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:
In Sacred Memory
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.)
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.