Cold Open: Water Torture Cell
It’s the evening of September 21st, 1912 at a performance of the Circus Busch in Berlin, one of Germany’s most popular circus shows.
Sitting in the audience, one delighted audience member—an older man—stares at the captivating performer on stage; the most famous escape artist in the world: Harry Houdini. The star of the show has already described what's about to happen. He is going to be plunged, upside down, into a tank full of water and left there until he gets out—or dies trying.
The old man watches as Houdini's assistants place his feet in stocks and lock them in place.
The old man is even more delighted when Houdini asks for a volunteer from the crowd. When he raises his hand enthusiastically, Houdini invites the old man on stage.
The man grins as he makes his way to the front of the auditorium. And Houdini’s assistant asks him to examine the stocks making sure Houdini’s feet are trapped. The man yanks the locks and agrees that Houdini can’t pull his feet back out.
The old man jumps in surprise though as the stocks are suddenly hoisted into the air by pulleys in the rafters above the stage.
Houdini dangles upside down in mid-air… Then he is lowered into the tank. Water gushes over the top as Houdini drops in. The assistants quickly pull a curtain in front of the tank, hiding it from the audience's view.
An orchestra begins to play. The tune they have chosen is “The Diver”, a popular music hall song with lyrics about a lone swimmer struggling for breath underwater. It's a grim reminder that Harry is risking being drowned for the audience’s entertainment. And after two agonizing minutes, the old man sees the curtain begin to twitch.
Suddenly, Houdini bursts through, soaking wet but with a broad grin on his face.
The old man explodes into applause along with the crowd. Houdini’s assistants pull back the curtain to reveal the tank with the empty stocks still on top.
In the aftermath of this trick, known as the Water Torture Cell, Harry Houdini cements his place in the annals of performance magic and escapology. It becomes his signature trick and makes him a household name across North America and Europe.
But before he was famous, Houdini was just one of many magicians who eked out a living on stage. Through skill, talent, and luck though, Harry Houdini transformed into the most famous escape artist in the world when he stopped performing simple tricks and started to risk death in his quest to entertain the public. Houdini’s reputation as a daredevil began five years earlier when he pulled off what is arguably the most dangerous stunt of his career on August 26th, 1907.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is August 26th, 1907: Harry Houdini’s Underwater Escape.
Act One: Big Break
It’s early 1899 in a crowded theater in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Martin Beck shifts uncomfortably in his seat. He can feel boredom creeping over him. He’s not here for fun but business. Martin is a theater owner looking to poach talent for his own vaudeville shows on the Orpheum circuit, a network of theaters and music halls across the country.
Vaudeville is the most popular form of entertainment in the United States. Theaters are regularly packed with audiences watching light entertainment variety shows where multiple performers share the bill. A vaudeville show might have ten different acts including clowns, singers, comedians, dancers, and acrobats, even trained animals. Martin often goes to see new performers to judge whether they would be a good addition to his shows. Most of the time they aren’t professional enough though, Martin only wants the best. And today, he is here to size up a promising prospect; a magician he’s heard about: 24-year-old Harry Houdini.
And as the lights go up into a smattering of applause, Harry steps out on stage to begin his act, Martin perks up. He’s heard all about the magician people say has pioneered a new type of trick: escapology, somehow wrigglingly out of seemingly impossible shackles. But as Houdini starts his set, Martin is disappointed. There’s nothing especially impressive about the card tricks Harry’s starting with. Even Metamorphosis, a trick where Harry sits in a cabinet and swaps places with his assistant, fails to wow; dozens of other magicians have similar set-piece tricks and they don’t require any particular skill, just a cabinet with a secret escape panel.
But then Harry moves on to his grand finale. Martin sits up in his seat. This is what he has been waiting for. He's heard of Harry’s ability to escape from shackles and how Harry challenges audience members to bring their own handcuffs to his shows for him to escape from, proving that he doesn’t use rigged restraints. Martin obliged and bought a pair of handcuffs in advance of the show.
