NEW YORK – The family of Harry Houdini's widow hopes to stop plans for exhuming the escape artist's remains, saying they are worried a disinterment to determine if he was murdered smacked of sensationalism.
"It is our firm belief that Bess Houdini would never approve of this," said a statement from her grandnephews, John and Jeffrey Blood. "The family believes this is likely being done to promote sales of a recent book on Harry Houdini suggesting he may have been murdered."
But a spokesman for Houdini's great-nephew, who supports the exhumation, and one of the new biography's authors were quick Tuesday to rebut the Bloods' suggestion.
"I'm sorry that Bess' side of the family feels that way, because this is not a publicity stunt in any shape or form," said Larry Sloman, co-author of "The Secret Life of Houdini." "This is not something frivolous. This is a serious scientific study."
Last week, Houdini's great-nephew George Hardeen announced his backing of an exhumation to determine if his world-renowned relative was poisoned. The biography suggested Houdini was possibly targeted because of his relentless public ridicule of the Spiritualists, a group that claimed it could contact the dead.
Houdini died on Halloween 1926 at a Detroit hospital, and is buried at a cemetery in the Queens borough of New York. Although no autopsy was ever conducted, his death certificate cited peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix as the cause of death. Prior to his sudden passing at age 52, Houdini received several death threats from people within the Spiritualist movement, recounted the biography, published in October 2006.
Hardeen, after reading the book, became convinced an exhumation was needed to resolve the mystery of Houdini's death. A team of top forensic investigators, including Prof. James Starrs and former New York City medical examiner Dr. Michael Baden, agreed to join the investigation on a pro bono basis.
Bruce Bobbins, spokesman for the Hardeen side of the family, said the Blood relatives — in an odd twist of phrase — "are not blood relatives of Harry Houdini and therefore have no legal standing on the issue."
Bobbins said the Hardeen contingent was willing to meet with the Bloods to discuss any concerns. But, he added, "we are still committed to moving forward in an expedient manner with the exhumation process."
The Bloods — their mother, Marie, was Bess Houdini's niece — said they were unaware of the plans for exhumation until they read an Associated Press article. They e-mailed Joseph Tacopina, an attorney for the Hardeens, to express their opposition to the exhumation and said they were considering legal action.
"We are adamant against it," said Jeff Blood, who lives in upstate New York. "There's no need to have his body exhumed."