Thursday, February 23, 2012

NEW photo of Houdini and his Water Torture Cell unearthed in Scotland

Here is an incredible never-before-published photograph of Houdini performing his Water Torture Cell in Scotland that will be on display starting this Saturday, February 25, at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of the City of Stars Exhibition. The exhibition features 22 photographes from the archives of the Herald and Times newspapers. According to the Herald Scotland, this photo "was taken in 1920 and is the oldest image in the collection."


This photograph is a mind blower for several reasons. It shows Houdini apparently emerging wet from the USD on a wet stage, so it's possible this really was taken during an actual performance. We see the assistants Jim Collins and James Vickery in their slickers, and get a good look at the cabinet that was used to conceal the cell during the escape. We also see the cell itself with what appears to be two locking bands wrapped around it. These I have never seen before and they certainly did not survive with the cell.

There are only a handfull of photos of Houdini and his Water Torture Cell. None are like this. This is really an incredible image to suddenly emerge from nowhere after 92 years. Wow!

The good news is this photo can be purchased at the Glasgow Herald website.

UPDATE: As you can read in the comments below, the consensus opinion is that this photo was taken before the escape, not after. The cell appears to be without the stocks, and Houdini and his assistants could be watching as the stocks are being "flown in" via the block and tackle. What a moment of drama it captures! This photo really reveals how powerful Houdini was on stage.

UPDATE 2: You can see how the photo looks on display HERE.

61 comments:

  1. I am speechless. An over the top amazing incredible photo. It seems to capture the exact moment of Houdini emerging from the cabinet receiving the audiences applause. It makes one think what other gems lurk in vaults all over the world. One day someone will come up with a never been seen film of Houdini performing the USD. Talk about a million dollar find!

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  2. It's freaking unbelievable, isn't it? I couldn't believe this when I saw it! I could barely get my head together to write up the info. I'm still stunned.

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  3. I can't stop staring at the photo! Now if we only find Houdinis wristwatch! On an unrelated note....last week I was on a web site that posted a video of various Houdini outdoor escapes. I now forget what web site I was on but my question at the time was because of a scene that showed Houdini bare chested on a sidewalk with what looked like strips of cloth bounded around his wrists. He used his teeth and then the top of an iron fence to pry away the strips. I was dumbfounded since I never saw this scene in my life....and I thought I saw them all! The film was crystal clear....best images ever of Houdini. Do you know what film this relates to? Part of one of his movies? There was also a clip of him preparing for another outdoor escape. Sort of behind the scenes...removing his vest and loosening his collar with an almost bored expression on his face. Just stunningly clear images once again. Did I see this on this web site?

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    1. That was this site. It was a mini doc on watchmojo.com. But the stream was causing problems on some users browsers, so I zapped it.

      You can see all that footage on the "Houdini The Movie Star" DVD. That clip of him tearing away his clothes was part of his 1909 Paris movie (although the DVD doesn't label it as such).

      http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0012OSGJK/ref=as_li_ss_til?tag=houdinilives-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=B0012OSGJK&adid=0MAS4CRG8V30V02V8RDF

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  4. What a great image! The Houdini material is still out there. To me, this looks-like it was taken right before Houdini went into the tank. He doesn't look wet and I can't see any water around. Houdini and the two assistants behind him, are all looking up and are probably are watching the stocks being lowered to the stage floor. IMHO

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    1. Ah, you could be right about that, Kevin. He looked wet to me, but maybe not. Also, I wondered why I couldn't make out the stocks on the cell. But it could be because they are not there yet. Good call.

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  5. Are the stocks on the cell? Can't really tell. However it looks like I can see towards the back the steel banding that went around the cells top. Can't be sure though.

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    1. As Kevin pointed out, this could be before the escape, not after. Hence, the stocks are not there yet.

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  6. HI
    I think its taken just after. I lightened up the pic (dont know how to send here) and it looks like water on stage floor,,,the bottoms of the raincoats show splashing, houdinis hair is wet and i believe hes looking up at the applause along with his assistants taking their positions
    also, looks like fire hose or rubber batten downstage just in front
    http://s224.photobucket.com/albums/dd223/escapeguy/ebay/?action=view&current=HoudiniHS2.jpg

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    1. Yeah, I was thinking that was a fire horse or some some of basin to catch the water. Another detail we've never seen!

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  7. I was thinking more of a fire hose rather than a fire horse, but ya never know....LOL this is really an awesome pic,,,,,it feels like Houdini is holding his hands, accepting the applause,,,
    great pic,,,

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    1. They called them "fire horses" back in 1920. Fact. ;)

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  8. This is absolutely incredible! Wow is about all I can say. It's an amazing image, wow!

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  9. The lid does look strange. Almost like its different from the others we have seen. As an example no sign of handles.

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  10. Amazing! Another photo of Houdini performing the USD is just about the last thing I expected to see, since it seems as if something like that would've been brought forward before now!