And soon enough, Harry asks if any members of the audience have brought handcuffs with them. Martin raises his hand. With a dramatic flourish, Harry invites him on stage. Martin quickly heads to the front of the theater, reaches into his pocket, produces the cuffs, and hands them to Harry.
Harry examines the shackles. He opens and closes them, looking closely at the locking mechanism to ensure they haven’t been tampered with. Satisfied, Harry hands them back to Martin, holds out his arms, and tells Martin to proceed.
Martin clips the handcuffs around Harry’s wrists who then turns around with his back to the audience. Martin watches Harry’s shoulders and arms jerking violently. Barely a minute later, Harry turns around with panache. Free from the cuffs, he tosses them back to Martin as the audience bursts into applause. Martin smiles from ear to ear. He knows he’s just found a new act for his vaudeville shows.
After the evening show, Martin arranges to meet Harry for dinner. Over their meal, Martin gives a blunt assessment of Harry's act. He tells him to cut out the simple card tricks and magic gimmicks. Instead, Martin thinks Harry should focus on what he’s really good at: escaping. By making escape tricks the focus of his act, Harry will be doing something that nobody else in vaudeville is trying. And Martin is certain that he, and Harry, will make a killing.
A few days later, Martin sends Harry a telegram to follow up. He invites Harry to perform in Omaha, Nebraska in 12 days’ time. And if all goes well, there will be more work on offer. And indeed it does.
Soon, Harry is booked for regular appearances in Martin’s Orpheum-operated theaters. The newspapers dub him “the Handcuff King” and give him rave reviews.
Before long, Harry will become a national celebrity and embark on a European tour. He will be invited to perform in many famous venues and in front of Russian and British royalty.
But to maintain his place as the world’s most famous escape artist, he will need to find new ways to stand out from the crowd—and he will do so by adding a level of danger that audiences have never witnessed before.
Act Two: Death Defying
It’s half past midday on August 26th, 1907.
Harry Houdini stands on the Washington Street Pier in San Francisco. Thousands of locals line the edge of the pier, each trying to find a good spot to view Harry's latest stunt.
Harry just opened a run of performances at the San Francisco Orpheum, and he’s here today to perform a death-defying trick to promote the show and hopefully sell more tickets.
Harry is desperate to be the best escape artist in the world. But the man they call “the Handcuff King” knows there’s plenty of competition out there, many of whom are mere mimics who love to steal and copy his tricks. One of his rivals might very well be in the crowd right now, watching and waiting to exploit Harry’s hard work.
Right next door to Harry’s new show at the San Francisco Orpheum is another vaudeville theater, the Princess; and that venue is about to open a separate show starring Harry’s biggest competitor, George W. Brindamour, who claims he is the better escape artist. Brindamour’s posters riff on Harry’s nickname, calling Brindamour the “King of All Handcuff Kings”. So Harry decided to prove who’s the real royalty. He announced a stunt more extreme than any of his rivals have ever dared to attempt.
Today, as Harry stands before the gathering crowd, he gets ready to perform the death-defying feat of jumping into the San Francisco Bay and escaping from handcuffs and leg shackles underwater.
Harry knows it will drive newspaper reporters crazy and generate tons of publicity. He also believes his mimics like Brindamour will be too scared to copy him. If an escape artist fails to get their hands out of handcuffs on stage, they are merely embarrassed. If they fail to do it in cold, choppy waters, like those in San Francisco Bay, the result could be death.
As he stands near the edge of the pier, Harry takes a deep, calming breath. Then he places his hands behind his back and allows an assistant to handcuff them. Then he holds still while his assistants restrain his ankles and use heavy chains to link together the handcuffs and ankle bracelets.
Harry turns around several times to show the vast audience that he is properly fettered. Murmurs of excitement and trepidation ripple through the crowd as Harry inches toward the edge of the pier.
Harry looks down at the water of the San Francisco Bay. At 60 degrees Fahrenheit, it will be a chilly dip. He knows the cold won’t kill him. But the water might; if he can’t get out of the steel binding his hands and feet. Still, Harry is not afraid. He has trained his mind and body to not give in to fear in moments like these.
