In 1904, the London newspaper, The Daily Mirror challenged Harry Houdini to escape from a special kind of handcuff that had allegedly taken locksmith Nathaniel Hart seven years to make. Houdini accepted the challenge and performed the escape at the London Hippodrome theatre.
The Mirror Handcuff Challenge
Thousands of people including journalists flocked to see Houdini attempt the escape. It took Houdini over an hour to escape. He would regularly peer through a small screen which would usually conceal his escape acts. At one point Houdini requested the handcuffs be removed so he could take off his jacket. This was refused as it was suspected Houdini would be able to see how the cuffs would unlock. Instead Houdini removed his coat by using a pen knife to cut it off.
After an hour Houdini’s wife, Bess kissed him on stage. It was believed she had the key to the cuffs in her mouth. Finally Houdini emerged to a cheering crowd, but his ordeal had clearly left him both physically and mentally drained and he wept on stage. He admitted it was the hardest trick he had ever done.
The Chinese Water Torture Cell
Rival magicians continued to imitate Harry Houdini’s hand cuff tricks, even the Milk Can trick was no longer considered exclusive to him. It was time for Houdini to take his act to a more exciting but dangerous level.
In 1912 Houdini decided to replace his Milk Can act with the Chinese Water Torture Cell. Houdini would be constrained by having his feet in stocks while being lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The tank was made of glass and steel allowing the audience to view Houdini in. After Houdini was secured in the tank a curtain would drop down while he made his escape.
Houdini first performed the act for an audience of one person as part of a one act play. He called the show Houdini Upside Down. The reason for this was so he could copyright the effect and sue imitators. The act was always known as the Chinese Water Torture Cell, but Houdini always referred to it as ‘The Upside Down’. The first public performance of The Upside Down act was at the Circus Busch in Berlin on 21st September 1912 and continued to perform it up to his death.
The Buried Alive Escape
Houdini performed three Buried Alive tricks during his career. The first was in 1917 outside of Santa Ana, California where Houdini was buried without a coffin in over six feet of earth. He became exhausted and panicked while trying to dig his way out. When he reached the surface, Houdini fell unconscious resulting in his assistants pulling him out of the grave.
The second type was to endure being confined in a sealed coffin for one hour. This was to prove Egyptian performer Rahman Bey was a fraud stating he had supernatural powers to withstand the confinement. Houdini’s trick was from a sealed coffin in a swimming pool at the New York’s Shelton Hotel in 1926. Houdini was able to control his breathing and insisted no tricks were used.
The third and final Buried Alive was where Houdini was strapped in a strait-jacket, sealed in a coffin and buried in a tank filled with sand. To this day there is little evidence to support Houdini ever performed this trick. It was a scheduled for his next season in 1927, but Houdini died in October 1926. The bronze coffin created for the act was instead used to transport Houdini’s body home from Detroit to New York.
These were just a few of the many great acts and escape routines Houdini performed throughout his career. Houdini’s acts were becoming more ambitious and more dangerous. But his next challenge was to expose the frauds claiming they could contact the dead but exploited people for money. He made many enemies from this which some would say lead to his untimely demise.