Was Houdini poisoned? Family wants exhumation to find out Fri Mar 23, 3:58 PM NEW YORK (AFP) - Legendary escape artist Harry Houdini spent his life mesmerizing people, and relatives are now wondering if his death by illness was also an illusion -- was he in fact murdered? Digging into a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes -- whose creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, could even be implicated -- the last surviving relative of the master illusionist said Friday he wanted to exhume Houdini's remains to find out if he was poisoned. When the Hungarian-born magician died in 1926, few questioned the official explanation that he died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. But now a group of researchers, forensic pathologists and the master showman's grandnephew say he may have been murdered by a circle of psychics desperate to see him dead. "Ordinarily, I would say let the dead rest in peace," said George Hardeen, whose grandfather was Houdini's younger brother. "However I believe the country and the world have a right to know the whole truth about Houdini's death." Hardeen's lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, said that advances in forensic science had spurred Hardeen to call for the exhumation of Houdini, who found fame being handcuffed inside nailed-down boxes and plunged into tanks of water, and then magically fighting his way to survive. The most commonly accepted account of his death describes how a student in Canada asked Houdini if he could withstand a blow to the stomach, before repeatedly punching him in the gut. Accounts of the incident suggest Houdini, who had not properly prepared himself, crumpled in pain and died days later of a ruptured appendix. The explanation has since been dismissed as medically impossible. "Evidence has come to light 80 years after his passing which shrouds his death in as much mystery as that which enveloped his life -- evidence which suggests that he may have been poisoned," Tacopina said. It is well known that Houdini made enemies by trying to expose mediums in the then-popular spiritualist movement, accusing them of extorting money from the bereaved with bogus claims that they could contact the dead. One of those in the movement who fell out with Houdini was crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Tacopina suggested Houdini may also have been killed by Margery Crandon, a well known medium, or her husband. Houdini had been investigating the disappearance of young boys the couple had adopted. "There was a motive to murder Harry Houdini," said Tacopina. "No autopsy was ever done on Harry Houdini, and the Spiritualist movement was behind the cover up," he added. The Crandons' great granddaughter, Anna Thurlow, who helped uncover documents that support the murder theory, gave her backing for the exhumation. Recent research, Tacopina added, had uncovered evidence of death threats against the magician and letters suggesting the he had been murdered. A team of pathologists and toxicologists led by renowned forensic specialist James Starrs is on hand to perform tests on the remains pending court approval for an exhumation. Legal papers were due to be filed in New York next week. Professor Starrs, who was involved in the exhumations of Wild West outlaw Jesse James and Albert DeSalvo, the Boston strangler, said the case threw up sufficient doubt about Houdini's death to warrant exhumation. "No autopsy was performed. There should have been," he said. "The question is not whether he died of peritonitis, but whether there was something more involved in his death." One theory centers on a mystery medication he was given. Starrs said that if Houdini had been poisoned, the heavy metals likely used would have remained in his system. Tests on the bones, hair and nails of the corpse should be able to establish if there was any foul play, he said. "I think we're on our way to a successful exhumation," he added. The group was not expecting any problems gaining permission to disinter Houdini's remains, since it already has the support of Houdini's surviving family and the New York cemetery where he is buried. "Houdini's death was misdiagnosed, there's no question about that... We have good and substantial cause, which is the legal standard," Tacopina said.