In 2017, 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, NY went on the market. Built in 1890, the house had been converted into a three-family dwelling with an owner’s duplex on the first two levels and an apartment on each of the two floors above. Although it needed some updates, it still included charming original details.
But there was more to this place than tin ceilings and nineteenth century woodwork. The house had belonged to master escape artist Harry Houdini, who bought it in 1904 for $25,000 and lived in it until his death in 1926. The opportunity to walk through this property was a gift to Houdini fans, who flocked to 278’s open houses from across the country, eager to experience their idol’s home and absorb whatever vibes and secrets he’d left behind for them to find. (You can read more about the Houdini House here.)
I understand the strong draw to Houdini’s home. Nearly one hundred years after his death, he remains a legend (some might say an “obsession”) to many. Beyond that, this man who dedicated much of his life to debunking psychics who claimed communication from beyond has acquired a pretty spooky reputation of his own, something that attracts a slightly different crowd. He died on Halloween, which doesn’t help. Before that, he’d devised a secret code with his wife which he promised to use to contact her from the afterlife. It doesn’t matter that Houdini himself didn’t believe that was possible; Halloween seances to reach him have been held every year since.
For the record, no credible beyond-the-grave message has been received from the Great Houdini so far, but that doesn’t stop the hopeful from trying. Some people believe his spirit still roams his New York home, all the more incentive to leap at the rare chance to slip into his world.
In January 2021, another house went on the market. This property was a bed and breakfast located in Fall River, Massachusetts. Give yourself an A if you recognize the location: this was Lizzie Borden’s house — you know, the lady with the axe. (Or not; Lizzie was acquitted of the heinous allegations in 1893.) Still, whoever committed the crime, Lizzie’s father and his wife were brutally murdered right in this very home, raising the “spooky factor” right off the charts.
The desire to step foot onto this property is harder for me to grasp. It’s difficult enough to walk through places that reverberate with echoes of grief and misery (Tower of London, anyone?). I don’t think I’d be comfortable spending a prolonged hunk of time in a building that experienced such jarring violence, and I know for certain that I couldn’t spend the night there. But others thrive on this sort of adrenalin, and they’re welcome to book a room: the Lizzie Borden House remains in business as a B&B.
There’s even merchandise for the kids:
Turns out one of my favorite Airbnbs in northern Virginia used to be a funeral home. I didn’t know that when I first stayed there. I knew only that the place was comfortable and that the river flowing just beyond the back deck was a nice invitation to slow down for a bit. I don’t know if I’d have felt differently had I known the building’s history earlier, but I doubt it. Serenity is a vibe I can handle.
I wouldn’t be bothered by the former funeral home, either. Funeral homes are somber, but they are also where the bereaved go to be hugged and comforted. A lot of love soaked into those walls over the years.
Have you ever heard of or been to Gilette Castle in Connecticut. Mom loved it and used to take us (my older brother and sister and me) there for the quasi-Victorian, quasi medieval ambience. In memory, at least, it feels like a setting for one of your novels.
Bob, I HAVE been to Gillette Castle, but it’s been years (decades?), and your link reminded me that I should probably go back. There are so many cool places to visit in this world! (Kind of hoping there isn’t a bobblehead of William Gillette in the gift shop, though …) You probably already know this, but Gillette is related to Pamela Colman Smith.
Kristina, I was thinking that, too. Funeral homes are sad but can be healing as well.
No, I didn’t know about the Gillette/PCS connection. What a great small-world moment!