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One final trick for Houdini: exhumation

Get ready for “CSI: Houdini.” A team of forensic experts will pore over the exhumed remains of renowned escape artist Harry Houdini to determine whether he was murdered more than 80 years ago, the head of the investigative team said Friday.
Houdini Exhumation
Forensic scientist James Starrs measures Houdini's gravesite Thursday in the Queens borough of New York.Frank Franklin Ii / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Get ready for “CSI: Houdini.”

A team of forensic experts will pore over the exhumed remains of renowned escape artist Harry Houdini to determine whether he was murdered more than 80 years ago, the head of the investigative team said Friday.

“Everything will be thoroughly analyzed,” said James Starrs, dean of the disinterment dream team of pathologists, anthropologists, toxicologists and radiologists. “We’ll examine his hairs, his fingernails, any bone fractures.”

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

Legal paperwork necessary to dig up Houdini’s body from a New York City cemetery will be filed Monday to get the process started, said Joseph Tacopina, an attorney representing Houdini’s family. It could take months before the body is exhumed, although the process should move faster because the family and cemetery officials support the plan, he said.

Houdini died at age 52 on Halloween 1926, days after the athletic magician was repeatedly punched in the stomach by a college student testing the performer’s abdominal muscles.

Spiritualists seen as likely suspects
His death certificate listed him as a victim of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix, but no autopsy was performed. When the death certificate was filed on Nov. 20, 1926, Houdini's body — brought by train from Detroit to Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal — was already buried in Queens, along with any evidence of a possible death plot.

Within days, a newspaper headline read, "Was Houdini Murdered?" A new biography, "The Secret Life of Houdini," raised the issue again and convinced Hardeen and others that poisoning was a real possibility.

The likeliest murder suspects were a group known as the Spiritualists, which became Houdini's bete noire in his final years. The magician devoted large portions of his stage show to exposing the group's fraudulent seances; the movement's devotees included Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the Houdini biography, authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman detail a November 1924 letter from Doyle that smacks of professor Moriarty-style malevolence: Houdini, it said, would "get his just desserts very exactly meted out. ... I think there is a general payday coming soon."

Two years later, Houdini — by all accounts an extraordinary physical specimen — was dead before his 53rd birthday. Kalush and Sloman noted that "the Spiritualist underworld's modus operandi in cases like this was often poisoning" — possibly arsenic.

The biography additionally detailed the injection of "an experimental serum" into Houdini by one of his doctors at Detroit's Grace Hospital.

While Houdini took the Spiritualists' repeated death threats seriously, he traveled without the security trappings now de rigeur for celebrities — no bodyguard, no entourage, often just his wife Bess.

Strange details on death certificate
"If someone were hell-bent on poisoning Houdini," the authors wrote, "it wouldn't have been very difficult."

The team working on the exhumation includes internationally known forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, and Starrs, who has studied the disinterred remains of gunslinger Jesse James and "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo.

Baden, who chaired panels reinvestigating the deaths of President Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., pointed out a pair of oddities in Houdini's death certificate: It noted his appendix was on the left side, rather than the right. And the diagnosis of appendicitis caused by a punch was "very unusual."

Legendary escape artist Harry Houdini is shown in chains in this photo circa 1899. A team of top-level forensic investigators will conduct new tests on Harry Houdini's body to determine if he was poisoned.AP

Starrs said he was long familiar with the story of Houdini's death, and believed the fatal injury was the result of an accident. Details contained in the Houdini biography convinced him otherwise.

"My eyebrows went up when I read this book," Starrs said. "I thought, 'This is really startling, surprising and unsettling, and at bottom, suspicious in nature.' "

The exhumation plan received support from a surprising source: Anna Thurlow, the great-granddaughter of "medium" Margery, whose husband Dr. Le Roi Crandon was one of the Spiritualist movement's biggest proponents — and one of Houdini's most virulent enemies.

During a 1924 "seance," Margery channeled a "spirit" named Walter who greeted Houdini with a threat: "I put a curse on you now that will follow you every day for the rest of your short life."

While the spirit was imaginary, the prediction of a short life was all too real. Thurlow believes there may be a connection.

"With people that delusional, you have to question what they're capable of,'" she said. "If there's any circumstantial evidence that Houdini was poisoned, we have to explore that."