Sunday, July 3, 2011

Uncovering Houdini's THIRD air-tight container test and death casket

Last year I posted a blog about Patrick Culliton's discovery of a second underwater coffin test that Houdini performed at the YMCA in Worcester, MA, two months after his well-known Shelton pool test in New York. Inspired by that post, Worcester resident Mark Russell decided to do a little digging and discovered a few newspaper clippings that shed more light on this forgotten second test, as well as evidence that Houdini performed the test for a THIRD time!

According to an article in the Daily Telegram (Sept 27, 1926) promoting the upcoming Worcester stunt, this second underwater test was in direct response to the suggestion that the telephone Houdini used during the Shelton test somehow funneled air into the air-tight box. The paper states that Houdini will use a new "coffin" with a glass top so he can signal to his assistants on the surface.

"This time he will leave no loophole for the cynics, for there will be no connection with the outside save for signals seen through the glass top. Houdini will take with him a red bandanna for a warning signal, and a slate and chalk to write on and tell the onlooker how he likes conditions in his submerged quarters."

However, the Telegram's account of the actual test the follow day says Houdini did use a telephone and bell system during the Worcester test, and makes no mention of a glass top coffin or red bandanna signals. It sounds like Houdini intended to use a new custom casket for the Worcester test, but it doesn't arrive on time, so he uses a container similar to the Shelton test. Unfortunately, that "loophole for the cynics" remains.

Okay, until now, it was thought that the Worcester YMCA casket was the one that was famously used to ship Houdini's body back to New York following his death in Detroit. It was also reported that he was buried in this custom casket (although photos of Houdini lying in state and footage from his funeral suggest otherwise). But it turns out this wasn't the "death casket," and here's where it starts to get spooky and we need to revise Houdini history a bit.

According to another article and an advertisement in the Daily Telegram, Houdini performed the air-tight coffin test for a THIRD time! This third test took place in front of Summerfield's Furniture Co. on Main Street on Sept. 30, 1926, and was not a submerged test. As the advert (below) states, "This is the first public test in full view of the people."

Advertisement for Houdini's third air-tight coffin test on Sept. 30, 1926.

The full Telegram article (which is again a promotional article, Mark could find no article about the event itself) specifically states that the coffin Houdini would use for this open air public test will be a brand new one, not the one he used at the YMCA, which like the Shelton container, "had to be soldered by a tinsmith after he was placed into it" and then broken open to let him out. This new air-tight casket was made by the Boyertown Casket Co. of New York for $5000 and delivered to Houdini at noon on Sept. 28, 1926 (two hours after the YMCA test). The casket was put on display in the window of Summerfield's in the days preceding the test.

We now know THIS was the coffin used to transport Houdini's body from Detroit, and possibly holds his skeleton today. How can we be so sure? Because, incredibly, Houdini said so!

Houdini, the world famous magician, will perform his death-defying stunt of remaining in an air-tight coffin for one hour in front of the Summerfield Furniture Co,'s store on Thursday from 12 o'clock until 1 p.m. in the coffin in which he will be buried when he dies.

This is pretty mind-blowing as it is the only public declaration that I've ever heard about this coffin being made for Houdini's real interment. Most biographies say he communicated this wish privately (I believe to Joe Dunninger). It's pretty macabre, but also highly effective for Houdini to promote this as "the coffin in which he will be buried." It makes this stunt as much about getting a preview of Houdini in death as a test of breath control, but isn't this true of all of Houdini's most effective stunts? In fact, the Telegraph article talks more about this new coffin than the test itself.

This brand new coffin, delivered at the Worcester theater yesterday where Houdini is appearing all week, weighs 420 pounds. It is made of copper composition frame with a glassed top in two sections, each of which is 1/4-inch thick. The glass was installed by the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co.

I'm now wondering if this photo (right) -- which Patrick Culliton shared on his website and is said to be a photo of Houdini in death -- is actually a photo from this open air Summerfied's test. This description of the casket matches, and he appears to be on public display here. Note the person standing on the side and the fact that the coffin appears to be propped up on a platform. The construction of a special platform is specifically mentioned in the Telegraph article, "so that the coffin in which Houdini will be in for an hour will be seen by everyone in the vicinity of the store."

Finally, how eerie is it that this is only one month before Houdini really does die and this casket really is used to hold his body? I think we can add this to the series of premonitions and bizarre coincidences that proceeded Houdini's death on Halloween 1926.

A very big thank you to Mark Russell for uncovering this information and allowing me to share it on WILD ABOUT HARRY.

