“If I die, it will be the will of God and my own foolishness.” – Houdini
Harry Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Cell escape stunt is ridiculously dangerous and extremely frightening for those crazy enough to attempt it…Heck, it’s pretty taxing for the audience.
In today’s post, I’ll be giving you all the information you need to know in order to truly appreciate Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Cell escape, (and even learn how he survived it, show after show!)
Here’s what we’ll cover…
- What is it?
- A little background on the escape stunt!
- How he performs the escape!
- How he almost dies doing the trick – every time!
What is a Chinese Water Torture Cell?
The Chinese Water Torture Cell is a remarkable contraption that also happens to resemble a fish tank.
The apparatus was built solely for entertainment and performance – no one I’m aware of has been a victim of this cell, save for those who wished to follow in the footsteps of Houdini (not the safest option).
Harry Houdini had his Water Torture Cell built in England at a cost of more than $10,000. The frame and heavy stocks were made of Honduras mahogany and nickel-plated steel with brass fixtures. The front consisted of a plate of half-inch tempered glass. The apparatus weighed around three-quarters of a ton and held 250 gallons of water.
Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Cell Escape!
First things first, let’s go over what exactly this legendary routine is. Picture this:
Houdini, to begin the trick, devotes a few minutes to a detailed description of the tank, stocks, grill, and steel tackle comprising the apparatus.
In his unique and charismatic style of showmanship, of course, (the type that easily convinced audiences that there was a good chance it was his last act).
A representative committee of the audience is invited onto the stage to check that everything was as it seemed (looking for hidden escapes or gimmicked equipment – the usual procedure in escapology or magic).
Houdini retires from the stage for a few minutes to get dressed, leaving the audience in nervous excitement and anticipation.
Meanwhile, his assistants rapidly filled the tank from a high-pressure hose and with buckets of heated water from ornamental cauldrons at either side of the stage. This could sometimes be as much as 500 galleons!
Returning in a swimming costume, Houdini lies on his back in the center of the stage as members of the committee adjust his feet within the stocks and snap the locks.
The steel frame is next passed over the body until at the base of the stocks, where it is clamped securely.
The metal grill is placed in the tank and pulleys haul the artist in mid-air, where he remains suspended by his feet ready for his plunge into the water below.
One can only wonder what his mental preparation was during this!
Timing is crucial in these moments, blood is rapidly rushing to Houdini’s head increasing the odds that he will lose consciousness while underwater.
A few seconds later he drops, head first, into the tank…
Now’s when things start to get interesting…
The stocks are instantly fixed in place of a lid, the steel frets quickly cover the sides and top, leaving space in their design to give a view of the performer’s submerged head; locks are bustled on, and Houdini’s full commitment and focus are needed.
He’s in the water…
Just imagine for a minute how scary this would be.
Houdini is upside down (and has been for some time), inside a hideous fish-looking tank with the smallest of room to move; the cell is extremely tight and cramped. That isn’t even mentioning the fact that he’s manacled around his legs and feet, with a large audience watching him; full of expectation.
Back to the story…
A cabinet of draperies is pulled around the tank, keeping Houdnini hidden from the audience.
The only sound which can be heard is the splashing of water.
A tense minute passes, and gasps and nervous mutterings are heard from the audience (some testing their breath-hold, some simply fearful that Houdini is drowning.)
The curtains are slowly pulled up, but not to full height, and Houdini is seen thrashing about struggling still with his handcuffs, his upper body only visible to the increasingly worried crowd.
An ax is kept at the ready, to break the glass in case of danger. The audience is now pleading with the assistants to smash the damn tank to pieces while Houdini’s personal helpers stoically look at their shoes.
The curtains, to the audience’s fury and morbid fascination, are drawn back down, leaving Houdini drowning in the torture cell.
Time is running out, the tension is mounting to an indescribable level.
It’s going to take some real magic to get out of this one…even for a man of Houdini’s caliber.
The curtain is drawn up.
Where is Houdini?
And there he is, a little out of breath but most certainly not dead, standing on top of the Chinese water torture cell, a look of immense relief and a wide grin stretched across his face (not a fact; just a guess since the crazy dude would have just survived his most dangerous and famous trick yet.
Hats off to you Houdini.
You have our respect.
Right now, there’s probably ONE question running through your head (I know it was definitely the first thing I thought when I saw it…)
Well, great question. This escape stunt is definitely a dangerous one to master, but it’s also not impossible. There are a certain few places you can figure out how it was done. This is exactly what I will be explaining over the rest of this blog post.
First, a little background on the Chinese Water Torture Cell
The picture above is a newspaper advertising Houdini’s Chinese water torture cell act (1915)
The original Chinese Water Torture Cell was built in England in 1911.
Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called Houdini Upside Down!
This was so he could copyright the new escape (having learned with his Milk Can escape that patents failed to stop imitators).
The first public performance was at the Circus Busch in Berlin Germany, on September 21, 1912. In letters, Houdini referred to the effect as “the Upside Down” or “USD”.
Houdini continued to present the one and original Chinese Water Torture Cell from that time on.
