Birthdate: August 19, 1829
Death Date: November 28, 1878
Plot Location: Section 135, Lot 189
His given name was William Henry Palmer and he was born in England, the son of a concert pianist. While he was a student at the Royal Academy of Music he became fascinated with magic and decided to make it his career. He left the Academy to become a professional magician in 1851.
With the career change came a name change to Robert Heller, who launched his magic career in New York City. “Heller’s Hall of Wonders” opened in December of 1852 and ran for six months. An advertisement published in the New York Times described him as “The Prince of Wizards.” A second routine had another six-month run and then the show went on the road. Robert performed for several weeks at the Walnut Theatre in Philadelphia and the Old Chinese Museum.
In 1854, he put his musical ability to use with a group called ‘The Germania Musical Society’ and performed with them in the role of a concert pianist in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and then finally Washington D.C. There he decided to settle down, and set aside the magic to become a music teacher. Robert especially enjoyed teaching one student named Haidee, and he married her.
As the Civil War was beginning, Robert decided to re-launch his magic act and took his bride to New York. The show was referred to as Magic, Music and Mirth. By 1865, he was doing one of the longest-running one-man shows in the history of New York theater at the time. He became nationally recognized when he went on tour in 1869, continuing for the next six years throughout much of the United States, Great Britain, Europe, and Asia.
Robert again retired from magic for a time, but returned to the stage in the fall of 1878. He opened the season at the Broad Street Theater in Philadelphia. After some shows in Baltimore and Washington he decided to make Philly his home stage for the winter. This is an ad for his November 25 performance, but it was his last after he collapsed from exhaustion. He died on Thanksgiving morning, the cause of death being pneumonia. An article in the Chester Daily Times on January 6, 1879 said that on his deathbed, Robert countermanded the provision in his will that upon his death all the props connected with his secret magic be destroyed. He felt it would be a pity to destroy the intricate products of a lifetime of work.
The former Mr. Palmer was buried in a temporary vault, later to be laid to rest at Mount Moriah, where his stone emphasizes his professional name over his legal name. He chose the name Robert in honor of the magician he idolized as a teenager, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.
Another performer named Erich Weisz, born four years before Robert died, idolized the same man, so he chose as his professional name Harry Houdini. He also appreciated Robert’s contributions to the craft. While in Philadelphia around 1910 he stopped to visit his grave, shown here, calling him “the most versatile magician who ever lived.” After the photo was published, visitors to the cemetery would come to this spot and have their picture taken while striking the same pose.
A supporter of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Ed Snyder, has an excellent post about Heller and Houdini on his blog, The Cemetery Traveler.
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