Hallowed Ground

Houdini’s New Grave
& Poe’s Bronx Cottage

Perhaps no other two public figures are more intrinsically connected with Halloween than Harry Houdini and Edgar Alan Poe. Fittingly, there seems to be always fresh new stories about them too.
Houdini, who died 85 years ago tomorrow, famously promised to give us a sign, proving there’s life after death. We’re still waiting.
And Poe, who preceded him to the great beyond by 77 years, will be forever attached to tales of the macabre, even though his claim to literary immortality comes from his detective stories.
Hungarian-born Houdini, escape-artist extraordinaire with a Freudian relationship with his mother, was skeptic about the supernatural, but inspired a generation of then-called occultists.
Poe, who was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore and died on Oct. 7, 1849 without ever regaining consciousness, was a true believer in the afterlife, but his name’s often mentioned along that most rigorously of law-enforcement sciences: forensics.
Lastly, both will be forever connected to New York, by the way of Queens and The Bronx, despite having come from and died (in October, too) but in distant places and eras.
The artist commonly known as Harry Houdini is buried, alongside his wife Bess, at the Machpelah Cemetery, in Queens. His bust, which graced the grave, however, has been vandalized several times since the 1970s.
If you’ve visited the final resting place of the American Magicians Society’s 1926 president, Erik Weisz, or Ehrich Weiss, in these past few years, you probably didn’t see any bust at all.
What some consider a course, it’s actually a very common occurrence to the grave of the famous and the infamous alike. They get vandalized more frequently than yours will ever be.
But now, thanks to the Harry Houdini Museum of Pennsylvania, a new likeness in concrete has been placed atop the mausoleum, just in time for the anniversary of his death.
Everyone seems pleased but, this being about Houdini and magic, they’re all keeping an eye open for a last minute freak or even a sign that he’s aware of what’s going on.
Apart from the genius of his literature and the wide array of influences it cast its rays, most of everything about Edgar Allan Poe‘s life has to do with some kind of poverty, death or hardship.
When he lived for a couple of years in the “countryside” of what became the Borough of The Bronx, Poe wrote his famous poem about the death of his child-bride, Virginia, of tuberculosis.
That bed where she died and the city-owned cottage on Fordham Village, have both just been restored to look like exactly how they did 160 years ago. But the place’s not open to visitors yet.
The reason? You guessed; lack of funds. The Bronx Historical Society and the city have no cash enough to keep the house, and Poe Park Visitors Center nearby, fully staffed. So they both remain as closed as the crypt that imprisons Fortunato in “The Cask.”
To be perfectly straight, New York hasn’t been too kind to the places where one of the greatest American writers has lived. In 2000, another one of the city’s prestigious institutions, the New York University, ignored protests and went ahead razing his other house, on West 3rd Street.
The reason? Certainly, no shortage of cash, as NYU has become one of the city’s most powerful landlords. But the “Poe didn’t really live long there” line of excuse at that time was even more shameless.
Soon after, another of the series of nondescript (and completely ugly) buildings was erected in the place, to house the university’s law school. Whether those future lawyers will ever argue a case in defense of the preservation of our memory only history will tell.
But hasn’t one Robert Moses leveled the beautiful Penn Station too? Then as now, real estate is still where it all boils down in New York.
To be sure, Poe hasn’t fared much better in Baltimore either, where he tumbled for the last time, and where another house he once lived (the man was known for traveling light, and tipsy) is under the threat of the wrecking ball.
The place has been a museum of some of his possessions, manuscripts and the like, but as the poet himself, is always strapped for cash. Along comes real estate and you get the picture. Let’s hope it won’t come to this, of course.
After all, he is the one most likely to be remembered in the future, we think. Whether there’ll be funds to keep people reminded of his greatness only time will tell.
The same way that restoration was necessary for Poe’s Bronx cottage, as the elements and unknown parties were slowing depleting it of any distinguished features, including the house’s shingles, for crying out loud, so is the need to prevent the more powerful interests from erasing it from our memory.
In that way, the needs that progress imposes by periodically redesigning our streets and neighbors, have to be balanced with the historical relevance of such places.
Otherwise, such needs, and the economic interests behind them, are no different than street robbers, depleting our places of call one brick or borough at a time.
Glad Houdini’s grave has now a brand new bust. And that Poe’s years in the city are not completely obliterated and trapped in history books.
But we don’t need to expect for either of them to come back to life to manage their legacy. As Halloween is all about celebrating and playing with the idea of death and the undead, undying should be our wish to preserve our past.
There can’t be no future, otherwise. Just imagine Houdini under water, the crowd anxiously waiting by the river docks for his reappearance, and the bells in the background exercising their tolls.
The bells, the bells… oh, by the way, we’re glad too that it’s St. John University that has the original bells which Poe probably heard at the burial of his Virginia, not NYU.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.