Updated: Dec 6, 2018
There is a rule among magicians never to reveal the secrets behind a trick. Fortunately for you we're not magicians, so that rule definitely does not apply to us.
Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 24th, 1874 and was the fourth of seven children. Arriving on July 3rd, 1878, they changed their family name to the German spelling Weiss and Erik became Ehrich. The Weiss’ lived in Appleton, Wisconsin until 1887 where they moved to New York City. Ehrich took many jobs as a child, making his public debut at 9-years-old as a trapeze artist, humbly calling himself Ehrich, the Prince of the Air!
When he began his magic career in 1891, he chose the last name Houdini after French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, after reading his autobiography in 1890 and incorrectly believing that an “i” at the end of a name meant “like” in French. In later years, Houdini claimed that “Harry” was an homage to Harry Kellar, his idol and predecessor, but the name is actually believed to have been adapted from “Ehri,” a nickname for “Ehrich,” which was how he was known to his family.
Houdini began his professional career with little success, focusing on card tricks, billing himself as the King of Cards. Regarded as competent, but lacking the grace and finesse needed to be considered well-skilled, he soon began experimenting with escape acts.
Finally, in 1899, Houdini got his big break. Impressed by a handcuff act Houdini performed, a manager by the name of Martin Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on a vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at all of the top vaudeville houses in the country and in 1900 was touring through Europe, known as the “Handcuff King.”
Because of imitators, Houdini left the “handcuff act” behind on January 25th, 1908, and began escaping from a locked, water-filled milk can (pictured above). Houdini invited the public to participate by asking them to devise contraptions to hold him. These included nailed packing crates lowered into water, wet sheets, barrels filled with beer and even the belly of a whale that had washed ashore in Boston!
Cue the Water Torture Cell!
At the Circus Busch in Berlin, on September 21, 1912 famous Hungarian-American Harry Houdini featured his very first escape from the Water Torture Cell, also known as the Upside Down or USD. In the Upside Down, Houdini would be suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet nearly overflowing with water, and he would hold his breath for more than three minutes. He would perform this routine for the rest of his life.
The Chinese Water Torture Cell was custom made for $10,000 (equivalent to $265,269 today!) and copyrighted after Houdini became fed up with imitators of his other escape tricks. With a mahogany and nickel-plated steel frame and brass plumbing fixtures, it looked like an aquarium turned on its side. The Torture Cell weighed 7,000 pounds (3/4 of a ton!) and held 250 gallons of water. It disassembled into several portable pieces and he always traveled with a second in case something happened to the first.
Houdini began each illusion by devoting five minutes to describing the tank in extreme detail. He would then ask an audience member to choose any part of the stage, and the cell would be moved to the indicated area, proving the trick did not involve a trap door. Houdini offered $1,000 to the chosen spectator if, after inspecting the Torture Cell, he could prove Houdini could obtain oxygen while locked inside.
Houdini would leave to change as his assistants filled the tank with heated water. Returning in a swimming suit, the magician would lie on his back at the centre of the stage as the assistants put his feet in mahogany stocks. After pulleys lifted him into the air upside down, he was lowered into the tank head-first, and the stocks acted as a lid, padlocking the tank shut. An assistant was on standby with an emergency axe, as drapes were pulled shut around the glass and the orchestra played “Asleep in the Deep” to help entertain the idea of possible failure and death. Two minutes later, Houdini would burst out to the applause of a baffled audience, with the stocks were still at the top of the tank, and the locks still in place…
Well, while Houdini gave the illusion that he was sealed inside a cell totally filled with water, there was actually a pocket of air at the top, between the stocks and the water’s surface. The mahogany boards that formed the two sides of the ankle stocks separated slightly when the hasps were locked. After the curtain was drawn, Houdini used the tank sides to push his body upwards, while applying strength to get his feet free. Twisting sideways, he could now bring them through the stock holes and to his chest. He would then flip and take a breath in the air pocket before opening the stock boards (which were hinged to open), and climbing out, closing the boards after him!
Yes, after all that, the explanation was surprisingly simple! Keep in mind, it was conceived over a hundred years ago, so while the materials and terms used (I mean, wooden stocks?!) may seem outdated nowadays, the concept was perplexing enough that, during his lifetime and for many years after, he was the only man to perform anything quite like the Water Torture Cell escape. Funnily enough, it was believed that he actually dematerialized from the water cell, and he was believed to have supernatural powers. It’s sure that his (water-unrelated) death on Halloween did not kill the illusion!
Do you like magic? Do you know any water-related magic tricks? Let us know in the comments below!