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Friday, September 21, 2012

The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Photo: Homer Liwag

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the first public performance of Houdini's most famous escape, The Chinese Water Torture Cell. To celebrate this anniversary, here's a look back at the history of the cell and its 100 year journey from England to Las Vegas.

Houdini's first death-defying onstage water escape was his famous Milk Can. However, the Milk Can had a problem. It was widely imitated by other so-called "Handcuff Kings." By 1911 Houdini resolved to rectify this by creating a new effect that would be more expensive to replicate, more difficult to stage, and far more dangerous to perform. He called it The Water Torture Cell.

Houdini had his cell built in England at a cost of more than $10,000. The frame and heavy stocks were made of Honduras mahogany and nickel-plated steel with brass fixtures. The front consisted of a plate of half-inch tempered glass. It disassembled into pieces that fit into four custom traveling cases and three crates. The apparatus weighed around three-quarters of a ton and the cell held 250 gallons of water. Houdini had a nearly complete second cell created in case anything happened to the effect while on tour (on one occasion the glass did break because the water was too hot -- so Houdini believed).

The earliest performance of Houdini's Water Torture Cell was actually 18 months before its official public debut. On April 29, 1911, Houdini performed the escape in Southampton as part of a one-act play called Challenged or Houdini Upside Down. The purpose of the playlet, which was performed only once for a single audience member, was so he could copyright the new effect. In the play a "multimillionaire sportsman" named Tim Connor eyeballs his clubhouse aquarium and concocts the idea of locking Houdini inside it.

Connor: Well, my idea is to put this Houdini fellow into that aquarium head first, understand me, head first, with his feet in the air, then put a lid or cover on, fasten his feet to this cover and lock him in. This is my challenge, in the rough of course.


Houdini received his copyright ("Special Licence from the Lord Chamberlain") on May 2, 1912. The first public performance of the Water Torture Cell occurred on September 21, 1912 at the Circus Busch in Berlin, Germany. For the occasion, special solid brass presentation pieces were made (in 2007 one of these sold in auction for $37,500).

The Water Torture Cell became a staple of Houdini's vaudeville act and later his full evening roadshow. In 1914 it became The Chinese Water Torture Cell, although Houdini himself always called it the "USD" or "Upside Down". Of the USD, Houdini himself wrote:

"Imagine yourself jammed head foremost in a Cell filled with water, your hands and feet unable to move, and your shoulders tightly lodged in this imprisonment. I believe it it is the climax of all my studies and labors. Never will I be able to construct anything that will be more dangerous or difficult for me to do."

Originally Houdini compounded the difficulty of the escape by having a steel cage lowered into the cell (the "steeeel grill" as he calls it in one of the only known recordings of his voice). At some point the cage was discarded, possibly because the horizontal bars looked too much like a ladder that could aid in his escape. There's also speculation that Houdini used a smaller cell later in his career that would not hold the cage. The surviving USD is surprisingly small -- only 26.5 inches wide and 59 inches tall.

To ensure no trap doors could be used, Houdini would ask an audience member to name any part of the stage where he would then move the cell. He also invited audience members to bring their own padlocks that affixed to iron bands that originally encircled the cell. He had a standing offer of $1000 to anyone who could prove it was possible to obtain air inside the Torture Cell. Not advertised was the fact that the cell had two large plug holes on each side. Not only were these used to drain the cell after the performance, but with handles inside Houdini could also drain the cell himself in case of an emergency.

On October 11, 1926, Houdini had his only recorded accident in the Water Torture Cell. While being raised from the stage of the Capitol Theater in Albany, New York, one of the cables loosened and twisted, causing the heavy stocks to shift and fracture his ankle. He was attended onstage by a doctor from the audience.

The next day the papers made much of the accident and the doctor's comment that had the cable loosened only three seconds later, Houdini's foot would have been completely severed. Houdini himself quipped, "Into all kinds of danger I have thrown myself, and I have not been touched. Then I lie on my back and fracture my foot!"

Houdini died on October 31, 1926. The Water Torture Cell, along with all his magic apparatus, was willed to his brother, Hardeen, with strict instructions that they be "burned and destroyed" following his death. Hardeen did not perform the USD himself. Perhaps he was too tall for the cell, or maybe he found the Milk Can a less strenuous escape.

Hardeen gives Sidney Radner the USD in 1942.

In June of 1942, Houdini and magic enthusiast Sidney Radner acquired the original Water Torture Cell from Hardeen. At the time Sidney was aspiring to become an escape artist himself, and was considering presenting the escape on stage. However, military service and Hardeen's death changed those plans. The USD was stored in the basement of Radner's mother's house for nearly three decades. According to Radner, among the very few men to see the cell during this period were William Lindsey Gresham, Walter Gibson, and Milbourne Christopher (who wrote about the experience in a 1943 Linking Ring).