It appeared that the ultimate in escapes had indeed been achieved. With all the magic that he presented, all his skill at sleight of hand, all the spirit tricks he demonstrated, the Water Torture Cell still held the audience breathless and spellbound, during those two minutes and one second from the time the cabinet closed until Houdini reappeared free.
Until his death in 1926. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture Cell, the escape had nothing to do with his demise.
After Houdini’s death, the original Chinese Water Torture Cell went on quite the journey; from spending decades in a dingy basement, to being displayed in The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, where it suffered from neglect, theft, mold, and damage, to eventually being restored and sold at an auction to none other than David Copperfield.
Up until Houdini’s death, during the time that he was denouncing fraud mediums and exposing their trickery, believers insisted that Houdini actually dematerialized himself from the water cell; They argued that he was afraid to admit his mediumistic powers in the face of public antagonism.
If you fancy listening to Houdini discuss his Chinese Water Torture Cell click on the video below.
Right folks, history lessons finished.
Read on to learn how he performed it – and how close he comes each time to dying.
How Did Houdini Perform The Escape?
It was Houdini’s cardinal rule, with all dangerous escapes and especially those of the underwater variety, to make sure that the device used was sure and efficient. It had to be, for him to work the escape successfully, night after night, show after show.
During his attempts to create the ultimate underwater escape, Houdini switched from all suggested underwater gadgets to the ingenious idea of doing it above water, in the form of an escape from a pair of stocks.
The key to this daring escape is in the lid of the chamber. As you can see in the picture above the magician’s feet are shackled and the lid is locked down tight.
While experimenting with a conventional top, Houdini decided to convert it into a pair of stocks. This automatically eliminated all the complicated mechanical devices required in earlier types of water cells.
Houdini would be “locked in” the cell while “standing on his head” but the stocks were set on the cell and attached to it. Houdini gave the idea that he was sealed inside the cell, totally filled with water. However, there was a lot of air at the top, because water gushed in waves over the brim when Houdini was let down quickly into the cabinet, and there was some leakage at joints.
What apparently sealed the cell were Houdini’s own ankles. The stocks and the edges of the top could not be labeled airtight.
So the Water Torture Cell had an actual top that not only imprisoned Houdini but kept him in an upside-down position while the locks were being secured and the curtains were being closed.
Yet all this was accomplished with rapid precision in a minimum amount of time, allowing that much more for the escape.
In a late version, four hasps held the top framework; keys were inserted in each keyhole, locking the hasps, but secretly releasing the two boards which formed the stocks. The bars at the front of the cell enabled Houdini to gain a firm grip and work his body upward to apply full strength in getting his feet free. He could then twist sideways, draw his feet down into the cell, do a quick flip turnover and come up for air, head first.
The top was deep-set and Houdini had no trouble getting his head above water level, which had already been lowered by the splash from his upside-down immersion.
It was then a matter of opening the top “doors” fully and climbing out between the two stock boards that had been unlatched when the hasp-lock keys were turned.
The two stock boards could then be flipped open on end hinges.
Houdini then let himself down outside the tank, closed it completely, and made his dramatic appearance from the cabinet.
Houdini couldn’t have done it any better!
Check out this video! You will watch a magician escape the Chinese Water Cell and then show a visual demonstration of how it was performed.
How does Houdini almost die each time he performs the trick?
The risks Houdnini’s taking to perform this trick are enormous. Again the trick requires tremendous physical and mental skills in order to survive.
Here’s a quick reminder of why:
- As Houdini is being raised up from the ground and into the torture chamber blood is rapidly rushing to his head. This increases the odds of him losing consciousness while underwater.
- Houdini must keep calm and lower his heart rate during this period so he can hold his breath as long as possible. Not easy when you’re anticipating going headfirst in a small cell filled with water.
- Houdini must hold his breath underwater for up to minutes until the curtain is drawn. That’s only half the battle though. He must contort his body out of the cell (an extremely difficult task considering his shoulders are tightly lodged in and he’s upside down), while he is on low oxygen levels.
- If he panics, loses focus, or simply becomes too complacent, he will die.
- Then Houdini must repeat the process when the curtain is opened up. Testing his luck twice.
- That on top of audience pressure makes the performance extremely lethal.
What if someone pulled a funny face at him when his eyes were open?
Random, I know, but it could be surprisingly dangerous if Houdini was easily amused.
Houdini really couldn’t afford to have a bad day at work!
“Imagine yourself jammed head foremost in a Cell filled with water, your hands and feet unable to move, and your shoulders tightly lodged in this imprisonment. I believe it is the climax of all my studies and labors. Never will I be able to construct anything that will be more dangerous or difficult for me to do.” – Harry Houdini
I think by now you have a pretty good understanding of the risks Houdini is taking to perform this trick. To any average escapologist, this trick would mean certain death!
The Chinese Water Torture Cell is a combination of his suspended straitjacket and milk can escape stunts, this was his most famous and daring trick yet.
Locked in stocks by the feet, Houdini was lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. If he couldn’t escape within two minutes, an assistant stood by with an axe ready to break the glass.
I hope you enjoyed the Chinese Water Torture Cell blog post. If you have any questions or feel I have missed any important details, let me know in the comment section below!
P.S. Recently I wrote a blog on Houdini’s 15 Most Audacious tricks and Escapes…
Guess where this one ranked…