Harry Houdini and the Frozen Coconut

    by

    On a frigid afternoon last week, I found myself at Machpela Cemetery, visiting the grave of perhaps the greatest celebrity of the early 20th century – Harry Houdini. Houdini was a stage magician, an escape artist, a genius promoter, a star of the stage and screen, claimed to be one of the toughest men alive, and he died on Halloween in 1926.

    There’s a tremendous amount of drama that revolves around Houdini’s grave, which the New York Times has reported on in this 2008 piece, and in this 2011 one. There’s little point in repeating the oft told tale, or the conflicts surrounding the upkeep of the monument as I’d just be dancing around other people’s reporting. Instead, I’d ask you to click through to the links above for the whole story (the links will open in new windows), and I’ll be waiting here for you when you’re done.

    More after the jump…

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    Welcome Back.

    The entrance to Machpela Cemetery is found in Glendale, Queens at 82-30 Cypress Hills Street. It’s a non sectarian cemetery which was founded in 1855, although it is predominantly Jewish, and is nearby the far larger Cypress Hills funerary complex. The Rural Cemeteries Act of 1847 mandated that no new burials would take place in Manhattan and that NYC’s various religious organizations would need to found their own cemeteries “in the country.” The Roman Catholics created Calvary over in Blissville, the Lutherans went to Maspeth, and so on.

    Machpela was founded in what was then called Newtown, and it is roughly 23 acres in size. It’s owned and operated by Manhattan’s Congregation Beth-El. Confusingly, there seems to be a couple of other cemetery organizations within its gates – Acacia, and Mokom Sholom – but the markings and signage hereabouts are poor or absent altogether.

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    A bust of the master magician sits atop the monument. Two Rabbis officiated at his funeral, Rabbi Bernard Drachman and Rabbi B.A. Tinter.

    Below, a screen capture from 1881’s “The Cemeteries of New York, and how to reach them” via archive.org and openlibrary.org:

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    Lots of offerings, cards and magical gewgaws were observed at the monument.

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    A Society of American Magicians logo adorns the centerpiece of the monument. Presuming that this mosaic is the original piece installed in the 1920’s, it has held up very nicely.

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    Houdini was a sensation, one of the most famous men of his time. Born in poverty in Budapest as Erich Weiss, the son of a Rabbi, Houdini’s family emigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin where he grew up. He began to perform his stage magic at age 17, and the name “Houdini” was an homage to a French magician named Houdin.

    He often licensed his name out to entertainment companies, sometimes insisting on being involved in the creative process – famously co-authoring a story with H.P. Lovecraft. He starred in and produced a few silent films between 1919 and 1923 (one recently turned up on Netflix, incidentally).

    Houdini claimed to have been the first man to successfully pilot a plane in Australia, in 1910.

    from Wikipedia:

    In 1918 Houdini signed a contract with film producer B.A. Rolfe to star in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery (released in January 1919). As was common at the time, the film serial was released simultaneously with a novel. Financial difficulties resulted in B.A. Rolfe Productions going out of business, but The Master Mystery led to Houdini being signed by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures, for whom he made two pictures, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920).

    Image courtesy Wikipedia

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    Now, about that coconut.

    Notice the large urn shaped piece of statuary?

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    Coconut. Now, I see a lot of odd things in the cemeteries of Queens. Weird ritual altars are regularly spotted at Saint Michael’s, for instance. I really wasn’t expecting to find a coconut frozen into a disc of January ice, at Houdini’s grave.

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    An interesting bit of coconut trivia is that botanically speaking – it’s a fruit (a drupe, actually) and not a nut. There’s three layers to these things, and what we think of as the shell (the brown fibrous part) is actually the middle bit (or mesocarp).

    Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.

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