In one of his last great performances, Harry Houdini escaped after 90 minutes from a coffin submerged in the swimming pool of New York’s Shelton Hotel (today the New York Marriott East Side). That same year — 1926 — the iconic magician was felled by a punch to the appendix, died on Halloween, and was buried in Machpelah Cemetery, part of the belt of cemeteries stretching across Queens. Each year on his death day, some still believe he may break free of the chains of mortality and bring a message from the beyond.
The first Houdini séances ended in 1936, with a grand event led by his widow Bess. Despite Houdini being an avid critic of spiritualism — here he is debunking a séance in 1925 — he left instructions of how he would contact her from the grave, just in case. To this day séances are staged around the world, the “official” one in Danvers, Massachusetts. Yet at his gravesite in New York, a less superstitious, but equally devoted, annual ritual occurs.
The broken wand ceremony is a tradition between magicians for honoring their dead, and the Society of American Magicians snaps a wand at his family plot each year. Once held on Halloween, the ceremony is now moved to early November, sometimes on his death day according to the Hebrew calendar, other years, such as 2010, the day he was interred. The Jewish cemetery started shutting down the whole place on Halloween in 1994, controversially citing destructive crowds.
There is an uneasy relationship between the society and the cemetery, one that’s being evoked this year in an attempt to give the gravesite much-needed restoration, including repairs to the mosaic of the society emblem below his bust. This week, the New York Daily News reported that the Houdini Museum in Scranton was joining forces with the society to help raise funds; this is the same museum that in 2011 covertly replaced the then-missing bust of Houdini without permission from the cemetery or the society. One of the replacement busts from 1976, part of a long series of theft and destruction, is currently on loan from the society to the Houdini Museum in the Fantasma Magic shop near Penn Station.
While you are not advised to try to visit the cemetery today, perhaps stop by at the dawn of November when across the world people are visiting friends and family’s tombs for All Soul’s Day and Day of the Dead celebrations. Although unlikely that after all these decades Houdini’s spirit will be breaking free of his final coffin, it’s a compelling place of powerful history that still has a magic draw reverberating long after that fatal punch.
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