Hallowed Ground

Poe’s Bronx Cottage &
Houdini’s Queens Grave

Perhaps no other two public figures are more intrinsically connected with Halloween than Harry Houdini and Edgar Allan Poe. Fittingly, there seem to be always fresh new stories about them too.
Houdini, who died 94 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 skeptical about the supernatural but inspired a generation of then-called occultists.
Poe, who was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore was a true believer in the afterlife, but actually became associated with that most rigorous 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 (more)
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and dying (both in October) in far places and eras.
The artist commonly known as Harry Houdini is buried, (but not his wife Bess, only her cenotaph) at the Machpelah Cemetery, in Queens. Gracing the grave, though, his bust has been vandalized several times.
If you’ve visited the final resting place of the American Magicians Society‘s 1926 president, Erik Weisz, or Ehrich Weiss, in previous years, you may not have seen 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 thanks to the Harry Houdini Museum of Pennsylvania, his likeness in concrete tops the mausoleum and greets those who visit it and often hold séances every year today at midnight to mark his passing.
Everyone seems pleased but, this being about Houdini and magic, they’re keeping an eye for a last-minute freak or even a sign that he or his mama Cecelia are somehow 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 been restored to look as if untouched for 171 years. But now Covid-19 locked them both up. Temporarily, one hopes.
Even before the virus, the site faced woes. The Bronx Historical Society and the city have no cash to fully maintain the house and Poe Park Visitors Center nearby. Thus they remain as closed as the crypt that imprisons Fortunato in ‘The Cask of Amontillado.
To be perfectly straight, New York hasn’t been too kind to where this great American writer has lived. In 2000, the New York University ignored protests and razed 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) was once facing the wrecking ball.
It became a landmark to hold his possessions, manuscripts, and the like, but as the poet himself, is always strapped for cash. Along came real estate and you get the picture: before victory, there were years of litigation.
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 distinguishing 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 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 underwater, 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 also glad that it’s St. John University which holds the original bells that Poe probably heard at the burial of his Virginia, not NYU’s.

(*) Originally published on Aug. 15, 2010.

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