Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Houdini-Weiss exedra turns 100

It was 100 years ago today that Houdini unveiled the exedra that fronts the Weiss family plot at Machpelah cemetery in Queens. Houdini dedicated the monument in a special ceremony on Sunday, October 1, 1916.

The creation of the exedra (resting place) had taken over a year. Houdini entrusted the task to Oscar Teale, a past president of the Society of American Magicians whom Houdini employed as a private secretary. Teale worked throughout 1915-16 while Houdini was on tour. The job was not an easy one. The contractors deviated from Teale's model, a marble seat developed a crack, and faulty drilling broke large slabs of stone which had to be replaced. In the end, it cost Houdini a whopping $40,000 (that's close to a million dollars today).

The finished exedra was cut from a thousand tons of Vermont granite and ornamented with figures hewn from Italian marble. The original headstones for Houdini's parents were placed inside each end of the exedra. On the back was etched:

Erected By
In Sacred Memory
Of His

About 250 people attended the dedication ceremony, which was conducted by Rabbi Bernard Drachman and Rabbi A.B. Tinter. Newspapers from as far away as Pittsburgh covered the event. The new plot had the Weiss family laid out under uniform headstones made from the same granite as the exedra, with Houdini's headstone in place beside his mother.

The exedra that was unveiled 100 years ago is slightly different from the one we know today. It did not have the bust nor the cut glass mosaic emblem of the Society of American Magicians. Those would be added a year after Houdini's death and unveiled during a special memorial service attended by Bess. I've never seen a close-up image of the original exedra, but glimpses of it can be seen in photos taken during construction and Houdini's funeral. (Which you can see below.)

Houdini's ambition to build a lasting monument to his family (and himself) can be counted as one of his great achievements. The Houdini grave site and exedra have become a place of pilgrimage for many, and each year the S.A.M. conducts a wand breaking ceremony at the grave near the anniversary of Houdini's death.

However, the grave site has also seen rough times and controversy. In April 1975, the grave became the focus of attention when escape artist and Houdini provocateur Norman Bigelow claimed to have "deciphered a complex code" that revealed Houdini had hidden his secrets inside the exedra. That same month, cemetery revelers, high on PCP, dislodged and broke the original grave bust. The timing lead some, including James Randi, to believe Bigelow had committed the vandalism in an attempt to prove his theory.

The bust was replaced by the S.A.M. in a special ceremony on March 24, 1976, in time for the 50th anniversary of Houdini's death (Saturday Night Live would do a "broadcast" from the gravesite that year). However, the second bust was stolen in 1983. After two more replacements were stolen, the S.A.M. decided it was best to leave the monument headless. Then, on May 25, 1994, the entire gravesite experienced extreme vandalism with the destruction of two stone benches and the headstones of Leopold and Gladys Weiss.

With help from magicians, including generous donations from David Copperfield and James Randi, the S.A.M. repaired the gravesite (although Gladys and Leopold's headstones have yet to be replaced). In 2007, the site once again became of the center of controversy when a plan to exhume Houdini's body to test for poisoning drew nationwide attention. It was later dismissed as a publicity stunt.

In 2011, Dorothy Dietrich, Dick Brookz and Steve Moore of the Houdini Museum in Scranton took it upon themselves to restore the long missing Houdini bust with a reproduction made at their own expense. They also oversaw the upkeep of the gravesite during a time of dispute between the S.A.M. and the cemetery over costs.

But all disputes have now been settled, and the S.A.M. has resumed the upkeep of the grave of their "Most Illustrious" past president. In fact, this past May, the S.A.M. concluded a major cleaning and restoration of the entire exedra, just in time for its 100th anniversary today.

Below are photos of the exedra throughout the years.

Houdini takes a seat during construction.
The dedication on October 1, 1916.
Houdini's funeral, November 4, 1926.
Hardeen and Bess in the 1930s.
Elsie Hardeen, Gladys Weiss, and Marie Hinson in 1954.
On Saturday Night Live, October 30, 1976.
Me with the headless exedra in 2005.
The bust is restored by the Houdini Museum in 2011.

Last Monday, September 26, our magical friend Colleen Bak visited the gravesite and took these beautiful photos (as well as the image at the top of this post), giving us a nice look at the 100-year-old Houdini-Weiss exedra as it proudly stands today.

Background on the building of the exedra from Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman.

  • 1904: Houdini buys plot for $450. Moves grandmother, father, and half-brother Herman.
  • 1916: Houdini dedicates exedra in memory of his parents on October 1st.
  • 1926: Houdini is buried on November 4.
  • 1927: S.A.M. holds memorial service and unveils Houdini bust and S.A.M. emblem.
  • 1975: Houdini bust is smashed by vandals on night of April 8-9.
  • 1976: S.A.M. replaces Houdini bust with replica on March 24.
  • 1983: Second Houdini bust is stolen on August 14. Replaced by S.A.M. with replica.
  • 1987: Machpelah Cemetery goes into bankruptcy. State takes ownership.
  • 1988: Third Houdini bust is stolen. Replaced.
  • 1990: Fourth Houdini bust is stolen in November. Not replaced.
  • 1994: Benches are smashed and Gladys/Leopold headstones damaged on May 25.
  • 1996: Grave is restored with funds raised by S.A.M. with help from David Copperfield and James Randi. Bust and Gladys/Leo headstones are not replaced.
  • 2002: Police recover bust stolen in 1983. (Returned to S.A.M. in 2011 and now on display at the Houdini Museum of New York.)
  • 2007: S.A.M. stop paying for the upkeep of the plot over dispute with cemetery owners.
  • 2007: Book authors announce plan to exhume Houdini's body to check for poisoning.
  • 2011: Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz replace Houdini bust with replica on September 29.
  • 2013: S.A.M. announces it will resume paying for the upkeep of the gravesite.
  • 2016: S.A.M. rededicates the cleaned and restored exedra on May 9.
  • 2016: Exedra celebrates 100th anniversary on October 1st.

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  1. Shows all day. Fabulous article. Will try to add add more when we finish late tonight, but we have shows tomorrow.

    The busts the SAM Parent Assembly put up were hollow and light weight so could not last and were not bolted in as ours is. Ours is solid heavy statuary cement. Also there are two different SAM's in this story. The Local Parent Assembly and the National. The Administrators of the cemetery thought they were one and the same and it took many hours to get them to understand the difference and separation as to who were causing the problems.

    Will try to add more later.

    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    THE Houdini Museum, Scranton, PA
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

  2. Great stuff! So a bust was stolen in 1988 and 1990. Thanks for the new timeline.

  3. I've always enjoyed Norm Bigelow's theory regarding the rear of the exedra resembling a "BELL". (LOOK at the last photo above).

    (a wider view would indeed depict the near perfect shape of a BELL; with Houdini's "head" being the top of the bell held by the fingers).

    Of course, this all conveniently ties into the "Rosa-BELLe, my sweet Rosa-BELLe" Houdini code words.

    A spooky coincidence..or is it? ;-)

    1. You know, I don't recall if I've heard exactly what his theory was. Funny.

  4. I have to get back there. Went once, but it's such a haul.

  5. I am proud and honored to have been there on May 9th.
    Thank you S.A.M. Past National President David Bowers.

  6. Excellent article!

  7. The 4th person on the right in the photo above labeled "Elsie Hardeen, Gladys Weiss, and Marie Hinson in 1954." is Henrietta White, Bill Weiss's wife.

    1. It was an invitation only (by the then president of the Society of American Magicians, A.L. Berman) event - Special Tribute and Memorial Services on the 28th anniversary of Houdini's (past president of the S.A.M.) death held on Oct. 31, 1954.