Monday, October 31, 2011

Hallowe'en with Harry

October 31, 2011
I've been to see the gravesite of Harry Houdini many times over the years at the now semi-abandoned Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, and even went there last year on Hallowe'en, but I never had the chance, until today, to see his bust atop the center pillar of the memorial.

The bust was originally a part of the site, which was built by Houdini (born Erich Weiss) in 1916 to honor his parents, who are memorialized in the carvings on the left (mother Cecelia 1841-1913) and right (father Mayer 1829-1892) sides of the half-circle bench. (These were cut from the original stela the parents were buried under and incorporated into this new one.)  They, along with his maternal grandmother and four of his brothers, are buried with Harry in the forecourt.  The stories I hear was that the original bust was was stolen so often that the family finally gave up on replacing it, and a reproduction was created by the Society of American Magicians and placed here only for the memorial service they hold every year on the anniversary of Houdini's October 31st, 1926 death.

This particular bust, I learned, was created by the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, after a years-long fundraising effort, and installed here, somewhat covertly, on this past September 27.  You can read their account of it here

The Weiss Family Gravesite - October 2011

But last year, when my sister and I came by, there was no bust, in fact, the cemetery gates were locked.  We got onto the grounds through the adjacent Hungarian Cemetery. (The Machpelah gatehouse has been abandoned for several years now.)  I was here again this past August, and while the gates were open, the grounds were somewhat overgrown in places.  While not as far gone as the Bayside/Acacia Cemetery in southern Queens, or the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, it could, sadly, be only a matter of time.

Grave Marker.  Note the small padlock in the letter 'O'
Houdini died in Detroit at the age of 52; he was born 26 years before the turn of the century and died 26 years after.  His wife died in Needles, California, in 1943.  That date remains uncarved on their stone for the simple reason that she isn't buried here.  Bess, as she was known, was born and raised a Catholic, and her family would not allow her to be buried in the Orthodox Jewish cemetery.  Or the Orthodox Jewish Machpelah Cemetery  would not allow a shiksa to be buried there.  Both stories are out there, take your pick.  Bess can be found in the Gate of Heaven cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.


Addendum:  I received an email this morning from George Schindler, the dean of the Society of American Magicians, informing me that this year's Broken Wand ceremony will be held at 1:26 PM on the anniversary of Houdini's death, based on the Hebrew calendar (23rd of Cheshvan, 5687), which this year falls on November 20.  If you're interested in attending let me know, and I'll send you directions to the cemetery and parking information (Machpelah Cemetery has no parking lot).