Instead, Harry calmly leans forward and falls head-first into the water. Immediately, he slips beneath the surface, the weight of the chains pulling him down.
Fully submerged, Harry can feel himself sinking into the sticky mud at the bottom of the bay. But he doesn’t panic. He remains calm and concentrates on the task at hand. Slowly but surely, he begins to make progress. And in less than a minute, he is free of his restraints.
But Harry doesn’t immediately go back up to the surface. Instead, he first lets a line of bubbles escape from his mouth. It’s all part of the show. He knows the bubbles will be seen on the surface and add to the suspense. After he figures, enough time has past, he kicks his legs and propels himself upwards. 57 seconds after he disappeared under the surface, Harry bursts clear out of the water and takes a big, gasping breath. The crowd roars with delight, and Harry is ecstatic. He lifts his arms in the air to display his hands, free of the cuffs. Then he turns upside down and kicks up his unshackled feet for all to see.
Harry has successfully completed his most dangerous escape yet, and proven himself superior to all his rivals and copycats by introducing an element of danger never before seen, and he did it in a public arena so as many people as possible would witness it, and tell their friends and family.
Harry’s stunt in the San Francisco Bay will turn him into a legend, and his growing fame will inspire him to try even more death-defying underwater escapes, each one more daring and dangerous than the last. And then nearly 20 years after this first plunge, Harry will attempt to pull off his final, and greatest, underwater trick yet; a feat that will make the 57 seconds he spent in San Francisco Bay seem like nothing.
Act Three: Buried Alive
It’s noon on August 5th, 1926 in the swimming pool of the Hotel Shelton in New York, 19 years after Harry Houdini’s 57-second underwater escape in San Francisco Bay.
Doctor W. J. McConnell stands by the pool and watches as Harry prepares for a new trick called “Buried Alive”. Recently, one of Harry’s rivals pulled off an incredible stunt; he was sealed inside a coffin for an hour, surviving the lack of fresh air by controlling his breathing. Harry is determined to beat that time. But today, he wants a practice run before unveiling “Buried Alive” in front of a paying audience.
Doctor McConnell is there to make sure everything goes well. And he watches anxiously as Harry lays down in the wooden coffin. Soon, the lid is soldered shut, making it airtight. Several men lift the casket and then lower it into the hotel swimming pool. It floats on the surface until the men climb into the pool and push the coffin to the bottom, standing on top of it to keep it submerged.
Doctor McConnell watches as Harry’s assistant uses a telephone line to communicate with his boss in the coffin. He listens to the assistant call off every minute Harry has been underwater. When 60 minutes is called, the assistant says that Harry wants to stay under longer. Doctor McConnell watches, amazed, as Harry stays submerged in the coffin for 31 more minutes.
When the lid is finally unsealed, Doctor McConnell quickly examines Harry. His pulse rate has soared. And Harry says he can see flashing yellow lights in his eyes. Doctor McConnell realizes Harry has pushed himself to the limits of oxygen deprivation, and knows Harry is lucky; were he in that coffin a minute longer, the Doctor would have been recording Harry’s death.
But Harry’s need to push himself to his limits will be his undoing. Even though the trial run goes well, Harry never gets the chance to perform the Buried Alive stunt on stage. In October, Harry begins to suffer from discomfort in his abdomen. But he doesn't seek any help, and in spite of the pain, he continues to perform, even as his temperature reaches 104 degrees. By the time he eventually seeks medical care, it’s too late. His appendix has ruptured, and Harry passes away on October 31st, 1926.
At the time of his death, Harry Houdini is the most famous escape artist in history. He remains just as well-known almost a century later. His name has become synonymous with escapology as modern-day escape artists vie to be considered the “new Houdini”. Harry’s legend was born from his fearless, death-defying trickery, a reputation which began when Harry Houdini escaped underwater in San Francisco Bay on August 26th, 1907.
Next onHistory Daily. August 29th, 2005. Hurricane Katrina makes landfall devastating much of the U.S. Gulf Coast from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.