Visiting grave sites is something of an odd custom, but many people do this in reverence for loved ones. We also sometimes visit the graves of those famous people whom we admire. Over the years I have visited the graves of mostly poets and writers, with Shakespeare’s being the most meaningful to me. In Paris I joined hundreds of other people who went to Pere Lachaise Cemetery to visit Jim Morrison’s grave (I went on July 3 – his birthday – which could explain the huge crowd).
I grew up not far from the cemetery where Houdini was buried, and as kids we were fascinated by the fact that Houdini’s grave was nearby. I devoured every book with ”Houdini” in the title, and my grandfather’s stories about his exploits enhanced my interest in the man. The name Houdini seemed to stand for magic, mystery, and excitement.
My grandfather had seen Houdini performing at Coney Island in the early 1900s, and that was before he became truly famous. By the time my father was a boy, Houdini had become what would be considered the equivalent of today’s rock star. A true celebrity, Houdini was involved in movies, radio shows, and what seemed to be his favorite thing, live shows in the Vaudeville era.
Houdini is probably best known for great escapes. He could escape from chains, straitjackets, water tanks, and most notably handcuffs. When I was a kid running around the house, my grandfather used to call me “Houdini” because I was popping up everywhere and disappearing. The legend caught my attention and then I found out about his grave being in the cemetery literally down the block, and that increased my fascination with the magician.
When I was a teenager we would walk the long cold stretch up the steep Cypress Hills Street from Cooper Avenue with cemeteries on both sides of us. We did this every Halloween because Houdini had died on October 31 and supposedly told his wife that if he could come back he would do so on that night. It was quite a spooky trek, but when we would get there other people had the same idea, so it was not that scary to see a large group of Houdini fans waiting for the ghost to arrive. We never did see anything on those dark cold nights.
Recently I made a return visit to the grave in Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens. This grave site is not far from the gate that is on the western side of Cypress Hills Street north of Cooper Avenue. Houdini is marked on the stone above the family name Weiss (Eric Weiss was Harry’s given name). I was sorry to see the bust of Houdini had been taken away. I remembered that the grave had been vandalized several times over the years, so perhaps it was removed to protect it.
On a clear cold winter’s day, there was nothing spooky about the grave at all. All the mystery seemed to have been displaced, perhaps by growing older and sadly wiser. Still, the mystery of the man remained and I paid respects to his memory and the reminiscence of the excitement his legend caused me in childhood.
Houdini’s grave is worth a visit if you have any interest in his story. He once was extremely famous and is one of the greatest magicians who ever lived. He died on October 31, 1926, from a burst appendix. It was widely known that he could take any punch to the stomach, but a college student had taken him by surprise and punched him before he could tighten his muscles properly. The great Houdini was undone by a sucker punch, but his legend lives on.
Photo Credit: Harry Houdini – Houdini.com