Saturday, November 01, 2008

Death and the Magician 3

My friend Jeff Korst turned me on to this interesting article on Houdini's grave. Originally from the New York Times.

Houdini’s Final Trick, a Tidy Grave

By Corey Kilgannon

I’ve long been fascinated by, and even somewhat drawn to, the grave of Harry Houdini, in the run-down Machpelah Cemetery, just off the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Ridgewood, Queens.

I stop by to check on the grave whenever I’m in the area with some spare time. The grave lies directly inside the gates, next to a daunting, abandoned building that was once the cemetery office. I’ve never found the gates locked, even though the cemetery always seemed utterly deserted and forgotten. The dilapidated building has open doors and windows and the inside is ransacked and dark and spooky, with old cemetery records scattered around.

Many of the grave sites are overgrown, and many headstones are in disrepair or toppled or covered in ivy. Houdini’s grave was always in decent shape, as if someone came and landscaped it occasionally and left various mementos on the gravestone: decks of cards, rocks, coins, keys, a witch’s broom, and other objects.

This week, there was a crude broom on the gravestone, a few rain-spattered playing cards, some keys and coins and stones.

Turns out, someone does come and shape up the grave once in a while. The New York chapter of the Society of American Magicians has a Houdini Gravesite Committee, and a Brooklyn man named George Schindler is the committee chairman. He said that the bust of Houdini that once adorned the grave site was often vandalized and is now kept in storage by the committee, whose members bring landscaping tools to the cemetery and tidy up the grave site several times a year.

“Houdini paid for perpetual care, but there’s nobody at the cemetery to provide it,” he said, adding that the operator of the cemetery, David Jacobson, “sends us a bill for upkeep every year but we never pay it because he never provides any care.”

Mr. Schindler said that the group used to conduct a ceremony every Halloween at the site — Houdini died on Halloween in 1926 — but now holds it in November, when Houdini’s death date appears on the Jewish calendar.

“The crowds were just getting too big — we had to start having a police escort — so we changed the date,” he said. “Since Houdini died on Halloween, the grave site became too attractive to vandals and people who wanted to party there.” Now the site is watched closely by the police on Halloween, he said.

An official at a nearby cemetery provided a phone number for Mr. Jacobson, who sounded annoyed when he answered the phone on Wednesday to be asked by another reporter calling near Halloween about the Houdini grave site.

After haggling a bit about the condition of the cemetery (“What makes you think it’s in disrepair?”), he hung up the phone. I called back and he hung up again, for good measure.

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