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).


Sharon Kugler said...

I can hardly believe it's been a year. A good children's book, a picture book, really, is The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick. Long Beach Public Library has it. Take a look.

Julie said...

Ahh .. the verbiage, Neal, is a treat, and I thank you for your little verbal meander, for meander with you I did.

I enjoyed the details of Houdini, but find it affecting that he and his wife were separated in death. I followed the link to Moriah in Philadelphis, and wonder at the size and the decay. I have not found anything quite that far-gone in my rambles around cemeteries here in Australia.

I shall add the cemeteries you have referred to in my drop-down list.

Thank you for contributing your recent post to the new meme, 'Taphophile Tragics'. I value your support and welcome you to return again with another yarn next week.

Jim said...

Quite interesting.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

Ann said...

Extremely interesting.

Joan Elizabeth said...

A great contribution to the meme.

Oakland Daily Photo said...

I heard a news report today informing me that Houdini was Jewish. Didn't know that. And here your post gives even more details on his family. Interesting coincidence.

diane b said...

An interesting story. It is a shame his wife could not be buried there and that his bust keeps disappearing.Maybe it is him that keeps escaping.

biebkriebels said...

An interesting story about a fascinating man.

hamilton said...

I visited your link to the Mount Moriah Cemetery - that is dreadful that this place should have been allowed to be so desecrated.
I am also surprised that no-one thought of poor Bess's predicament of being placed in a Jewish cemetery as a Catholic before she died.

Unknown said...

I think it's the first time I see Houdini's gravesite. Thanks for sharing.