When Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926, more than two thousand mourners gathered to say goodbye. People lined the streets of New York City to view the passing funeral procession. It was a fitting send-off for such a legendary figure, a magician who had gained the whole world’s attention with his remarkable skill, talent, and personality.
It was also a time when the first Broken Wand Ceremony was performed; a tradition to continues to live on in recognition of a magician’s life. The language spoken at a Broken Wand Ceremony may vary according to the beliefs of the deceased and his or her survivors, but one of the consistent passages that the I.B.M. posts on its website refers to “this ancient theatrical craft,” in which we “use our skills, dexterity of hands and voice to bring happiness and awe to those for whom we conjure our pleasant and benign wonders.” Thus, though we mourn the passing of a friend and family member, the Ceremony also serves to acknowledge the magic that the deceased brought into the lives of those who had the pleasure of sharing time on this earth with him or her.
The English poet William Blake once wrote that, “Man was made for Joy and Woe,” and the Broken Wand Ceremony certainly captures the duality of the moment. We grieve for a life lost as we celebrate a life lived. The wand itself is a symbol; “an ancient conjuring representation of mystery,” and the breaking of the wand memorializes the passing of the magician. This is also why in each issue of The Linking Ring we list the names of those members who have recently passed away. It is the Brotherhood’s way of paying tribute to those who have been a part of our international community and family.
Magicians’ final resting places are as diverse as the membership itself. One can search online and see the impressive burial plot for the Houdini/Weiss family, while learning that it was Doug Hennings’ choice to have his ashes scattered at sea. And of course there is the famous Lakeside Cemetery in Colon, Michigan, the “Magic Capital of the World,” where one can locate the gravesites of Don Alan, Bill Baird, both Harry Blackstone Sr. and Jr., John Booth, Ricki Dunn, Karrell Fox, Jack Gwynne, Duke Stern, and many others.
To some this might seem a morbid undertaking (pun intended), but there are often fascinating stories associated with both the lives and deaths of notable magicians. For example, it would seem that all the world knows of the strange circumstances surrounding Houdini’s passing, but not everyone is aware that his beloved wife Bess is buried miles away from Harry due to her Catholicism. And there are also stories surrounding the theft of the bust of Houdini from his gravesite. In 1975, the original marble bust was destroyed by persons unknown. So the Houdini Committee of the local S.A.M. replaced the bust with a less expensive copy and it too was subsequently stolen. A third replacement also disappeared. Members of the Houdini Committee decided not to keep replacing the bust but rather chose to have a substitute head created that they drove to the cemetery for special occasions strapped into a child’s safety seat. Over the years the gravesite itself fell into disrepair and Dorothy Dietrich and others from the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania spearheaded a fund raising effort to pay for a major restoration. It’s only fitting, given that Houdini himself spent time and money restoring the graves of many magicians.
There are also a number of strange stories relating to the deaths of magicians over the years. As some may know, Chung Ling Soo (William Ellsworth Robinson) and others died as a result of performing the infamous “Bullet Catch.” And others have fallen victim in trying to replicate or exceed the feats of Houdini. But one of the oddest tales is about the death of Benjamin Rucker, also known as Black Herman. Rucker promoted his shows by faking his death and having a committee check his body for signs of life. He would then be placed in a coffin and buried until it was time for his show to begin. His coffin would then be dug up and upon its opening, Black Herman would miraculously come to life. It was obviously a remarkable way to promote his show and build a reputation for accomplishing the impossible. It also turns out that his ability to fake his own death was so credible, that when Rucker actually died on stage, his audience thought it was part of his act. It was reported that those in attendance were so sure his demise was fake that they followed his corpse to a funeral home where his enterprising assistants charged admission. Black Herman’s gravesite for those who are interested can be found in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York, along with Adele and Alexander Herrmann and many famous and infamous individuals from all walks of life.
Finally, some may find magicians’ epitaphs a subject of curiosity, such as Karrell Fox’ gravestone that says, “It was fun,” and Ann and Jack Gwynne’s marker refers to them as “The Royal Family of Magic” and has images of a wand and their signature creation, the Temple of Benares etched into the stone. T. Nelson Downs’ marker refers to him as the “King of Koins,” Bill Baird’s epitaph calls him “The Magnificent Fraud,” Harry Kellar is “The Beloved Dean of Magic,” and Alexander Herrmann’s lets the world know that he was “Herrmann the Great.”
Clearly there are many paths that emerge when one wanders through the history of magic, but in the end, it all comes down to a life lived. And while these noted performers have names, gravesites, and histories that may draw the attention of many, it is important to note that the Broken Wand Ceremony itself is a ritual we conduct for all magicians, regardless of what measure of fame one has or has not achieved, and regardless of one’s religion, race, creed, or nationality. The Broken Wand Ceremony memorializes those who have through their magic, touched the lives of others and brought joy and awe to the world around them. And the responsibility for conducting these ceremonies falls to members of one’s Ring who do so with great respect, sympathy, and dignity. The Broken Wand Ceremony and the Ring members who take on this vital function, are part of the fabric that holds the International Brotherhood together.