    I agree with Kevin that this appears to be (a) during the performance, (b) before he goes in, and (c) at the moment where they're watching the stocks be lowered. They're clearly not on the cell.

    That does look like a fire hose, and the assistants' coats and the floor could easily be wet as a result of the topping off that occurred during H's opening patter. Houdini does not appear to be wet-- not even his hair.

    I think I recall that there was no business after Houdini stepped forth from the cabinet after escaping from the cell; they brought things to a quick close. So it's hard to figure what would be going on here if he has already emerged.

    Thank you for pointing this out, John!

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  11. What an amazing find!

    Here's how I break this down...

    First, between the intial filling and HH making a 1-min test for the audience (and the subsequent refill) -- all of this would account for the stage being wet.

    The stocks are not in place. Just look at how short the cabinet is. It is clearly missing some inches off the top. Also, HH has no pressure marks on his wrists or ankles. So I feel safe in saying that this pic was snapped prior to the escape, not after. So my vote is that he is making a dramatic presentation of the stocks coming into view from the rafters.

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  12. Wow! I'm also blown away by this photo. I never expected to see a new image of Houdini performing the USD. The stocks are not on the cell. I also agree that we're looking at the stocks being lowered to the stage, or maybe even a posed photo before the illusion began. The assistants are lined up, and Houdini is throwing a dramatic pose. It almost feels like it was a set up shot. The bottom of the slickers are wet. I believe the cell has just been filled with water and a photographer off to the side set this up.

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  13. I'm thinking you are all correct in that this is before the escape. The wet stage and slickers could have to do with the topping off of the cell. Chance, isn't the 1 min. test is what he did for the Milk Can? But maybe he did it during the USD as well? I still think his hair looks wet. This would explain it, and add something (else) new to the our knowledge of how he performed it.

    Also, did the stocks come in with the block and tackle? I though the stocks sat there on the stage as HH was locked in and then the block and tackle came in to attach. But it would have been nice and dramatic to have the stock "flown" in. As dramatic as this pic documents. :)

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    1. John, I'm sure there were a variety of approaches depending on the theater and the size of the stage, etc.

      I wanted to add to my earlier post, that if this was the end of the escape, the curtained cabinet would still be positioned over the WTC with just the front piece pulled to the side. This is definitely the pre-show position. And I doubt that so many bodies would be on stage either.

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    2. Agree. It definitely appears to be pre-escape. What a moment of drama it captures! This photo really reveals how powerful Houdini was on stage.

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  14. From start to finish does anyone know how long Houdinis presentation of the WTC took? I've read newspaper accounts of the presentation but has anyone actually spoken to anyone who saw Houdini present the WTC? If so what did they say about it?

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    1. The time of the act was "about 25 minutes." This comes from Houdini's scene and prop list for the USD that you can see here.

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/4046162873/

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  15. What do you think of Copperfields latest comment that Houdini in his entire career only had 2 hours of material? It's sad that someone as rich and famous as David would still feel the need to degrade Houdini to try to make himself look better.

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    1. I actually didn't hear that. It's not really an insult in that Houdini did Vaudeville almost his entire career so his act was only 25 mins long,. Copperfield might just adding up the Handcuff act, Milk Can, USD, Elephant vanish, needles, etc and, sure, maybe it all adds up to about two hours of material. But as Houdini's full evening roadshow was 2 1/2 hours total and much of the magic was new for him, his math can't be entirely right.

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    2. It's not belittling! It's just a remarkable fact about how TV changed the entertainment landscape.

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  16. The point is that it's a complete distortion of the true record. If you add up every challenge stage escape, every new performance ...no way it's 2 hours. It's a purposeful distortion of history to boost his own act.

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  17. Houdini always spoke to the last row. To me it looks like he's giving his pre-escape speech, notice the position of his hands and the expressions on the faces of his crew. They seem to be waiting for the audience committee to stand up. This is a snapshot of a very dramatic moment in what was the climax of an incredible performance. I firmly believe more material will surface, and plan to keep looking!

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  18. Wow! This is a great looking Photo. Who the heck had this all these years??

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  19. I'm still just losing my mind over this photo. I'd seriously put this into the top 10 best photos of Houdini ever. And there's so much to learn from it.

    I'm still wondering about those horizontal bands around the cell. I'm thinking those might be practical. We know the cell disassembled for transport. Those bands might be an extra safety measure to make sure it didn't break apart when filled with water. One of the reasons we don't know about these is this is the ONLY photo of the cell actually filled with water. All the existing photos of the cell and Houdini inside have shown it empty. Wonder if Radner had these bands at some point. Maybe he didn't know what they were for?

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  20. There is at least one photo of Houdini, arms crossed and cheeks inflated as he holds his breath, within the WTC. I assume it's filled with water!

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    1. I know the photo. I don't think it's filled with water. There are at least two other photos taken at this same time and it appears to be empty.

