Friday, September 2, 2011

Houdini's Water Torture Cell in 1990

As Houdini Art and Magic prepares to leave the Skirball on Sunday, and the beautiful John Gaughan reproduction of Houdini's Water Torture Cell goes back into his private collection, I thought this might be a good time to pull out these photos of the original Water Torture Cell in 1990; showing it as it looked a year before its first restoration and, of course, before its destruction by fire in 1995.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

I took these photos in the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada, on August 11, 1990. As I said, this is the original pre-restoration cell in all its glory (or ignominy), showing the full ravages of age and neglect from its time in the "museum" (which appears to be doing everything it can to cover up the cell and its damage at this point). Still, what a treat it was to stand before the original cell.

Now, call me crazy, but I still feel like the USD I saw that August day was smaller than the reproductions we have today. I remember being shocked by how small it was, and thinking it looked more like a steamer trunk with a glass front -- more like this photo of the cell when it was given to Sid Radner by Hardeen in the 1943. Also, look at those brass handles on the stocks and tell me they don't look much closer together than what we see on the reproduction? But it's all probably just a trick of memory.

You can see even better pics of the original cell in 1981 and 1985 on a special page at Tom Interval's superb site, Houdini in The New York Times.

12 comments:

  1. Another difference: In the photos of the original, we can see the bolt heads at the top of the cell structure. But in the repro, the top apparently covers those bolt heads. I was hoping to compare the number of bolt heads.

    The drawer handles in the original do look closer together than in the repro, but it may be that they're wider. The style is a bit different.

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  2. Oops. I meant the other war around. It is the repro that shows the bolt heads.

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  3. Actually, Eric, that's because the Houdini Museum had the lifting frame on upside-down, covering the bolts. You can see the indentation for the snug fitting of the locking hasps is facing down in these pics. It should be facing up.

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  4. Something very fishy here. If you recall I wrote a blog about two cells, one being larger than the other and showing what I thought to be photographic proof. Well, looking at these pictures you have here and going back to some of the earlier WTC photos with Houdini in it, its very clear they are different cells. But I also have a photo of the refurbished/restored cell and the handles are further apart than they are in your photos. Odd???

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  5. It was just about this same time that I visited the museum. The first day I was with my wife who would not allow me to "explore". On the second day I arrived just as it opened....alone.....and was able to scurry under the railing and stand up on the platform by the USD. I remember my heart pounding in my chest and sweat pouring down my forehead in the excitment. Incredibly I was able to grab hold of the stocks and work the "gaff" sliding it opened and closed. How many can say they were able to not only handle the cell but work its "secret" mechanism?

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  6. BTW, what ever happened to the USD keys? I've never even seen what they looked like.

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  7. Does anyone have the cell's exact measurements handy?

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  8. The poster adjacent to the cell in your second photo is 110 inches high. It appears that the bottom of the cell is about even with the top of the text "Reward to ..." and that the top of the cell is about even with the middle of the red triangle formed by the monster's right elbow.

    If that's so, then the cell from top to bottom is about 5'6".

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  9. On another subject..........I was looking on gettyimages today and found a Houdini clip I never saw before. Its only a few seconds but it shows HH shaking hands with a police officer and with a smile and laugh performs the old removing of thumb trick for the cameras. Does anyone know what this clip is all about? Possibly after some sort of an escape I assume? I thought I saw them all but this is new to me!

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  10. FYI. It is also in the DVD "Grand Illusions: The Story of Magic Part One." I think I read that Houdini said Doyle was so gullible that he was amazed by the trick.

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  11. That clip is on Getty Images? I knew that it was on the Grand Illusions DVD, but I didn't know it was available online anywhere. Does anyone have a link?

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  12. Just go to the getty images web site and search for Houdini. About 15 clips come up one of which, mid page is the clip in question. Based upon the info provided this clip may be part of the various clips on that same page of a mid air straightjacket escape. This clip though seems to be filmed inside while the rest is taken from street level.

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