If you pass by a graveyard on the Jackie Robinson Parkway, don’t hold your breath. You’ve got two and half miles of Queens’ Cemetery Belt ahead of you, a burial ground so vast it’s supposedly visible from space. Surrounded on all sides by an ocean of headstones, the modest Machpelah Cemetery makes up only a small fraction of the sprawling necropolis, but its arguably the creepiest graveyard in the city…
Cramped centenarian tombstones muster in rows on the hilly plot—the place is rundown and deserted, but one grave is consistently well-maintained. It’s the monument of Machpelah’s most famous resident, master escape artist Harry Houdini. Only steps from the headstone lurks an eerie cemetery office, abandoned since the late 80s. The cemetery is a dream destination for graveyard ghouls on a chilly October night, especially since Halloween marks the anniversary of Houdini’s untimely death.
The history of the Cemetery Belt can be traced back to the Rural Cemeteries Act of 1847, under which cemeteries became a legitimate commercial enterprise for the first time in New York. Non-profit organizations were authorized to buy up land and sell plots to individuals, replacing the traditional practice of burying the deceased in churchyards and private property.
Areas of then-rural Queens quickly became concentrated with new cemetery holdings. A stipulation of the act limited the acreage of land an organization could purchase in a given county, but church groups and land speculators got around this by buying up neighboring plots on the Brooklyn-Queens border, forming the region now known as the Cemetery Belt.
Between 1832 and 1849, a series of cholera outbreaks thoroughly exhausted Manhattan’s remaining burial sites. The common belief at the time was that ground water could become contaminated with the disease when infected corpses were exposed to the soil. As a result, all burials were prohibited on the island of Manhattan in 1852.
As the population swelled, new developments, including the Brooklyn Bridge, often required the displacement of grave sites. Manhattan started evicting its dead people, and sending them to western Queens—tens of thousands of deceased were disinterred and transported to mass graves in the Cemetery Belt. These ghoulish dealings were kept away from the public eye, often carried out in the dead of night.
Today, Queens’ five million “permanent residents” almost triple its living population, but their numbers are at a standstill. Most of these cemeteries reached capacity long ago, leaving many without a source of income. As a result, some have fallen into disrepair, with officials failing to provide the “perpetual care” their patrons are rightfully owed.
At the nearby Bayside Cemetery, conditions were downright shameful, and hair-raising—exposed human remains were identified at several of the overgrown grave sites. Community pressure, litigation, and the effort of volunteers have gotten the place cleaned up, albeit in a cursory fashion. Gaping mausoleums have been closed off with cinderblocks and boards.
At Machpelah, the plots are untidy, but not nearly as egregious as the Bayside grounds. The cemetery’s decline is most apparent in its ramshackle office building. The boarded-up structure is dilapidated now, but its architecture, dating to 1928, continues to impress on the surface.
Any semblance of grandeur breaks down on the inside. The striking arched windows visible in the facade are installed in rectangular frames, and their diamond panes are all artifice. The skeleton of a drop ceiling hangs askew, with most panels collapsed and reduced to a yellow paste that covers the ground. The office has apparently fallen victim to vandals over the years, furniture and safe deposit boxes have been ransacked, old burial records lie scattered in the grime. Anything of value has been removed, but a coin bank souvenir from the 1939 New York World’s Fair remains, its most recent deposits dating back to 1988.
“Stuffy” doesn’t begin to describe its suffocating ether. Reception rooms are boxed in with cheap wood paneling, which combines with the dizzying funk of mildew to evoke the interior of a coffin. Secluded in a cockeyed armoire, Nosferatu could feel right at home here.
Every Halloween, hundreds of devotees make the yearly pilgrimage to Houdini’s final resting place to pay their respects, party, and make an offering—around the anniversary of his death, pumpkins, broomsticks, and playing cards mount like a cairn on his headstone.
The Society of American Magicians, for which Houdini served as president until his death, was the official caretaker of the site until recently. Between 1975 and 1993, the bust that adorns the Houdini monument was stolen or destroyed four times—it’s thought to be the only graven image in any Jewish Cemetery.
For many years, the likeness was only brought out for yearly ceremonies, but in 2011, a group of magicians from the Scranton Houdini Museum engaged in some guerrilla restoration, installing a new bust with the blessing of Houdini’s family. The group has since taken over responsibilities for the site’s care, and so far the monument remains unscathed.
With no funds to reoccupy, renovate, or demolish the old office building, its likely to stand until it falls down on its own; the same can’t be said of Houdini’s shiny new effigy. Odds are he’ll lose his head again—even though it’s screwed on. So next time you’re traveling down that graveyard highway, be sure to stop by for a look while you can. There’s no need to wait for the witching hour. At Machpelah Cemetery, the gate is always open, and every day is Halloween.
