was able to give the gist of the story. At this juncture Houdini made an observation which I shall always remember, “think of the trouble I might have caused if I had used my talents for ill.”
More conversation and then Whitehead asked Houdini another question. “What is your opinion of the miracles mentioned in the Bible?”
Houdini tactfully replied, “I prefer not to discuss or to comment on matters of this nature. I would make one observation, however, – what would succeeding generations said of Houdini’s feats had he performed them in Biblical times? Would they have been referred to as ‘miracles’?”
Whitehead appeared to be somewhat taken aback at this statement.
It was at this point that Whitehead began to manifest what seem to me an astonishing interest in Houdini’s physical strength. Then, out of a clear sky, Whitehead asked, “is it true, Mr. Houdini, that you can resist the hardest blows struck to the abdomen?”

Of course much of the above now appears in the biographies by Silverman, Kalush and others.  As far as I know, Smiley’s article is the one and only source of a book being returned by Whitehead.  And it took almost 27 years since Houdini’s death to come too light. The 1953 article is also the first time that Whitehead’s name was first mentioned.

So, the return a borrowed book idea came from Smiley and only Smiley.

Thanks to Dick Brookz and Patrick Culliton for links to reference material (e.g., affidavits).

Related post:

Whitehead Second Visit

Whitehead Image

Only Known Image of Whitehead (circa 1950 Montreal)

First, let me start off by saying that the purpose of this post is not to argue one way or another WRT the intent of the infamous Whitehead punches; I will leave that to others. My purpose is to share and comment on the fact, that according to the sworn affidavit of J. Gordon Whitehead, he visited Houdini three times (i.e., two times after delivering the punches to Houdini); I found that to be quite interesting; feel free to draw your own conclusions to the significance of this. You can find a copy of the affidavit at Patrick Culliton’s Houdini’s Ghost website:

It is the second visit mentioned in statement 25 of the affidavit that I found fascinating:

  • 25. I called again on Houdini at the theater on Friday morning the 22 October 1926 at 10 AM during our conversation we spoke of longevity and he gave me a copy of the “Scientific American” for November;

After reading that statement, I just had to get a copy of the Scientific American for November 1926.

SA Nov 1926 Cover

Click on the page links below to read the Albert A. Hopkins article in November 1926 Scientific American on longevity that Whitehead mentions.

  • How Death Deals Its Cards: Death in a Thousand Shapes is Knocking Eternally at Everyman’s Door. [Page 362] [Page 363]

The article with an interesting title presents U.S. mortality statistics for 1923 by cause of death.  Don Bell (author of The Man Who Killed Houdini) mentions that it may have interested Whitehead to know that 8.12 percent of total deaths that year or 98,030, were caused by diseases of the digestive system, and there were 7,878 homicides.

I also found statement 11 of the Whitehead affidavit fascinating as it relates to statement 25:

  • 11. I had previously mentioned a book I had read which set forth the requirements of good health, such as the care of the skin, the maintenance of an abdominal muscular corset, and a good digestion;


Part 2: Is this really how it went down?

TC Dressing Room Punch Water Cell

If we are referring to the first preliminary green screenplay (4-23-52) for the movie “Houdini” starring Tony Curtis, then the answer is, YES.  

As a result of the blow (i.e., punch) described in Part 1, Houdini is in bad shape when he goes on stage a little later that evening to do his most hazardous escape — the water  cell:

As he is placed in the water cell upside down, he sees the grotesque Halloween costumes and masks of some of the children in the packed audience and his face shows fear as he realizes it is Halloween night.

The curtains are drawn across the cell at the regularly allotted time.  Bess apprehensively signals Otto who whips the curtain aside, discovers Houdini lying unconscious, and quickly smashes the glass with an axe…

Bess is beside the dying Houdini in ambulance.  His voice is barely audible as he says, “I’ll come back, Bess — I’ll find a way — “  Bess nods through her tears…

It is Halloween night, 1936, and Bess and Sydney arrive at the abandoned Houdini house.  For the past nine years on the anniversary of Houdini’s death, Bess has come here to see if he could contact her.  She promised him to try for ten years before giving up and tonight is to be the last attempt.

Bess and Sydney wait patiently in Houdini’s study which has kept intact. Midnight comes and again nothing has happened.  Sydney is urging the intense Bess to leave when suddenly she hears the Hungarian waltz. A beatific look comes over her face, and Sydney, hearing nothing is puzzled.  Bess sways to the music and moves over to a faded poster.  It reads Schultz Dime Museum and shows a picture of Houdini at the age of twenty, wearing is ill-fitting dress suit and pulling a rabbit out of a silk hat.  The music swells to a crescendo….  [Screenplay read and summarized by Dorothy Harrington, 4-30-52]


If we are referring to the final version of the Tony Curtis movie (1953), then the answer is NO.

It went down like this:

Houdini is lying down in his dressing room, and winces, when Otto touches his stomach.

Otto: “Still hurts you there doesn’t?”

Houdini: “It’s alright.”

Otto: “You should have had that taken care of a long time ago.”

Houdini: “It’s nothing, it comes and goes.”

Otto: “I think it is your appendix”

Houdini: “Since when have you been practicing medicine?”

Otto: “You don’t have to be a doctor to know that something is wrong”

Houdini: “Alright I will have it looked at as soon as we finish the tour”

Later that evening, Houdini performs the Barrel Escape and the Steel Strait-Jacket Escape, but the audience wants more; they want the Torture Cell.

Houdini goes into his dressing room to prepare for the Torture Cell when he accidentally bumps his stomach against the handle of a sword protruded from a sword box illusion.  He is in obvious pain.

He enters the Pagoda Torture Cell. Houdini passes the time-limit and the cabinet is broken open, flooding the stage.  Houdini is still hanging in the cabinet, unconscious.

Bess is then seen beside the dying Houdini on stage.   He regains consciousness long enough to promise her that he will come back to her, he will find a way somehow.

We then hear the Hungarian Waltz and fade to a poster that reads Schultz Dime Museum and shows a picture of Houdini at the age of twenty, wearing is ill-fitting dress suit and pulling a rabbit out of a silk hat.  The music swells to a crescendo…  The End

According to the man (Jon Oliver) that currently sleeps in Houdini’s bed: It is believed that they changed the movies ending from Houdini getting punched to him dying in the cell because the lawyers at Paramount did not want to get a law suit since the students were still alive.  For another reason the ending could have changed, check out A New Twist on The End of Houdini by Tony Curtis.

If we are referring to how Houdini died in real life WRT the Houdini death blow (i.e., punch), then you will need to talk to Houdini’s Ghost (Patrick Culliton) or The Female Houdini (Dorothy Dietrich) for an answer and rethink the rethinking on the Houdini punch.

Part 1: Is this really how it went down?

Houdini Punch Image

Is this really how it went down?

Houdini is disturbed by three college students to whom he promised to give an interview for their paper. Although Houdini is extremely weary he manages to joke with them about his successful feats of strength, such as having had a 500 pound weight dropped on his stomach.  As the boys continue to question him, Houdini starts going through an accumulation of mail and only half-listening, he consents to let one of the husky boys take a punch at him.  The boy delivers a crushing blow to Houdini’s stomach and from the look of surprise and pain on his face they realize with alarm that Houdini was unprepared for the attack.  The boy apologizes, and Houdini, concealing his pain, assures him he’s all right.  The boys leave and Houdini, in agony, manages to stretch himself out.  [Dorothy Harrington]

Check back for the answer in my next post.