Saturday, January 4, 2014

Houdini and the Chinese Water Torture Cell

"My professional life has been a constant record of disillusion, and many things that seem wonderful to most men are the every-day commonplaces of my business." ~Harry Houdini

On Thursday when I wrote about the Handcuff Kings I knew that there was so much more I wished to write about Harry Houdini. His life story is one of constant invention, preposterous challenges, incredible fame and amazing feats of illusion.

He was born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, coming of age in the last years of the 19th century. It was a period in history when circuses and vaudeville flourished. There were no televisions, radios or other means of distraction available today.

Harry Houdini must have taken a shine to the drama and excitement of circus life. He initially became a master of illusions, especially devoted to sleight of hand and card tricks, dubbing himself the "King of Cards." Eventually his repertoire grew to include all manner of puzzles and whatever seemed to bring the most gasps. As an escape artist he learned practically everything there was to know about locks, ropes, chains and handcuffs. He didn't stop there, designing new escapes that would put his life at risk, including the famous milk can escape.

Later in life he became concerned about the way that mediums were defrauding vulnerable people by holding seances so they could get in touch with mothers or children who had died. Rich people paid serious dollars for this form of comfort. Houdini found it despicable and practically made a crusade of exposing these mediums, one of whom was the wife of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

When John Bushey showed me his handcuff collection it included a specially created set that Houdini created specifically for this task of showing how easy it was for mediums to fool people and make them believe spirits were present. I understood it perfectly.

The "magic" Houdini performed did require nearly superhuman feats on the part of the magician at times. The chief example of this may be the Chinese Water Torture Cell in which Houdini would be placed upside-down in an enclosed space filled with water. He purportedly had to hold his breath for at least three minutes underwater to execute this escape, an achievement few would dare to attempt.

One of the reasons he started doing the Water Torture escape was because many imitators were doing his milk can escape, even though he had patented it. Then, as now, it's one thing to own a patent and another to enforce it.

The challenge seemed impossible. The space was too narrow to maneuver in, his legs were restrained so that he hung upside-down and he was then locked into the overflowing water tank. Showman to the end, it became his signature trick till the day he died.

EdNote: Two of my favorite films about magic and magicians from the Houdini era are The Prestige, and The Illusionist. Check 'em out.

Posters here from the private collection of John Bushey. Used with permission.

1 comment:

John Cox said...

Nice post. If you don't mind me sharing a link, I wrote up a history of the Water Torture Cell in 2012 for its 100th Anniversary. You might find it interesting: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100.