Machpelah Cemetery: Houdini's Grave

April 30th, 2009 -

Machpelah Cemetery, in Glendale, Queens, is the final resting place of magician Harry Houdini. In 1926, Houdini - the son of a Hungarian rabbi - died unexpectedly and was buried in this Jewish cemetery. His grave draws visitors from around the world, but otherwise Machpelah has fallen on hard times. "The cemetery always seemed utterly deserted and forgotten," writes the NY Times. Many gravesites remain untended and weed covered. Names and dates have washed away on some tombstones, leaving blank slates. And looming over Houdini's well-kept memorial is a 1928 cemetery office, abandoned and filled with discarded burial records. This once beautiful building is now home to a large family of pigeons.

According to the American Jewish Yearbook of 1899-1900, the Machpelah Cemetery Association was founded in 1860 and included "83 component [burial] societies." This undoubtedly played some role in the cemetery's demise. The damaging collapse of Jewish burial societies was recently exposed by the Village Voice: "The first societies were founded by Jewish immigrants well over a century ago... so that members could pool their money to buy grave sites and pay for funerals... burial societies have, over the past century, faded from the public consciousness - many of them eventually losing all of their members and existing only on paper." The result is "century-old burial societies... taken over by black-market speculators" who "even sell active graves out from under their owners."

Houdini's Grave

Abandoned Graves

Machpelah Office

In the Office

"All Burial Permits"

Pigeon Bones

Yellow Outlet

2nd Floor

In the Closet

Door Askew

In the Shower


View to Graves



  1. Great work! I was obsessed with Houdini as a kid and checked out many a library book on him. Didn't he die of a sucker-punch to the gut? I had no idea he was buried in Queens. Untended grave sites are very odd places. You take the manicured look for granted - assuming there will always be someone to tend to the ancestors.

  2. The last shot of "Charity" is quite beautiful.

    Look your work! I look forward to your new posts like a kid waiting for Santa.

  3. I didn't know Houdini was buried in this cemetery. Dumb question: why is the building deserted and deteriorating?

  4. Thanks Meghan! yeah, I believe the urban legend is that Houdini died after being punched unexpectedly... don't know what the real story is.

    Lady Dancer - thank you so much for you comments! I'll try to keep those Christmas presents coming!

    Bluestar - apparently, the cemetery has fallen on some hard times, and the office has been abandoned for years... its difficult work keeping a cemetery running, especially when you start to run out of gravesites to sell. Machpelah is a fairly small cemetery - it can't have much income.

  5. thanks, nate! i've just returned this morning from paying my respects to the master... who happens to be buried about 20 minutes (by bike) from my home.

  6. Fascinating! On an interesting note, "and wife" is inaccurate - Houdini's widow, Bess, died in February 1943 and expressed a wish to be buried next to him, but instead was interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, New York. She was not permitted to be interred with him because she was not Jewish.

  7. Houdini was punch in the stomach immediately prior to performing an underwater escape. He died from a burst appendix which was possibly brought on or caused by the punch.

  8. Harry Houdini died of peritonitis secondary to a ruptured appendix. It has been speculated that Houdini was killed accidentally by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered multiple blows to Houdini's abdomen (with permission) while he was in Montreal. These repetitive blows are thought to have been a stunt, in which Houdini displayed his dexterity.

    The eyewitnesses were students named Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz (sometimes called Jack Price and Sam Smiley). Their accounts generally agreed. The following is Price's description of events:
    “ Houdini was reclining on his couch after his performance, having an art student sketch him. When Whitehead came in and asked if it was true that Houdini could take any blow to the stomach, Houdini replied groggily in the affirmative. In this instance, he was hit three times, before Houdini could tighten up his stomach muscles, to avoid serious injury. Whitehead reportedly continued hitting Houdini several times afterwards, and Houdini acted as though he were in some pain. ”

    Houdini stated that if he had time to prepare himself properly, he would have been in a better position to take the blows.[34]

    Houdini had apparently been suffering from appendicitis for several days prior and yet refused medical treatment. His appendix would most likely have burst on its own without the trauma.[35] Although in serious pain, Houdini none-the-less continued to travel, without seeking medical attention. (from wiki Harry Houdini - but this correct according to everything I have read.)

  9. Nathan, your work is wonderful! I am so glad that Very Short List decided to feature you. While I have never been to NYC, it has always fascinated me and your photos give a new perspective. When I travel, I like to get off the beaten path and avoid the tourist traps. You have opened up NYC in a whole new way. Thank you and please keep on working.

  10. View to Graves is an excellent photo. Well done sir.

  11. I was just there yesterday. I live nearby, 20-30 minutes by foot.

  12. Loved your post. I did visit this cemetery, and found the whole experience disturbing. I was sad that Houdini's final resting place is in a site in which no-one seems to care or bother to maintain. Houdini deserved better than that.

  13. Where is the whole monument with the grieving angel? I know the bust of Houdini is no longer there.

  14. Hey, How did you gain access to the cemetery?? all gates are locked?