• Kloe Gentry

What happened to Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, the man who killed Harry Houdini?

The name of Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz) is practically synonymous with ‘worlds best magician’. The famed escape artist could pull off illusions and stunts that baffled even the greatest experts of his time. One of his signature feats was his ability to escape from a straitjacket while being suspended upside down by a crane. He would do this in public in front of tens of thousands of onlookers, one time bringing traffic in New-York to a halt. Nowadays, such a trick is considered quite trivial assuming the proper techniques, but for his time it was considered quite groundbreaking.

One trick that remains a mystery is his famous milk can escape. Requesting the audience to hold their breath, he would submerge himself in a large steel milk can filled with water. The top was then locked by an assistant with several reinforced padlocks. A curtain would be drawn. Music was played to increase the suspense. After three minutes, a nervous manager would come on stage with an axe, pacing around, seemingly ready to break him out at a moments notice. Two minutes later, long after the last of the audience had given up on holding their breath, Houdini would reemerge from behind the curtain, completely unharmed and out of the milk can.

One unlucky magician in the 1920s, Gilbert Genesta, would perform this trick as well. The padlocked lid would have a secondary hatch from which he would escape, which was likely a variant of what Houdini used as well. However, one time while in transport, the can got dented, and the hatch got stuck. Genesta, not knowing this, performed his usual trick in front of a large crowd. By the time his wife realized what was wrong and opened all six padlocks, he had already drowned.

Houdini was also notorious for debunking spiritualists. At a time where magic and illusions were most associated with esoteric abilities, Houdini would go out of his way to expose their methods and call out their stunts. This earned him the ire of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ author Arthur Conan Doyle. He thought that Houdini was himself a powerful spiritualist medium and was using his abilities to block those of other mediums that he was "debunking". For Houdini to convince the worlds greatest detective author that his abilities had to be paranormal in nature illustrates just how great of an illusionist he was.

Houdini famously met his end by a series of punches to his stomach, which eventually triggered a rupture in his appendix and causing him peritonitis- an inflammation In the abdomen.

As the story goes, three students by the names of Jacques Price, Sam Smilovitz & Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead had visited Houdini in his dressing room after a show, apparently to return a borrowed book. Houdini was reclining on a couch, having broken his ankle during a show several days earlier.

Whitehead asked Houdini, “whether it was true that punches in the stomach did not hurt him”. Houdini replied casually that his stomach could endure a lot.

The circumstances are unclear is Houdini had consented or not, but all of a sudden had Whitehead begun aggressively punching the magician in the stomach, delivering ‘hammer-like blows’. Houdini winced and stopped Whitehead, telling him he had no time to prepare. The following day Houdini refused treatment from doctors, continuing to perform despite the debilitating pain.

Eventually he was hospitalized at Detroit's Grace Hospital with a fever of 104c, but by the time it was already too late. His last words before dying were reportedly, "I'm tired of fighting... I do not want to fight anymore..."

Even though an insurance investigation had determined that Whitehead ultimately caused the death of Houdini, the man was never punished. There is only one confirmed photo of Whitehead which was unearthed by the author Don Bell. In it Whitehead appears rather malnourished, which is not surprising considering that this was later his cause of death in 1954. After Houdini's death he continued living a solitary life, becoming a recluse and a hoarder.

Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead in a bookstore
Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead in a bookstore around the 1950's

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