Harry Houdini was a man of mystery, a world-renowned magician known for tricks as unbelievable as escaping from a burial coffin.
But while his life was a spectacle, his recorded death fell short of a magical event. Houdini’s death certificate says he died at age 52 on Halloween of peritonitis due to a ruptured appendix. It has been said that a fan’s blow to his stomach caught him off guard, not leaving him with time to brace his abdominal muscles and leading to the ruptured appendix.
Yet if everything goes as planned, James Starrs, a professor of law and forensic sciences at GW, will be working with a team of scientists to dig up Houdini and test him for a more dramatic death: poison by his enemies, the spiritualists, whose claims of being able to talk with the dead were debunked by Houdini.
“I do not buy into the traditional views of the deaths of individuals. I look with a skeptical eye, a scientific eye,” said Starrs, a self-proclaimed iconoclast. Starrs’s past deceased clients include Jesse James and “Boston Strangler” Albert DeSalvo.
Starrs said because of personal experience with a ruptured appendix he has always been suspicious of what is traditionally seen as the cause of Houdini’s death. He did not consider the possibility of there being a more sinister cause of Houdini’s death until he was contacted by the authors of a biography of Houdini in February about doing an autopsy.
The book, “The Secret Life of Harry Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero” by William Kulash and Larry Sloman, was published in October, and includes the claim that Houdini was poisoned.
On Friday plans to exhume Houdini’s body to test him for poison were announced at a press conference organized by the authors. Starrs attended the New York press conference, along with attorney Joseph Tacopina, who Starrs said was hired by the authors to represent George Hardeen, Houdini’s grand-nephew.
Starrs said he got involved in the case when he was contacted by Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist and the host of the HBO show “Autopsy,” asking him if he would be interesting in testing the body. the forensic scientist agreed, and later got a phone call from the authors, who then sent him a copy of “The Secret Life.”
Starrs said the body will be exhumed within a month’s time, “so long as there is no rabbit brought out of a hat and someone comes out on the scene and objects.”
But by Tuesday, there had already been some objections by the grand-nephews of Houdini’s widow, who said the proposed exhumation is just a way to promote sales of the book, according to the associated press.
If plans do go forward, Starrs’ team of scientists will include Baden as well as two other GW professors, George Stephens, a geophysics professor, and forensic science professor Walter Rowe. William Bass, a forensic anthropologist, was also asked to join the team. Starrs said all the scientists, himself included, will work pro-bono.
“Hopefully there will be some payback from the University for my expenses,” he said.
Even if the scientists are not paid for their work, Rowe, the forensic science professor, said when working with famous people there is always the incentive of possible media attention and publishing findings.
Rowe’s specialty is looking at hairs, fibers and clothing to see how they degrade over time, so he will be less involved in the search for poison.
He explained that while the autopsy will likely only take a couple of days, analysis and interpretation of the data may take months. He said the team’s success in examining the body will largely be affected by the extent to which the body has decayed, and that there is the possibility that Houdini’s teeth may be all that is left of the magician, leaving little for the scientists to work with.
“(Houdini’s death is) not a big part of history, but it is kind of interesting. I would just say let the science say what science says,” Rowe said.
He said he trusted Starr’s judgment in deciding to take the case, but that investigations of this sort can get tricky when peoples’ motives are questioned.
“I think a cardinal mistake is that people go into these investigations with the belief that they are going to prove he was murdered,” he said. “Then you wind up with results that no one will trust because (the researchers) have preconceived agendas.”