Famous Escapes Houdini and the Water Torture Cell Part 1

About the famous escape of Harry Houdini from the water torture cell, history of the stunt.


Houdini Escapes the Water Torture Cell-1912

Houdini is still the undisputed king of escapes, even though more than 50 years have passed since his death. He successfully challenged audiences around the world to construct traps from which he could not extricate himself. During his career he escaped from countless jails and prisons, usually after being stripped and searched by police physicans to show that he had nothing "up his sleeves." He escaped from a Siberian transport cell, from the chain-laced belly of a freak sea monster that had washed up on the shores of New England, from crates, bags, barrels, boxes, and coffins. But Houdini's most spectacular feat was his famous Water Torture Cell.

He first introduced the Water Torture Cell at Berlin's Circus Busch in 1912. The audience went into a frenzy of appreciation, and the escape continued to astound tremendous crowds until Houdini died 14 years later.

One of the posters he used to publicize the escape showed a fanged giant holding the tank shut with Houdini trapped inside. Houdini called it his own "original invention, the greatest sensational mystery ever attempted in this or any other age." He was never known for modesty. At the bottom of the poster, Houdini offered a "$1,000 reward to anyone proving that it is possible to obtain air in the 'up-side down' position in which Houdini releases himself from his water-filled torture cell."

Houdini would begin the act by spending about five minutes explaining the construction and design of the cell. The metal-lined mahogany tank was less than 6 ft. high and less than 1 yd. square. There was an inch-thick sheet of glass in the front to give the audience an unobstructed view of the cell's interior. The top of the cell was composed of a set of stocks that would entrap Houdini's ankles. The stocks would be enclosed in a steel frame that would be padlocked to the tank. A steel grille would completely surround Houdini in the tank to reduce his range of movement. Then the entire tank would be locked in steel bands. After going over all this in detail, Houdini would repeat his cash offer to anyone who could prove he could breathe in the tank.

Houdini would leave the stage to change clothes as his assistants filled the tank to the brim, using brass pails dipped in a giant tub of water. Houdini would return in a swimsuit and lie on a mat as the thick stocks were shut on his ankles. Then the steel frame was passed over his body and secured around the stocks so that they could not open. Each of these steps was inspected and supervised by a group of volunteers from the audience.

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