NEW YORK - Nestled next to the late Lewins, Blums and Levys in a spooky old cemetery in New York City lies the final resting place of America's most legendary magician, interred under a granite monument that bears his stage name in bold letters: Houdini.
It is an impressive tribute to the man who grew up as Ehrich Weiss and died on Halloween of 1926 of complications from appendicitis. Over the years, the site has been venerated, vandalized, thieved and forsaken, but a group of magicians now wants to officially end the mystery of who will care for the grave.
"Houdini was a visionary. He was an inventor, an escape artist, and he gave back to society in so many ways," said Dorothy Dietrich, a magician who runs a Houdini museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania. "It's the least we can do to give back in some small way for all he's given to us."
Dietrich serves on a national Society of American Magicians committee working to raise money to restore Houdini's gravesite and allow for the permanent care of the monument at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens. It will cost about $1,200 annually to maintain the grounds, plus thousands more for restoration.
Houdini, the son of a rabbi, was at the height of his fame when he purchased 24 plots at the 6-acre graveyard located in a swath of open space crowded with cemeteries. His parents and siblings are buried there and his grandmother was exhumed in Hungary and brought to New York. The only person not beside him is his wife, Bess -- Machpelah is a Jewish cemetery, and she was buried at a Catholic graveyard in Westchester.
- The art and magic of Harry Houdini ("Sunday Morning," 10/31/10)
The gravesite features an undulating bench known as an exedra, plus a Houdini bust, a vase, two benches and markers for each person buried. A mosaic emblem of the magician society adorns the site; Houdini was president when he died. Cemetery managers say thanks to a steady stream of gawkers, the grave is usually stuffed with wands and other trinkets -- plus refuse.
They have done their part over the years to keep up the gravesite, but it's their job to look out for all the dead, not just the famous dead.
"I must respect all of the families there," said manager David Jacobson. "It's a sacred place for everyone there."
Most of Houdini's relatives have long since died and those left don't have extra money to fund the upkeep, Dietrich said. The plot has been cared for over the years by fans like Dietrich, who used her own money to mold and replace a broken bust and who travels to the cemetery to prune and clean.
Dietrich took up the mantle after the local magician society chapter had a dispute with the cemetery and stopped paying annual fees. Depending on who tells it, spiteful cemetery managers were unwilling to work with Houdini fans and shuttered the site on the anniversary of his death. Or, magicians drumming up publicity for an annual Halloween gravesite ritual known as a "broken wand" ceremony also unwittingly brought vandals who trashed the site until Machpelah managers started locking the gates on Oct. 31 somewhere in the mid-1990s. Over the years, the bust was smashed or stolen at least twice. Benches at the plot perimeter were broken and markers for Houdini's siblings Leopold and Gladys were damaged.
The bad blood was captured in articles where cemetery managers were falsely accused of grave robbing and magicians were falsely accused of pilfering funds donated by David Copperfield to fix the gravesite benches.
But that's all over now, says David Bowers, head of the Houdini gravesite restoration committee. He said the national magician society -- not the local chapter -- is working with Dietrich and the cemetery to pay for the upkeep and plans to clean and recaulk the granite, give the mosaic a face lift and fix the damaged markers. He doesn't have a cost estimate yet but says repairs will take two years.
Anyone interested in donating can go to the society's website to learn more, said Bowers of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, who will become the society's next president in July. After the group raises funds for Houdini's grave, it will move on to other dearly departed magicians whose eternal resting places may need some sprucing.
"I'm very passionate about what we're doing with Houdini's grave site," he said. "There are so many misstatements about Houdini's life and death. I think it's important that we get out the truth."