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 us with feats astounding enough to make an audience’s ears pop as if they were adjusting to a new reality (the best magic does that to a person, you know).
Houdini was born more or less Erich Weiss in 1874 in Hungary by his parents copulating. He died Harry Houdini in 1926 in Detroit by a freak punch to his malformed kidney. 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. Not that there have been that many escape artists, I guess. The term “escape artist” smacks of aggrandizement, after all. Actually, it smacks like that anytime you have to qualify the term “artist.” Trapeze artist. Landscape artist. Special effects artist. Rap artist. But “escape artist” is certainly Houdini in a nutshell...or a casket...or a prison cell...or a straightjacket...or whatever else he’s ever escaped from.
And, sure, he did some other things of note, such as becoming a pilot during the infancy of aviation (he was the first to successfully fly a plane in over Australia) and Scooby Doo-ing the masks off psychics and mediums. But rich and famous people always have grand designs of being humanitarians and classically valid people after they achieve fame and fortune for doing something technically silly. I don’t give much credit to the cool things that rich and famous people fill their time with after they’ve become rich and famous. I just envy it.
But he is who he is famous for being...a lord of illusions. And while it might seem like I’m alternating manically between awe in the first paragraph and impiety in the third, it’s not my fault. Magic’s just a crazy thing, you know? Escape magic, included. It’s way cool unless you look into it too much. Then you either get literally disillusioned or you end up inspired to become a magician yourself. Here, let me tell you the secret to every magic trick. Generally, when a magician offers up an item as ordinary, it’s not, or if it is, it will soon be swapped out for something rigged. That’s magic.
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. Which I then wouldn’t have written an article about. Which I then would’ve had the free time to have done something way cooler with my weekend than communing with Microsoft Word. Hm. I actually hate Houdini now. His grave, though, I’m into.
Houdini’s grave can be found in Machpelah Cemetery, a Jewish corpse repository located in the Queens borough of New York City. Now that I TomTom to most places, I’m not sure if I could tell you exactly how hard it is to find. Sorry. I know driving in New York can be intimidating. I do remember arriving at the cemetery with no problem and then getting horribly trapped downtown on the way out, though, if that helps at all.
If you do make it there, you’ll see that Machpelah is located in a cluster of cemeteries whose borders 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. A narrow road travels between the graves, not even wide enough for two cars, and I’m pretty sure I parked on the only path widening in the whole cemetery, and even there two cars could barely fit through.
The cemetery itself is atrocious and makes you sadder than the fact that you’re walking six feet above dead people. More industrial park-like than, um, 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...I realized there’s a different standard of beauty sometimes when it comes to cemeteries). And, of course, graffiti puts just the right finishing touch on the whole horrible mis-en-scene (or miserable scene, which is not the definition of that last term).
The good news is that Houdini’s grandiose bit of real estate sticks out from those bleak surroundings, and would even if it weren’t located just inside Machpelah’s front gates. Part bench, part sculpture, part monument, it’s a nice little place and would make you want to stay awhile if it wasn’t set right in the middle of a place you wouldn’t want to be for any length of time.
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 in what pretty much looks like a front yard 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 her lack of Jewish 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, her name nevertheless 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 career and life, Houdini took up the cause of protecting the public by unmasking charlatan spiritualists who were using the tricks of magicians to fool the bereaved. And, typical of a magician, his exposures were accomplished in quite the 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.
And speaking of publicity stunts, if you managed to slog your way this far into this bog of an article, that’s exactly how it all ends...with a whimper of one. I called it “Houdini’s Last Card Trick.” Er, actually, my girlfriend called it that, and I stole the phrase from her. Along with most of my material, actually, and much of her self-esteem. I was originally just going to call it “Grave Robbing” myself.
Houdini was a showman to such a degree that he would do stuff like invent and fund competitors to his act just so he could top them, simultaneously garnering huge press and dissuading other less-controlled competitors. So, in honor of the spirit of this dead man, I attempted a bit of a PR stunt myself. Scattered among the rocks and mementos that were left as tributes atop Houdini’s actual grave, was a single playing card. An Ace of Spades. Now, in my imagination the card was placed there on Houdini’s grave by some famous magician paying his famous respects. More likely, it was just some random kid taking a break from vandalizing the cemetery or it fell out of some homeless gambler’s pocket and blew around haphazardly to eventually land on his grave...under a rock. It had been on Houdini’s grave for a while judging by the warping and staining. It’s not there anymore, though, because I took it.
Originally, it was just supposed to be a memento for me of my trip to Houdini’s grave, but I decided it’d be fun (i.e., an alleviation of the weighty boredom that hourly threatens to crush me into oblivion) to maker a bigger deal out of it in conjunction with the posting of this article.
I put this Ace of Spades that came directly from Houdini’s grave directly on eBay, advertised it in the original version of this article, and then hoped that nobody would bid on it because I actually wanted to keep it myself as that aforementioned keepsake and because I imbue inanimate objects with an intrinsic value unsubstantiated by their existence. Admittedly, though, I haven’t really been doing too much with the playing card so far. I stuck it in my wallet and only remembered it the few times I unsheathed it thinking it was my credit card. I think I actually pulled off buying something with it once. Turns out it has a pretty low interest rate. And I mean that literally, because the card was eventually bought for a mere three dollars and forty-four cents. I will now attempt to buy it back from that person for $25.00. Because I am a savvy businessman on top of being a grave robber. And because reserves are for punks.