Nestled in the belt of cemeteries that rambles across Queens is the grave of Harry Houdini, the great escape artist and illusionist.
Houdini died at the age of 52 on Halloween of 1926, following punches to the stomach by a McGill University student who demanded of Houdini if the legends were true of his steel abdomen, but didn’t give Houdini time to prepare for impact. This combined with untreated appendicitis doomed Houdini, and he died in the arms of his wife, Bess.
2,000 people attended his funeral, after which he was interred in a family plot in Machpelah Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Glendale, Queens. Yet before he died, he left behind instructions to those close to him that were to be his messages from the beyond if heard in a seance. The tradition of the Halloween seances started with his wife Bess, yet even after her own passing (Bess, despite having a tombstone next to his, was actually not buried with Houdini as she wasn’t Jewish and her death date on his tombstone remains blank) the seances continued.
The first “Broken Wand” ceremony, a ritual honoring a deceased magician, was performed by the Society of American Magicians, at Houdini’s grave in 1926. It was originally performed on Halloween, the date of Houdini’s death, but the crowds became too large and attracted vandals and partiers, so the ceremony was moved to November, and police now patrol the cemetery on Halloween.
There has long been tension between the cemetery and the Society of American Magicians who also run the Houdini Museum in Scranton. The magicians have accused the underfunded cemetery of selling of pieces of the gravesite, and generally letting things fall into disrepair and the cemetery has accused the magicians of bringing in the vandals that have done damage to the gravesite.
Houdini’s grave itself is set amongst other members of the Weiss family, leading up to a monument of a granite bench where a woman stoops in mourning below a bust of Houdini that looms up over the emblem of the Society of American Magicians.
The bust has been stolen or destroyed four times between 1975 and 1993. The original was gladly donated to the Museum of the City of New York by wife Bess, but the replica was smashed by sledge hammer in 1975, replaced and then stolen in 1983, only to be recovered in 2003.
It was most recently replaced in 2011 by a group from the Society of American Magicians calling themselves the Houdini Commandos who made a replica bust (cast from one of the other replicas) and installed it in a guerrilla restoration operation. The bust is believed to be the sole graven image found in the Jewish cemetery.
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