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  21. It makes sense. The weight/amount of water in the cell would exert great pressure on the interior walls. As Houdinis body was lowered into the cell water pressure against the interior walls would increase somewhat. Would expect Houdini would add something to ensure the cell would not break apart. Earlier versions of the cell had a criss cross of bands forming a cross on the cells front glass/encircling the cell. Although it made the cell look more formidable perhaps these had the same practical purpose as the bands on the latest picture?

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    1. Yeah, I was thinking the same thing about those criss cross bands in those other pics.

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  22. Above the head of the third assistant on the right is that the rope that is attached to the pulley that is being used to raise and lower the stocks?

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  23. Could the newspaper have other photos taken during that same performance? Perhaps published but not saved in their archives? Any way of contacting them to ask if they would look back at old issues during the time frame of the photo we have?

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    1. I contacted the paper. They have a few other photos of HH in their archives, but they are copyrighted to someone else. This is the only photo of theirs, so it was probably the only photo taken that night (or the only one to survive).

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  24. It may just be me, but is there something in between Houdini's left index finger and thumb? It doesn't look like something behind his hand. It also doesn't seem natural to hold ones hands like that either. I am probably just seeing things.

    I just found your site and it's very interesting and very well put together. Lots to read. Thanks

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    1. Good to have you here, Brian!

      Yeah, there does appear to be something there. Or maybe it's just a trick of the photo.

      You actually see a lot of photos of Houdini holding his hands like this -- cupped with his index fingers extended. It's sort of part of his dramatic stance. Very expressive with his hands.

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  25. Hi, I went to see the picture today its massive!

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    1. Saw your photos on The Magic Cafe. Looks great! (But I note that they cropped it somewhat.)

      Can I share one or two of you photos here?

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    2. Il send you the full size type if you want. cheers :)

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  26. Between Houdini's pose and the upward gaze of 3 of them....just fantiastic photographic composition. I wonder if it was originally published in the Herald/Times/Bulletin? If I were the editor, I would have found it too good to not print. :-)

    They are either:
    a) Watching the stock fly-in,
    b) Directing the attention to/from the theater balcony
    c) Inventing a dramatic pose for the photographer

    As with the earlier commenters, my money is on A.

    Great find.

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  27. Wow. I can't think of anything else to add except that this is such a remarkably clear photo for 1910. One wonders, also, what other treasures lie undiscovered (or unrevealed) in old newspaper archives...and what we might be losing with so many newspapers shutting down and presumably trashing or scattering their archives. :(

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  28. What amazes me is the size of the WTC. From the image it appears to be smaller than Houdini himself. And shows that this prop was designed with travel in mind.

    I always imagined it to be a huge piece of apparatus, but it seems that it wasn't at all.

    Thanks again for another great blog :)

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    1. Yes, so many people have that reaction when they see the actual cell. I was amazed how small it was when I saw it in the Niagara Falls museum. But there is a school of thought that Houdini might have had a larger cell originally.

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  29. I examined the WTC one early morning at the Houdini museum in Niagra Falls 20 years ago. I got to the museum as it just opened and found myself alone. I scurried under the barricade and stepped onto the platform where the cell sat. First thing that struck me was how small it was! I remember that the cell was made to specifically fit Houdini. Houdini was only a bit over 5 feet tall and having his feet extend outside the cell while in its stocks it makes sense that it would be small. Maybe just around 5 feet tall itself. Interestingly the mechanism that allowed Houdini to escape was not locked. So I was able to actually work the stocks as Houdini would have to make his escape. An all time great memory for sure!

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  30. Any idea who the third assistant might be? Doesn't look anything like Kukol.

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    1. I've been wondering about him. Maybe Lewis Goldstein? He appears in a photo of Houdini and his assistants in Pat Culliton's Houdini The Key, but he isn't identified.

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  31. I found a great pic of Houdini in the cell surrounded by his assistants. Cell looks to be filled with water based upon Houdinis distorted image behind the glass.

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    1. Where did you find this pic, Anon? In a book? If so, can you tell which book and I can have a look? I think I might know which pic you're talking about, but I don't believe the cell is filled with water.

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  32. Its on Houdinis ghost website...section concerning Houdinis assistants. Looks filled with water to me...stage appears wet.

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    1. So this pic...

      http://houdinisghost.com/sitebuilder/images/inwtc72b-600x564.jpg

      I really think the cell is empty there. Even logic suggests it's empty as this is such a posed/staged picture. Houdini would drown before they could get a shot off like this. But it's possible...

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  33. Also the WTC was/is 59 inches tall and 26.50 inches wide. Weighs 1600 pounds.

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  34. Looks like the assistants are talking....mouths are open a bit at least. Do we know if any of Houdini's assistants had any vocal part of this performance?

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    1. Good question. I don't think they would have any vocal participation direct to the audience, but they could be calling out orders to each other and to the off-stage crew handling the block and tackle. That could have created nice drama.

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  35. Is there an actual name of the photographer credited for taking this pic by chance?

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  36. Looks like the stocks are on the cell. Thank God for Mr. Collins..... :-)

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