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PAST TIMES: The Hopewell professor and Houdini’s mysterious death – Part 1

Professor William Dunlop Tait was born in Hopewell, Pictou County.
Professor William Dunlop Tait was born in Hopewell, Pictou County. - Contributed

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss, Budapest, Hungary, 1874) was called “the most famous magician in the world.” His death-defying feats of escapism, needle swallowing, illusion and strength are well documented in movies, games, books, papers and the Internet throughout this planet and possibly beyond.

Houdini’s shows became very popular and would attract and mesmerize thousands. His artistry and boastfulness to avoid mortality would cause many fans and foes to challenge this assertion. And it was on a Canadian visit initiated by a Hopewell-born man that may have helped seal the great Houdini’s controversial death.

In the year 1926 Houdini was “undertaking a series of shows in the northeastern part of North America” and was invited to perform at Montreal’s Princess Theater starting on Oct. 18. This show in Quebec, Canada was almost cancelled because of a previous exhibition at Albany, New York on Oct. 11 where the great Houdini was carrying out his famous escape from the “Water Torture Cell” and reported to have fractured his foot during the exercise. This incident “might be called the beginning of the end for the great magician.” (other punch theory)

Harry Houdini and his entourage would arrive in Montreal and prepare for the opening act at the Princess Theater that October 1926 week. Several blocks away at McGill University the head of the psychology department was conducting classes. Professor William Dunlop Tait, born 1879, Hopewell, Pictou County, had secured a job at the prestigious campus some 17 years before.

He had worked his way up through the McGill ranks after graduating Hopewell’s “school on the hill,” Dalhousie and Harvard universities, earning a MA and PHD. He founded McGill’s first experimental psychology laboratory (the scientific study of the human mind and its functions).

On the 18th of October Houdini opened the week’s engagement at the Princes Theater and the Montreal Gazette reported “his reproduction of a fraudulent mediumistic seances” the most interesting part of the show. He astounded the audience with written messages from the dead as well as unsuspecting members of the onlookers. Houdini revealed how this was carried out and “by means which are within reach of any quack who desires to fleece an innocent public of its money.” He was not a fan of psychics and mediums and in the early 1920s began investigating their methods and claims and became the “self-appointed crusader against them.”

This subject matter also had great interest with Professor William Tait of McGill University. His curiosity was with “at all times highly interested in the theories held and expressed by Houdini, took advantage of the latter’s presence in Montréal to invite him to lecture before the University students.” The master illusionist accepted the request.

On Oct. 19, The McGill Daily reported, “Mr. Harry Houdini will lecture at the McGill Union building at four o’clock this afternoon. He will debunk spiritualists, mediums and other fakers.” Such was Professor Tait’s brief announcement. The event was greeted with great enthusiasm by the students. At four o’clock that Tuesday the McGill Union building was crowded. Every inch of standing room in the hall was taken up, many having to place themselves halfway down the stairs or on ladders to hear the lecturer and the jam-packed throng was reported to be the largest in the universities history. These eager students had come to get a more personal glimpse of Houdini and to hear his tirade against ignorance and the rackets of the “Spiritual world.”

Professor W. D. Tait presided over the event and reported, “I met Houdini on his arrival at the Union on the afternoon of Oct. 19, gave a short lecture and escorted him to the platform and introduced him to the student body from which he delivered his interesting lecture on fake mediums. Although Houdini was dealing with a serious subject – his exposure of fraudulent spiritualistic mediums was exceptionally funny.” Although displaying a professional façade, something was wrong, “his face was pale and drawn; dark shadows played under his eyes. Was this the same man who filled half the world with awe and administration, Professor Tait and some of the onlooking students wondered?

However, Professor Tait noticed something very peculiar just after the lecture and stated: “Houdini was in poor health, when he concluded his address, he sat down immediately as he was suffering great pain from his fractured ankle. His nurse came up to the platform and insisted upon Houdini leaving directly, so gangway was made for him.” A following of the interested trailed along until the crowd was outside the lecture hall. Several students approached Houdini and a McGill junior art student by the name of Sam Smilovitch (Smiley) caught the magicians’ eye. Quickly holding up a sketch the young man had drawn of the entertainer during the lecture. Houdini was very impressed and immediately invited the artist back to his dressing room at the Princess Theater later in the week to complete a full portrait. Sam Smiley stated, “I was an Arts Junior at the time; and I, too, had come to this meeting, anxious to see the great Houdini at close quarters and to hear him castigate the Spiritualists and others who impose upon the unsuspecting and the credulous. But, more particularly, I had come to make a sketch of Houdini; for, ever since I can remember I have been interested in drawing and have rarely allowed an opportunity of sketching a prominent person “in action” to slip by.”

What would happen over the next two weeks until the great Houdini’s death in Detroit on Oct. 31, 1926 (Halloween Day) has mystified supporters, skeptics and the medical profession ever since. A series of unconfirmed, fabricated and sometimes accurate events did cause the demise of “the most famous magician in the world.”

Next month: The Hopewell Professor and Houdini’s mysterious death. Part 2

Historical research

Houdini Museum Archives, New York

The Man Who Killed Houdini, Don Bell, 2004

The Life and Many Deaths of Houdini, Ruth Brandon, 1993

Montreal Gazette, 1926, 2001

Washington Evening Star, Nov. 1, 1926

Kansas City Journal, Nov. 1, 1916

McGill University Archives, Archivist Julien Couture

McCord Museum, Reference Archivist, Heather McNabb, Ph.D.

Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library

The secret life of Houdini: the making of America's first superhero, William Kalush and Larry Sloman, 2006

Houdini and the Princess, Coolopolis

John Ashton is a 34-year historical author, graphic and visual artist and operates the Nova Scotia registered business Ashton Creative Design in Bridgeville, Pictou County. He may be reached at

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