Grave Sightings: Harry Houdini

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For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like cemeteries to boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my photo library of interesting tombstones to good use.

OK, I’m cheating a little bit for today’s Grave Sightings. I haven’t actually visited this grave, but it’s too timely to let this one pass.

Ehrich Weiss, better known to most as world-famous illusionist Harry Houdini, died on October 31, 1926. On October 22, Houdini was in his dressing room at a theater in Montreal when a few college kids dropped in. One of them mentioned that he had heard that one of the great mysteries of Houdini was his iron stomach—that no punch could harm him. Though he had broken his ankle a few days earlier and was really in no condition to withstand a beating, Houdini, perhaps eager to perpetuate the aura of intrigue surrounding his persona, agreed to let one of the students deliver a few blows to his gut.

The student certainly didn’t go easy on the 52-year-old Houdini, and the punishing punches may have been the illusionist’s undoing. After his show that night, Houdini was in such pain that he needed help undressing. By October 24, his temperature was up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit; he collapsed in the middle of a show. After recovering and powering through the performance, he passed out again shortly thereafter. Houdini was finally admitted to a hospital the next day, where doctors diagnosed appendicitis. When they got inside, surgeons discovered that the appendix had already ruptured, resulting in what would end up being a fatal case of peritonitis. Whether the ruptured appendix was caused by the punches or had already been festering is something that’s still debated to this day.

On October 31, 1926, the great Houdini performed his very last vanishing act. But before he went, the skeptic promised his wife that if the dead could communicate with the living—a feat he didn't believe was possible, and one he worked to debunk—he would find his way back to her, and they established a coded message that would prove it.

Though she held seances annually on the anniversary of his death for 10 years, Bess Houdini never heard the code word. Sadly, the two weren’t reunited in death—at least not on earth. Though Houdini’s grave can be found at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, N.Y., the marker there bearing Bess’ name is just a cenotaph. Because she was raised Catholic and Machpelah is a Jewish cemetery, her remains rest at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y.

See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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