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Houdini's remains may be exhumed for clues to death

His family wants to learn whether he was poisoned in 1926 for trying to expose mediums as frauds.

March 23, 2007|Emi Endo | Newsday

NEW YORK — Legendary escape artist Harry Houdini mystified audiences with his daring stunts, but his death on Halloween 1926 was even more mysterious.

Houdini, buried in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, had been struck in the abdomen before he died, leading some to suspect foul play.

Today, relatives of both Houdini -- born Erich Weiss -- and one of the magician's archenemies are planning to call for the exhumation of Houdini's remains for clues to his death.

A coauthor of a recent book about Houdini, Larry Sloman, told Newsday that one possible scenario was that Houdini was poisoned by someone in a movement in which mediums purported to contact the dead in seances. Toward the end of his life, Houdini had dedicated himself to exposing spiritualist mediums as frauds.

If that were true, Sloman said, "the poison would remain in the system" of Houdini's body -- even 80 years after his death.

Sloman, who with William Kalush wrote "The Secret Life of Houdini," said that when Houdini died at age 52, officials attributed the cause to "traumatic appendicitis" brought on by a blow to his stomach. Doctors now know it is impossible for a blow to the stomach to cause appendicitis, he said.

Speculation about Houdini's death has been fueled by questions about an "experimental serum" given to Houdini in the hospital, the lack of an autopsy and indications that his wife, who died later, may have been poisoned at the same time, Sloman said.

George Hardeen, whose grandfather was Houdini's brother, said: "It needs to be looked at. His death shocked the entire nation, if not the world. Now, maybe it's time to take a second look."

Anna Thurlow of Hampton Bays, N.Y., a great-granddaughter of Houdini's nemesis, a medium known as Margery, agreed.

"We need to use science to understand the world around us and to correct history," she told Newsday. "History might have had something wrong."

Thurlow's late mother was an anthropologist who had collected documents about Mina "Margery" Crandon and Thurlow shared the information with the book's authors. Crandon "gained a lot of notoriety and fame because of her mediumship abilities," Thurlow said.

To find out whether Houdini's enemies had anything to do with his demise, a group of forensic investigators is ready to examine the remains if legal issues surrounding an exhumation are resolved, Sloman said.

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