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Friday, February 10, 2012

Bessie's two graves

Tomorrow marks the 69th anniversary of the death of Beatrice "Bess" Houdini on February 11, 1943. She passed away aboard a train bound for New York as it arrived in the town of Needles, CA. For the occasion, I thought I'd take a look at the question of her two gravesites.

Bessie's first grave is the one that was prepared for her in life. Inscribed on Houdini's tombstone in Machpelah Cemetary in Queens, NY, is Bess's full name, Wilhelmina Beatrice, her birth year, and the year of her death which as you can see in the pic below has not been carved. That's because despite Houdini's wishes, Bess was not buried alongside him in the Weiss family plot.


Instead Bess was buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York. The reason for this has never been made 100% clear, but it's said that her family wanted her buried in a Catholic cemetery (consecrated ground and all that). Some have said Machpelah wouldn't allow Bess to be buried there, but from what I've read online, Jewish cemeteries do allow the burial of non-Jewish spouses.

According to David Charvet's superb article on Bess in Magic (Oct 1995), Bess's sister Marie claimed "that Bess had re-embraced Catholicism on her deathbed." So if it was Bess's wish to be buried in a Catholic cemetery instead of Machpelah, so be it. But if it wasn't, I think it's sad that religion, which did not prevent Harry and Bess from falling in love and getting married in 1894, would separate them in eternity.

Nevertheless, Bessie does have an attractive headstone in Gate of Heaven, and she's in good company with such notables as Babe Ruth, James Cagney, New York mayor Jimmy Walker, and Houdini's friend and associate Fulton Oursler nearby.


Thanks to Joe Fox for the photo of Bess's Gates of Heaven headstone.

19 comments:

  1. Totally agree with you. Even if she had re-embraced Catholicism on her deathbed, I still don't see why should would have done that if it meant she could not be buried with Harry. That bit just doesn't make sense to me.

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  2. Not to mention it's inconvenient. Now if I want to see the graves of Houdini AND his wife, I have to go to two different cemeteries. :p (At least they're in the same city, not in a different state or continent).

    But yeah, kind of sad and bizarre. The whole spat Houdini had with Leo (and Sadie) seems much sadder, though, as it separated them in death AND life. John, is there any info on what happened to Leo? All I read was that he jumped off his apartment balcony, killing himself.

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  3. Or Sadie for that matter?

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  4. Not sure about Sadie, but, yeah, Leo lived a long life. He and Gladys remained close. I think Gladys lived with him in the last years of her life. I believe Leo was going blind in the end. He killed himself (jumped off apt roof) in 1964 was it? He was the last sibling. BTW, both Leo and Gladys are in the Machpelah plot, but their tombstones were taken out for repair and never put back.

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  5. I'm not saying either way as to the circumstances but some cemeteries will and some will not allow non Jewish spouses to be buried in them. It can depend on which branch of Judaism they are affiliated with (reformed, conservative, orthodox) and the bi-laws of the way the cemetery was established. You would have to check with Machpelah and see what their criteria is. If they do not allow it, then there is your answer; however if they would have, then I think it smacks of the prejudice Bess's family really felt about Houdini being Jewish.

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    1. Well, we know Bess's mother had a BIG problem with Houdini being Jewish (until he bought her a house or two). Don't know Machpelah's rules, but you'd think Houdini would have looked into it before including Bess's name on the headstone. Also, the cemetery was able to allow Houdini a "graven image", so...

      There's also the possibility that Bess and Ed Saint were married and either Bess or the sister didn't feel right about being interned as Houdini's "beloved wife."

      Wish I would have asked Marie Blood about this.

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  6. In any event, they are not separated "for eternity". Regardless of one's religious beliefs, all those of faith recognize this world to be only a temporary arrangement. All of the concerns expressed regarding where the couple are each buried simply represents the inconveniences for those of us who are still alive.

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    1. True, I just thought that sounded good. :p

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  7. Just say we're sentimental, Anon. That's my reason anyway.

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  8. After we replaced the Houdini bust at the grave, on one of our visits the management of the cemetery brought out the damaged simple matching headstones of Gladys and Leo. The foundations required by law are still there at the end of the plot. We have the permission of the cemetery to replace them, and are looking for contributions for this much needed project. We are going to try to replace one at a time, starting with Gladys, unless we can get enough funding for both of them. It will cost about $2,000 for both. Replacing the bust cost us about $10,000 which we are far from recouping, as donations for that has been slow, with the economy as bad as it is.

    We have also been assigned by the cemetery to do the up keep of the grave site, which used to be done by the Society of American Magicians (SAM), which they subsequently neglected. We have a close group of volunteers which the New York Times called the Houdini Commandos from The Houdini Museum who have been doing this for over a year now.
    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich
    Houdini Museum
    Scranton, PA

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    1. I love that you are working to restore Gladys and Leo to the plot.

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  9. Okay, I need answers....Does anybody know how many sisters Bess had? I know about May (the mother of Marie Blood,) and this post also mentions a sister called Marie, but I've always gotten the impression that there were more (I've also only ever heard mention of sisters, no brothers?)

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    1. According to the Houdini Art & Magic book, she had nine sisters and one brother. I thought Marie Hinson was the mother of Marie Blood. Maybe she also went by May? Or maybe I'm getting my sisters confused.

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    2. Wow! One of eleven children! And yes, 'May' was probably jus short for 'Marie' (or the source I read got her name wrong. That happens. I once read something that said Bess' surname was Raymond.)

      Thanks for the reply :)

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    3. I see that "Raymond" error a lot. The genesis for this is Bess used the name Raymond as a professional name at some point, maybe even with the Floral Sisters.

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    4. Bess also mentions in Kellock a sister named Stella whom she is very close.

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    5. my grandmother always went by marie never may, when my aunt was there to they both answer at the same time.it was confusing at time, then we send grandma from then on.even my parents had to do that.

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    6. Here son in law is buried John A. Hinson he died in 1972.

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    7. Excellent. Thanks for the clarification, John.

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