Houdini’s Final Vanishing Act in Queens

Cypress Hills Street might as well be called the Graveyard Highway.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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The beautiful cemetery office is completely abandoned, with “unsafe to enter” symbols spraypainted all over the outside…

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…and an interior in shambles.

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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…

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The grave of Harry Houdini:

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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.

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However, I was disappointed to see that Houdini himself had disappeared.

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Originally, the grave was topped off by a life-size bust of Houdini.

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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.

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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:

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I also love the weeping woman on the bench…

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…which someone left a pumpkin behind!

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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…

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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).

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A playing card left for the magician:

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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.

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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):

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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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35 comments

  1. What is the woman statue holding onto with her right hand?

  2. Max, it looks like a funeral wreath.

    What a beautiful tomb! It’s nice to see the stones people have left on the graves. Nice that the family is remembered. So sad to know his wife wasn’t buried with him, though.

    That cemetery office is stunning. Any possibilities that it will be restored?

  3. It’s such a shame that a beautiful building like that was abandoned!

  4. Apparently the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA now holds a seance one a year for him: http://www.houdini.org/

  5. I think you just helped me plan out my visit to New York next week. Thanks so much for your insightful posts and photos! What an amazing cemetery. It’s a real shame no one is keeping it up.

    I hope the bust is recovered again. As ironic as it is for Houdini’s bust to keep performing vanishing acts, grave desecration is never cool.

  6. Stupid f-ing kids. I hope those who vandalize cemeteries end up in mass graves with no markers.

  7. I went out there recently too and it is indeed beautiful. Mae West is buried in the Cypress Hills Cemetery around the corner.

  8. Nice post! Thanks for sharing.

    I have heard that the bust is now taken out exclusively on special occasions, because it has been vandalized and/or stolen so many times.

  9. That’s my pumpkin!

  10. Left it there on Halloween. We live down the road in Ridgewood and visit sometimes. It’s so sad that the cemetery and his family’s gravesite is in such shambles.

  11. @max I think that’s a wreath.

  12. That is very cool. How come there is a 7 over the 6 (1926) in the picture of the mosaic?

    Thx again,
    BC

  13. the woman is eve.

    when houdini died, he told his wife that if he could communicate from beyond the grave, he would give her a secret message, “Rosabelle believe”.

    the bell shape of the grave + eve kneeling below it = “believe”

  14. I have been there visiting my family. Mt. Hope and Maimonides have the same issues. There are almost no new burials and probably not much money left for perpetual care.

    It doesn’t matter that her family didn’t want her buried there. A Jewish cemetery would never allow his non-Jewish wife to be buried with him anyway.

  15. As I understand it, another issue affecting many Jewish cemeteries is that plots are owned not by families, but by now-dissolved cooperative burial societies.

  16. It’s saddens me to this day that Theo, who was twice the magician that his brother Houdini was, will probably be forgotten in the annals of history. It is still a little known fact that “Houdini” stole many of his brother Theo’s most innovative tricks. Theo was a great friend to all he knew. You are forever in our memories, acheem la’ad” אחים לעד

  17. Sundance Iconoclasts shot a recent show here with David Blaine, who may have left that card.

  18. I love old graveyards and cemetaries; thanks for this.
    Seeing all the stones reminds me of when my family lay stones at the graves of our parents. I thought I knew the reason (rocks are ever lasting), but I found some other explanations that looked interesting. Thought your readers (Jewish and non) would like to take a look:

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070605190353AAsEhkk

  19. Thanks for this post — I’d always thought that Houdini was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, but of course a Jewish cemetery makes more sense. I love this gravesite, and I also think the mosaic is incredibly beautiful.

  20. My son is a very big fan of Houdini. This post has prompted me to finally take him on a pilgrimage to the grave once the weather gets better. He and my daughter joined me for my first trip to The Dakota back in October, so I owe him one. Thanks for the nudge.

  21. Its so nice to read an article about Houdini’s final resting place. My father was a caretaker of the cemetery just across the interboro and I walked past the sight of Eric Weisz grave hundereds of times. The cemetary in question was always one in shambles compared to most of the others in the area. Its nice to see that some people haven’t forgotten about the master of escape.

  22. Theodore Hardeen was proud to intoduce himself as “…the brother of Houdini.” I am sure that he did not feel it was a curse. It was Hardeen who first performed the straight jacket escape in full view of the audience rather than behind a screen. Thank you for posting these pictures and comments.

  23. The statue of the woman (Eve) looks like she is touching a snake with her right hand. Like in the Bible. Eve was tricked by the Serpent…….hmmmmm

  24. AMazing! The pictures remind me of those ‘Escape The Room’ Games, like you would click on the mourning lady to get full body shot, then again to fins the pumpkin behind her. Would not mind visiting there myself. =)

  25. Grace in San Francisco

    Beautiful pictures! Did you know that Houdini’s assistat in the act, Dorothy Young; lived until 2011???

  26. A set of photographs taken in October 2011 records the installation of a new sculpture of Houdini’s head taken from the cast of the original sculpture that had been vandalized in the past. All credit for this new effort must go to Dorothy Dietrich and her small but dedicated crew of magician-builders. The photos can be found at the following website:
    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2551781433064.148523.1209726765&type=1&l=4f52185cb9

  27. Houdini died after doing a show in Detroit and every year they hold a Seance to contact him, so far he hasn’t responded. I was in the hospital where Houdini died a few years ago and parts of it are very creepy though most of it are modern.

  28. Normally I don’t learn post on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do it! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thank you, quite nice post.

  29. stopped by the Houdini grave today (July 25 2012) and was happy to see the bust was on top of the wall

  30. I went to visit my grandparents grave site as we do every year. My family and I always walk over to visit Houdini I saw poems and playing cards and a glass of champagne just to mention a few memorable items.

  31. Went to houdini,s grave in 1984, frist went to wrong cemetary when ,a man in office said to be “Your looking for the Houdini,s grave right? ” I answered How did you know , he said, “You don,t look Jewish to me” He was a real nice man and gave me and my wife a ride,in his Limo, to Houdini,s grave. When we got there it was closed, so I climb over the gate. I took pictures in a hurry because I was trepassing,when I climb back over the gate, there were about four Doberman,s Bincher,s , that I was lucky I Escape from. Had I stayed a few more minutes I would not be making this comment.

  32. I have known about Houdini since I was a child. I have always been amazed by his life, and his art. This man touched many lives, so sad he died so young. Now that I know where is his resting place, I will be sure to pay my respects.

  33. “Cypress Hills Street might as well be called the Graveyard Highway.” – the actual Graveyard Highway is the Interboro/Jackie Robinonson Parkway. It’s why it was built.

    Orirginally designed for horse drawn carriages so that NY’ers could travel to and picnic in the cemeteries, it was many years later paved for automobiles and remains one of the most dangerous strecthes on highways in New York because the curves of the road were meant to be traversed by horse, not horse-power.

  34. Does anyone know if the cemetery is open on Halloween now or is it still closed.

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