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Photo Sunday: A Houdini Pilgrimage

At the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. last month, my friend Greta Christina told me something that I, a lifelong New Yorker, never knew: Harry Houdini is buried in a cemetery in New York City.

Houdini, of course, made his fame in the early 20th century as a magician who could escape from handcuffs, straitjackets, and all manner of bizarre contraptions. But atheists should know him best as a dedicated debunker of mediums who claimed the ability to channel the dead. For Houdini, this was a personal vendetta: he was utterly devoted to his mother, and when she died, he turned in his grief to spiritualists who promised they could contact her. Finding them all to be frauds, he set out to prove to the world that he could reproduce their tricks – telekinetic rapping or bell-ringing, producing “spirit photos” which showed images of the ghost, or producing luminous objects supposedly made of ectoplasm during a seance – through mundane means. It was almost certainly Houdini’s fierce defense of reason that inspired so many modern magicians to be outspoken skeptics of the paranormal, from James Randi to Penn and Teller.

Given this illustrious record, Houdini ought to be a hero to any self-respecting skeptic. And so, when Greta Christina and her wife Ingrid came to New York this weekend for a vacation, we decided we had to make an atheist pilgrimage to see Houdini’s grave for ourselves!

Houdini and most of his immediate family are buried at Machpelah Cemetery, an old Jewish cemetery in the community of Glendale in Queens. From what I read online, the cemetery is semi-abandoned and no longer actively maintained, except for Houdini’s grave and a few other endowed plots. It’s somewhat overgrown and disheveled now, with ivy twining around the oldest stones and drifts of dried leaves on the paths, but still in fairly good condition. The weather was warm and clear, perfect for spending a sunny, peaceful April afternoon rambling among the old graves.

Above: Even in a graveyard, some people have a sense of humor.

Houdini’s plot is near the entrance to the cemetery, prominently marked with a bust put in place by admirers. (I wasn’t able to find out who the weeping statue is meant to be.) Most of his immediate family, including his parents and brother, are also buried in the plot. His wife isn’t buried there, although his stone is engraved with her name: from what I understand, she was from a Catholic family, and her descendants refused to bury her in a Jewish cemetery (hence the missing death date as well).

The grave was sprinkled with stones left as tokens of esteem by other visitors, a welcome sign that Houdini’s name hasn’t been forgotten. The man himself, of course, has long ceased to be, but I’m glad that his good work is being carried on. The world still has superstition that needs skepticism to vanquish!

Header image credit: Wikimedia Commons. All other photos by the author.


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