Houdini in his crate escape trick, first performed in New York’s East River (via New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Billy Rose Theatre Collection)
Harry Houdini arrived in New York City in 1886, an anonymous Budapest-born newcomer in the frenetic cityscape. By the time he died in 1926, however, he was the city’s most thrilling performer, and the shadow of the great escape artist still remains.
It was while performing in Coney Island that he met his future wife Bess, in Flatbush where he recorded his voice on wax cylinders with Thomas Edison, and in 1917 he performed his straightjacket escape above a Times Square crowd while hanging upside down from a crane being employed to work on the subway. In the East River he survived his first crate escape, tossed in the currents between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and in 1926 he escaped from a coffin at the bottom of a pool in the Shelton Hotel on Lexington (now a Marriott Hotel). In 1918, he even made an elephant vanish at the New York Hippodrome.
Yet more than a stage, New York was Houdini’s home. Here are four places in New York City where you can still find the great magician manifested:
Home in Harlem
278 West 113th Street, Manhattan
Houdini’s home in Harlem (in the center with the small balcony) (via Google Maps)
When Houdini hit it big in 1904, he bought a stately brownstone up in Harlem on 113th Street, where he would live until his 1926 death. The neighborhood at the time was mostly Jewish and German, and Houdini settled in by making his house into a place of respite and practice. An oversized bathtub was installed so that he could perfect his underwater escape tricks, and he kept a vast library of books on magic.
While with the little balcony and unchanged façade you can still almost imagine Houdini stepping out from its doorway (on which a historic red plaque rests in honor of his residency), it is still a private home and its current owner reportedly isn’t fond of the flood of visiting fans who arrive on Halloween, the anniversary of Houdini’s death. However, you can appreciate the home from the street and imagine the escape artist within developing some new impossible escape.
421 Seventh Avenue, Manhattan
Houdini Museum (via Houdini Museum & Fantasma Magic)
One place that is happy to welcome fans is the small Houdini Museum inside Roger Dreyer’s Fantasma magic shop across from Penn Station on Seventh Avenue. The museum opened in 2012 and is formed from Dreyer’s private collection of Houdini memorabilia, with hundreds of items from vintage posters to straightjackets to handcuffs, and even the trunk in which he performed his “Metamorphosis” trick. The collection continues to expand, with recent acquisitions including Houdini’s Escape Coffin from 1907, which he managed to free himself from in 66 minutes after it was banged shut with six inch nails.
Houdini’s headstone (photograph by the author)
Over in the quiet Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens, you can find the final resting place of Houdini. The Jewish cemetery is part of the broad band of burial grounds that cuts across the borough, but you can easily spot Houdini’s grave out at the front of the cemetery where a bust of the illusionist rests above a crest of the Society of American Magicians. A statue of a mourning woman presses herself to the monument. The headstone of Houdini at the front left of the family plot is usually covered with trinkets from visitors, including playing cards and other magic relics.
It’s here that some still gather to await a return from the grave, believing that someday the greatest escape artist will break through the chains of death and communicate with the living. This has yet to happen, but it is true that he was buried in a coffin used in his performances where he did just that.
Houdini’s family plot (photograph by the author)
McSorley’s Old Ale House
15 E 7th Street, Manhattan
Handcuffs in McSorley’s - not Houdini’s (photograph by Bee Collins)
Finally, while Houdini has yet to rise again in Queens, some believe he visits McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village. Where this belief got started is not quite clear, although the legend long held that if you saw a cat in the window it meant Houdini was revisiting the bar in the afterlife (sadly, resident cat Minnie McSorley is no longer welcome in the bar due to the health department).
Specters aside, if you are drinking in the ale house, one of New York’s oldest dating back to 1854, you may notice among the sawdust and cluttered curios some handcuffs attached to the bottom bar rail. Many sources cite these as Houdini’s, although they are in fact at type made after his death. It’s the older handcuffs hanging higher in the bar that are more likely to be from Houdini. Sure, it might seem a little wild for a drinking establishment to have such museum-worthy memorabilia, but this is McSorley’s which has everything from a John Wilkes booth wanted poster to wishbones on a gas lamp said to have been left by young men departing for the Great War. Whether or not the ghost of Houdini has jangled his chains amid the din of drinking, you can likely find someone sitting near those bar rail handcuffs who would be happy to add some story to the legend.
McSorley’s (photograph by Jeff Rosen)
Minnie McSorley haunting the window in her glory days (photograph by Cayuga Outrigger)
Houdini being lowered into the East River in 1912 (via Library of Congress)