- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

NEW YORK — Get ready for “CSI: Houdini.”

A team of forensic specialists will examine 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 yesterday.

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

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.

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.

His death certificate listed him as a victim of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. No autopsy was performed, though, and rumors that he was murdered started almost immediately.

“The Secret Life of Houdini,” a biography published last year, revisited the rumors and detailed the injection of “an experimental serum” into Houdini shortly before his death at Detroit’s Grace Hospital.

The authors suggest the likeliest suspects were members of a group known as the Spiritualists. The magician devoted large portions of his stage show to exposing the group’s fraudulent seances.

Houdini received an assortment of death threats from the Spiritualists in his final years.

In the Houdini biography, authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman explore a November 1924 letter in which one of the movement’s devotees, Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, said Houdini would “get his just deserts very exactly meted out. … I think there is a general payday coming soon.”

The exhumation plan received support from Anna Thurlow, the great-granddaughter of a “medium” whose husband Dr. Le Roi Crandon was one of the Spiritualist movement’s biggest proponents and one of Houdini’s enemies.

“At the very least, there was a group of people who wished Houdini harm,” said Miss Thurlow, who was forced to consider that her ancestors may have been murderers. “Whatever the answer is, it [exhumation] will resolve this mystery.”

Mr. Starrs, who presided over the exhumations of gunslinger Jesse James and “Boston Strangler” Albert DeSalvo, said that if Houdini was poisoned with heavy metals — arsenic or mercury, for example — there should be evidence of that more than eight decades later.

“I wouldn’t be involved if I simply thought this was bringing a rabbit out of a hat,” he said.

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