Cypress Hills Street might as well be called the Graveyard Highway.
A wide, four-lane thruway located in Glendale, Queens, it cuts through The Cemetery Belt – a sprawling collection of cemeteries established after the State Rural Cemeteries Act of 1847 forbade the creation of any new cemeteries in Manhattan.
I was out there recently to scout graveyards, and made a point to stop at Machpelah Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery dating to the 1800’s.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure if it was even open. The two front gates were closed but unlocked, so I parked my car and quickly went in…
The beautiful cemetery office is completely abandoned, with “unsafe to enter” symbols spraypainted all over the outside…
…and an interior in shambles.
I was afraid I had a sizable search ahead of me to find what I was looking for, but luckily, it was visible from the entrance…
The grave of Harry Houdini:
Born in Hungary in 1874, Erik Weisz rose to magic stardom under the stagename of Harry Houdini. A New Yorker for most of his life, Houdini was interred here at the Machpelah Cemetery after his death from a ruptured appendix on October 31, 1926.
I was really impressed with just the size of Houdini’s plot, which stretches about 20 feet in length and contains several benches and a fountain.
However, I was disappointed to see that Houdini himself had disappeared.
Originally, the grave was topped off by a life-size bust of Houdini.
Unfortunately, in 1975, vandals crushed the bust with a sledgehammer. A replacement was made by the Society of American Magicians, only to be stolen in 1983.
Another replacement was made, but it was eventually removed after frequent vandalism. Oddly, the stolen bust from 1983 was later found in 2003, after the thief complained to police that his son-in-law had stolen his power tools, and the son-in-law tipped them off to the Houdini head in his basement. Pictures on Flickr from 2009 show a bust in place, but it was gone when I visited.
What really amazes me, though, is that this beautiful mosaic has survived for over 84 years in such beautiful condition. Can’t tell you how much I love this:
I also love the weeping woman on the bench…
…which someone left a pumpkin behind!
For years following his death, a seance was conducted here on October 31st to contact Houdini. Houdini and his wife Bess had worked out a coded message to be passed on, but in ten years of seances, she never received it. In recent years, the cemetery has been prohibiting anyone from entering around Halloween for fear of vandalism. Not sure what the story is now…
A number of Houdini’s relatives are buried on the plot…
Houdini’s grave, pictured below. Sadly, his wife Bess is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, as her Roman Catholic family would not allow her to be buried in a Jewish Cemetery out of concerns for her soul (a reader points out that a Jewish cemetery wouldn’t have allowed a non-Jewish wife to be buried with him anyway).
A playing card left for the magician:
Also buried here is his brother, Theodore Hardeen. Though an accomplished magician, Hardeen was cursed to go through life known as “Houdini’s brother” – and the grave, with its abbreviated name and fairly underwhelming memorial message, seems as much an afterthought.
In 1996, $25,000 in donations from magicians around the world (including $15,000 from David Copperfield) helped restore the site, including the installation of new benches (the originals had been destroyed):
There seems to be an ongoing dispute between the cemetery and the Society of American Magicians over the upkeep of the grave. The cemetery claims the Society refuses to pay its bills; the Society confirms this, but says the cemetery doesn’t do any upkeep to begin with.
Even though it’s been decapitated, Houdini’s grave is in excellent shape, and is definitely worth a pilgrimage if you’re ever near the Cemetery Belt.
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