UPDATE: Some clarification about the coffin from Patrick Culliton's Houdini The Key. Patrick describes the Worcester custom coffin as being a "coffin liner." He says this liner was made to be put inside the bronze casket that we see in the funeral footage. Patrick believes, "Houdini may still be in this coffin liner, inside the bronze coffin."

37 comments:

  1. ...i love these new little tidbits that surface..always fun to read..especially when it's a little bit spooky...

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  2. Thanks, Cat. I like 'em spooky too. :) I also really like finding something that rewrites (or at least clarifies) Houdini history, which I think this one does.

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  3. Incredible! Now we know much more about the mystery coffin Houdini was buried within. What does everyone think about that pic of Houdini laying within the glass covered box? Is that a living Houdini in the process of performing a stunt or is it a dead Houdini? After this article the idea that its a pic taken during a stunt seems more likely. One other question..........The first pic of Houdini standing by the pool I see he is wearing a wristwatch and this is the only pic I have ever seen of Houdini wearing a watch that I can remember. Does anyone know what brand of watch Houdini wore? (watch enthusiast here)!

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  4. Is that a watch, or maybe something to measure his pulse rate during the test?

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  5. Looks like a typical wristwatch from the mid 1920's. I doubt there would be something that small used to measure pulse rate back in 1926. I actually have a watch that looks similar to the one Houdini appears to be wearing. Its a 1925 Waltham in a tonneau style case. I cant say its THE watch but sure does look similar.

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  6. That cartoonish drawing of Houdini at the bottom of the newspaper ad LOOKS like something Al Hirschfeld, caricature artist who knew Houdini well would have done. What do you think?

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  7. Another observation is that Houdini appears to have an abrasion on the bridge of his nose. He looks in great physical shape, look at those legs, but his face looks haggard.

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  8. The cartoon looks a bit like those cartoon images of himself he had on his Christmas-greetings cards.

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  9. Good discussion about this going on at The Magic Cafe forums.

    http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/viewtopic.php?topic=423142&forum=18&7

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  10. Even though Houdinis hands look odd as he lay in that glass covered casket he must be alive. Why would the casket be laying on an angle as it is? Why would there be what looks like a public outdoor display of his body if he is dead in that photo? My take is this is a live Houdini in process if completing his third sealed casket stunt.

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  11. I have been looking very closely at the picture of Houdini in the glass topped casket. I say he is alive in this picture but at the same time two observations make me pause to wonder:
    1) What is Houdini wearing? LOOKS like something a patient would be wearing at a hospital...short sleeved gown. The pic is fuzzy but this is what it looks like. I would assume this is how Houdinis body would be dressed leaving the hospital perhaps all the way to the NY funeral home where he would be dressed in a suit for the viewing/burial.
    2) It also appears that Houdinis head is tilted backwards in a unnatural position. Notice the clear view of his nostriles in relation to the angle of the body.
    However the question remains....where would this pic be taken if he is dead? I would think the crate containing Houdinis body would not be opened until it got to the funeral home. I could not imagine that Houdinis body would be on display before the viewing unless its NOT on display. In that case could it be a picture taken by a funeral parlor employee? What we need is the original picture which hopefully is more clear.

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    1. There more to Houdini's casket story!
      I know a little more about it...

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  12. If the photo was taken when he was alive, doing a stunt, he wouldn't want to wear any more clothes than necessary, if only to reduce perspiration, I would think. It's also odd that it looks like a shroud. If he was alive, that's really creepy.

    The pose of the hands is like a corpse, but it could also be the most comfortable place for a living person to put them.

    I can't see the head at all. Anonymous, how do you see so many details of the head?

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  13. I just see the nostriles. TO ME if you see the angle of the casket his head would need to be tilted well backwards to be able to see his nostriles. A strange position. I REALLY need to know where this picture is from....its a real puzzle in my mind. Part of me says its his third buried alive type stunt BUT what he is wearing does indeed look like a hospital gown or shroud that has been wrapped around him. Someone come up with some answers!!!!! Also is that reflections we are seeing in the top portion of glass? If so what can anyone make out of it?

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  14. Did anyone mention that there appears to be a well dressed individual (in suit and bowtie) who appears to be carrying the casket? The hands of HOUDINI also appear to be swollen in the photo.

    Beastie B

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  15. I see the person but I dont see that he is carrying anything. The casket appears to be sitting at an angle and not being carried. I dont see that Houdini's hands are swollen either. The only thing that makes me think this is a dead Houdini is what he is wearing....which cant be fully determined in the photo. Is anyone looking for more info concerning this picture?

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  16. We might benefit from the perspective of a funeral director. When bodies are displayed in open coffins, the hands may be folded over each other, but would the fingers be interlaced?

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  17. Any further info regarding this topic? Thread has run cold.

