January 29, 2008 — Harry Houdini, like most of us, was desperate not to be forgotten. He was just way more successful at avoiding it than any one of us will ever be. And all he had to do to seep deep into the bones of human culture was to mystify audiences with feats astounding enough to make their ears pop as if they were adjusting to a new reality (the best magic does that to a person).
Houdini was born more or less Erich Weiss in 1874 in Hungary. He died Harry Houdini in 1926 in Detroit by a freak punch to his malformed appendix. In between he made a name by becoming more magician than magician and elevating himself to the level of greatest escape artist the world has ever known. Or at least the most famous. Sometimes I confuse the two.
But all that’s only relevant to Houdini’s life. His aforementioned death on a Halloween morning fourscore years ago is more important to the topic at hand because without it, he wouldn’t have a grave. Which I then wouldn’t have visited.
Houdini’s grave can be found in Machpelah Cemetery, a Jewish corpse repository located in the Queens borough of New York City. It's surrounded by a cluster of cemeteries the borders of which seem to overlap in places. When I arrived, only half of Machpelah’s front gate was open, which didn’t allow enough room to fit my car inside. However, I found that entering through the gate of an adjoining cemetery around the corner ended me up in basically the same place, although driving a car in there wasn't too practical.
The cemetery itself made me sadder than the fact that I was walking six feet above dead people. More industrial park-like than, well, the nice kind of park-like, the headstones are so close together the place seems more like storage for a headstone factory than an actual cemetery. From some angles, you can’t even see any ground. Also, even though it’s Vulcan mind-melded with another cemetery, the whole is still tiny, cramped, woebegone and dismal (in a bad way...not the cool woebegone and dismal cemetery kind of way).
The good news is that Houdini’s grandiose bit of real estate sticks out from those bleak surroundings, and can be found just inside Machpelah’s front gates. Part bench, part sculpture, part monument, it’s a nice little oasis.
A life-size statue of a grieving women throws herself on the long, semicircular bench and dais of the grave.The large, colorful seal of the Society of American Magicians, of which Houdini was a president for a while, adorns it prominently. Just above the seal is a place for a bust of Houdini, but that’s been stolen enough times that people just gave up on that bit, so his grave is headless.
Directly in front of the bench are a few cement decorations and a series of long cement grave markers that denote the exact resting places of Houdini and his immediate family, which reminds me how much large grave plots always seem like exclusive clubs to me.
Speaking of which, Houdini’s lifelong wife, Bess, is not buried in Machpelah because of the lack of Jew in her genetics. Gentile bodies just don’t seem to decay right in Jewish hallowed ground. However, because Houdini had planned for her to be buried there anyway, her name adorns Houdini’s marker. That’s right. Houdini’s grave is officially mislabeled. You can tell because the grave artisans left Bess’s death year incomplete...although they assumed the “19” part of it. Which is both funny and terrifying to me for some reason.
In a refreshing change of events here at O.T.I.S., visiting Houdini’s grave is actually timely right now. As of the writing of this article, plans are being bandied to exhume him. And not just for fun, as you’d think. To see if he was poisoned.
You see (and this is my favorite part of his life story), toward the end of his life, Houdini took up the cause of protecting the public by Scooby-Dooing the masks off charlatan mediums and psychics who were using the tricks of magicians to fool the bereaved. Typical of a magician, Houdini's exposures were accomplished in dramatic fashion. I’m talking spy networks, headline-grabbing reward offers, disguises whipped off at climactic moments, booby-trapped apparatuses, the whole deal. Apparently it was a real epidemic back then.
This enraged the spiritualist community to such a degree that they started making threats on his life...through the ghosts that they channeled. Death is a weird threat from a ghost, if you think about it. And even if you don’t. Regardless, making your worst enemy a ghost and therefore an ally is a great strategy.
Of course, some people say that the whole disinterment plan is nothing but a publicity stunt, but who cares? It’s Houdini. He loved publicity stunts. Naked and clad in chains is sensational no matter what the context, you know. Plus, if offered it, I’m sure he’d exchange the deplorable surroundings of Machpelah for the antiseptic slabs of an autopsiest’s laboratory (and one more headline for his life) any day. I would.