A couple of years ago I was working at a charity fundraising banquet doing small magic tricks at each of the tables. At one of them, the man nearest me picked my deck of cards up from the table and fanned through them, trying to "catch" me with whatever gimmick he thought I might be using. ("Hey Sherlock, if I'm putting the cards where a poor sport like you can just grab them, you can bet the mortgage there's nothing in them for you to find.") His actions were rude and childish - this was a man I'd put in his fifties - but they show the misguided tendency we all have at one time or another to feel threatened by anything that has us mystified.
Recent news reports of Harry Houdini's grand-nephews wanting to exhume his body, and of his widow Bess' grand-nephews opposing it, reminded me of this. Harry's side wants a forensic study to determine if he was murdered by the spiritualists whose scams he'd spent a good part of his later career exposing. Bess' camp is calling it an exploitive attempt to promote sales of a recent biography that explored, among other things, the decades-old murder rumors.
So who should we listen to?
It could be argued that Harry's blood relatives ("dig him up") should be given priority over his relatives-through-marriage ("leave him where he is"). One might also ask: after someone has been dead for 81 years, are his blood-descendants really "relatives?"
Then there's the big question that no one has asked: since the forensic investigation is not going to reveal what person would have murdered Houdini, and any perpetrators would be long-dead anyway, what purpose would exhuming him serve? Certainly not justice. It's more likely another case of satisfying a curiosity, and not the scholarly kind either.
Once any forensic results - whatever they show - are known, the fascination that's endured for 81 years won't last another 81 days. We can only guess what Harry himself would want done, but we do know that while he was alive he stopped at nothing and used everything - from the complex and highly technical to the shockingly simple - to make sure people remained mystified about him at all times, and in all ways.
If exhuming Harry Houdini were really about justice I'd be all for it. And yes, I admit there is part of me that is curious and that would want to hear every detail. There's some part of all of us that always seems to want to grab the cards, expose the gimmick, and endthe mystery. The problem is that when the immediate gratification from doing that fades - and it does fade - we end up having lost something much bigger.
On a completely different subject...
It took a while but I finally figured out the difference between American Idol and the Bush administration, and it is this: on American Idol, people with approval ratings lower than Sanjaya's are gotten rid of.
Your thoughts, as always, are welcome. If you're not on aol and would like to post a comment, just send it to me by e-mail and I'll make sure it gets in.