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  18. couldn't this be a display with a dummy in the coffin before a Houdini show?

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  19. As a longtime mortician, I can tell you that it would be unusual to pose hands with fingers interlocked as they would usually be cuped hand over hand. This would however depend on the embalmer's positioning of body prior to process.

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  20. Did anyone find a newspaper article concerning this third buried alive stunt? I find this very interesting. If we can find an article from a local library it should clear up whether the picture is in fact HH performing this stunt. Also is it not amazing that putting a man in a sealed box for an hour would be considered anything spectacular? No disrespect to HH of course but something like this would not cause a single person to stop and watch in today's world. Finally concerning HH watch I spoke to the owner of Strickland vintage watches and he feels that the watch is more than likely a Illinois wristwatch. He seems to feel however that the winding crown looks way too big for the watch case. In this era large winding crowns were common on some watches but this crown appears extra huge. So bottom line the watch more than likely is an big crown Illinois hand winding wristwatch, glass crystal with a cut corner case. Watch strap is probably leather...dark brown or black. Also the watch would not be in any way waterproof so contact with water could ruin the movement. I believe I read that the box used during the shelton pool stunts leaked. If it leaked onto the watch this could have ruined it or at least caused a need for repair.

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  21. Thanks, Anon. As far as I know, no one has turned up an article yet.

    Did you see this recent post I did about Houdini's wristwatch:
    http://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2011/09/culliton-papers-houdinis-wristwatch_18.html

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  22. Yes I look at this web site multiple times a day! Can't get enough! Another thing I noticed today is the photo above where HH is standing by the pools edge. Look at his face.....he appears to have a cut on the bridge of his nose. Also if you enlarge the photo and look closely at his face his eyes, especially his left eye appears very swollen with his right eye less so. It looks like he has been in a fight or an accident.

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  23. Good catch. There does seem to a cut on his nose. Hmmm.

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  24. I drive through Worchester on occasion. if I can arrange it I will stop by the city library and see if there are any newspaper archives. Would it not be fantastic if I found an article confirming that third stunt along with a pic of HH in that casket? We can clear up two mysteries at once!

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  25. Well first and foremost I am the one who gave permission to
    PK to use this pic. It came from a private scrapebook put
    together by Bess Houdini, and Bess wrote under the photo that this was the last picture taken of Houdini.
    According to the people who wear there, at the time of his death. No photos where allowed in the funeral parlor.
    While there was a photo release in one of the papers at the
    time, it is not Houdini. For one the nose is way to big.
    When he was imbalmed here in Detroit, his body was sent to
    New York for finall prep.
    Jon Oliver

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    1. Thanks for the comment and clarification, Jon. Good to see you here. I've added a credit and link to your website below the photo. Hope it's okay that I'm using it here. If not, let me know and I will take it down.

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  26. So......is this the last photo of Houdini alive or the last photo of Houdini at all? I think the evidence points this to be the third buried alive test but what I don't get is what he seems to be wearing in the box is odd looking.

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    1. Well, Jon Oliver says Bess wrote under the photo that it was "the last picture taken of Houdini." Thing is, that could still mean this is the Summerfield test and what Bess meant is this was the last photo of Houdini alive. Or it could be his corpse. But I still find it odd that his corpse would be displayed like this.

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    2. I heard the NY Elks Lodge members kept Houdini's casket used in the funeral service in Houdini's service inside NY Elks Lodge #1 for carrying initiates into the huge NY #1 lodge room.
      This is the story I've heard from some notable NY state Elks!
      Really! Yes, Houdini was an Elk, a Mason, and a great magician but you already knew that...
      Oh yeah why is their only 20 seconds of crappy footage of Houdini's funeral? Their has to me footage then just 20 seconds worth , come on man!?!?!?!

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  27. I was told that the story is members of New York Elks Mother lodge took the casket that invaded the brass casket
    and used it in there initiations of new candidates of lodge #1.
    They would be carried in the casket from the lobby where the coffin was on display then up the stairs to the huge
    Elks Lodge Room of NY #1. It was taken to Norther Tonawanda, NY Elks Temple for display and that Elks Temple burned down destroying once Houdini's casket! This is what I was told from some notable NY state Elks!!! Wow really?

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    1. Shoot, I can't believe I didn't see comment this until now! Thank you for this Jason. Really interesting information.

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    2. Samual Goompers was the maker of the NY AFL-CIO labor party was an Elk and his funeral in the same big lodge room as well!

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    3. Jason -- I'd love to know more, and I'd especially be interested in any photos of the casket. This might be a great untold story that we can tell here. Shoot me an email if you can. Email address HERE

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