UPDATE: The office was demolished on August 21st, 2013.
Fascinating read and photos. Is this where Houdini’s wife would wait for him to rise from the dead on Halloween?
Houdini’s wife Bess held a seance every Halloween for ten years after his death, the final one took place on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. Later, she reportedly said “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man!” Today there are many unofficial Houdini Seances that are held across the country, some of these ceremonies have been carried out at his graveite, but the official Seance, through the Houdini Museum, has moved online.
Incredible how they are packed in like sardines. Every person beneath those headstones had a story and a life in early 20th century New York. What did they do and see in their lifetimes? Who did they love and who loved them? They laughed. They cried. They felt anger. They felt joy. Did they die alone on a battlefield in France or Germany during World Wars 1 or 2, or did they die surrounded by loved ones in a city hospital? Were they famous like Houdini, or an iron worker known only to family & friends? Something to think about.
exactly why i go into graveyards and read the stones and with each headstone i say their name outloud and thank them for building the world before i got here…i like the way you think!
We’ll all be forgotten in some years after death.
Billions have gone before us.
Only God knows us really.
Great post Larry. I visit old cemeteries like this one often and ask myself the same questions. Cypress Hills and Evergreen Cemeteries are nearby and date back to the 1840’s. The reason the headstones are so close together in Machpelah and other jewish cemeteries is that under the jewish law only one burial per plot is allowed, unlike others where there can be 2 or three internments. Again, you and I think alike here, every headstone and the person buried has a story, no less important than any other.
Your article is incorrect. We were stopped as we were putting in the bust at about 1:15 PM by the guard who was passing by. It is on Youtube. Dorothy Dietrich, of Scranton’s Houdini Museum, who has been on good terms with the management of the cemetery, had all her documents, letters from the family, backing of well known lawyer Gary Pillersdorf and $2,000,000.00 insurance and did in fact finally get permission from the management to proceed and finish placing the bust that was missing for 38 years. He had his son check it all out. They even gave us the keys to the gate of the cemetery and allowed us to stay late until we finished.
im larry in johnstown lotta history here to ty for the great information on houdini
Hi Dick, I based that line off of a City Room article that says, “though they operated in broad daylight, they did so without alerting the cemetery or the magicians’ society.” I’ll revise this to make the distinction that you did eventually get the approval.
Great job giving us the creepy tour. Loved it!
Houdini’s grave has been in such bad condition because of it being abandoned by The Society of American Magicians who used to pay a small and bargained down fee for upkeep. Finally George Schindler, a former President, stopped payment completely. He leaves a legacy for himself for future generations as the man who stopped the care and maintenance of the Houdini grave site! Houdini left a large sum of money for the organization in his will. Houdini is also responsible for the organizations success and growth to 5,000 members with about 300 branches today. They collect about 1/2 million dollars each year in dues, etc., thanks to Houdini’s tireless work. Houdini even paid for banquets in cities around the world to inform magicians about the organization and have them join. Not much of a thank you from George Schindler or the Society of American Magicians.
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The building is now gone. I’ve posted some pics of Houdini’s new view on my blog. http://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2013/09/houdinis-new-view.html
Here is a single paragraph from my memoir. It’s a rather long story but this paragraph mentions Houdini. The evening of 10/31/1945. I had turned 13 just three weeks earlier.
When I finally parted from my friends and headed home, I listened to the howling winds and thought about what a Frankenstein night we missed. We could have gone up Crematory Hill, sneaked into Lutheran Cemetery and, among other things, brought up the subject of the Creeper or some other weirdo. We could have kidded one another about having seen one or the other peeking out from behind one of the mausoleums. Better, we could have walked in the opposite direction and made our way to Macpelah Cemetery. There we could hope to receive a message from the departed Houdini, who lay there in his burial chamber. At least we should have done this before we became too sophisticated for such grave undertakings.
What a delightful and delicious memory!
Is the cemetery still open to the public? I have heard that only family members are allowed to visit grave sites?
i was able to retain the praying hands off the office….if anyone would like to have them….firstname.lastname@example.org,,,,,,they were tearing it down and i stopped an the workers let me take some of the things i seen as artafacts to the grave
The abandoned burial records on the floor should be gathered up and taken to a library or at the very least the nearest historical society.
I was there this past fall. The grave looked in good condition and not easy to find. Entered on Cypress Hills Avenue. Lucky to find a cemetery worker who gladly showed me where the grave is. He told me I was in the wrong cemetery but the right one was a few feet away behind some hedges and walked me to the grave. There I saw the entrance to the proper cemetery which was locked. So accidentally I went in the only way you could.