Shortly after Radner purchased the cell, Hardeen asked him what spare parts he had as he was trying to rebuild the backup cell. This second cell was never rebuilt and, according to Patrick Culliton, "the remains of it weathered and finally died in the backyard of John and Marie Hinson." What a loss!

Meanwhile, the myth that Houdini died in the Water Torture Cell was born in the 1953 Paramount film, HOUDINI, starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. In the film Houdini drowns during the first performance of his "Pagoda Torture Cell." It makes for a dramatic ending, but of course the trick had nothing to do with the real Houdini's demise. However, two subsequent television biopics -- The Great Houdinis (1976) and Houdini (1998) would again show the Torture Cell playing a part in his death. Many to this day still think Houdini met his end this way. But this could be part of the reason this escape still so fascinates the public.

In 1971 Sidney Radner leased the Water Torture Cell to the newly formed Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. Run by Henry Muller, the building was more of an attraction than a proper museum, and here the cell suffered from neglect and vandalism for over 20 years. Muller also inexplicably put a fish tank inside the cell to achieve an aquarium effect. The leaky tank caused mold and damage to the cell wood and structure. At one point one of the two plugs at the base of the cell was stolen and held for ransom.

However, as shoddy as the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame was, it did give many magic fans the unique opportunity to see the real cell up close, as I did in 1990.

The neglected USD at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in 1990.

In 1991 the USD was finally pulled from the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame and given a full restoration by master illusion builder, John Gaughan. Gaughan marveled at the craftsmanship, saying, "It was built like a piece of furniture, rather than a stage prop -- put together with such care." The beautifully restored cell was exhibited at the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History and was also featured on the cover of the November 1991 issue of MAGIC magazine.

Unfortunately, the restored cell was then returned to the site of it's ignominy, the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, where on the evening of April 30, 1995, it was destroyed in a suspicious fire. The irony, of course, was that Houdini's request that his props be "burned and destroyed" was finally fulfilled. It's even more ironic when you consider that the museum featured the quote from his Will above the entrance. The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame was actually scheduled to close later that year and the contents were to be auctioned at Christie's. The Water Torture Cell was expected to fetch $1 million. Insurance reimbursed Radner $750,000 for the loss of the cell.

John Cox and the USD remains in 1999.

While initial reports claimed that the Water Torture Cell was melted into nothing by the intense fire, the truth was the metal frame and some of the wood survived. These remnants were shipped back to John Gaughan in Los Angeles who once again restored the cell, using as much of the original as possible. (I was able to see the remains in John's workshop in 1999, and he even gave me a piece of the shattered glass.) Additionally, Houdini's original back-up glass from the Radner collection was used on the restored cell.

In 2003 a serious controversy erupted over the existence of an "unauthorized" reproduction. It was felt this reproduction, also created by John Gaughan, diminished the value of the restored original. Lawsuits were threatened. Happily, the matter appears to have been resolved by 2011 when the reproduction was showcased at the Houdini Art and Magic exhibition in Los Angeles, the opening of which was attended by both John Gaughan and Sidney Radner.

For a time it was said that the newly restored Water Torture Cell would be put on display at the Houdini Museum adjacent to Houdini's Magic Shop in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. But on October 31, 2004, the restored cell went up for auction as part of "The Great Houdini Auction" held at the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. The auction sold off the vast majority of the Sidney Radner collection. The USD was the auction highlight with an estimate of $150,000-$200,000. Check out the video below to see how it went.



The buyer, to no one's surprise, was magician David Copperfield. The $300,000 bid was the highest price ever paid for a piece of magic apparatus. However, irregularities with the bidding and an undisclosed reserve resulted in a settlement of the final sale price at $150,000. Copperfield performed further restoration work on the cell, primarily to re-age it and restore authentic period hardware throughout.

But what about the secret of the Water Torture Cell? After 100 years, do we know how Houdini escaped? There have been many published explanations claiming to reveal the secret in magazines such as Modern Mechanics, Genii, and even T.V. Guide. None of the explanations are correct. In fact, for a time it was said that even Sidney Radner could not fathom the secret from the cell he owned. It was said that possibly only when the cell was filled with water would the secret be revealed.

The truth is the secret of the cell is well-known to those who have had the pleasure of examining it up close. The method is ingenious and complex, and if you think I'm going to reveal it here, you're nuts! However, Patrick Culliton finally did reveal the true working secret of The Water Torture Cell, complete with photos, in his 2010 book Houdini The Key.

Today Houdini's Water Torture Cell sits proudly as one of the crown jewels of the David Copperfield International Museum of Magic in Las Vegas. There it is protected, perserved, and honored as the most famous magic prop of all time. A fitting end to its remarkable 100 year journey.

The USD today in the collection of David Copperfield.

Sources:

27 comments:

  1. BTW, I have no idea and could not find where I got that top close-up photo of the cell plug. I'd like to credit it appropriately, so if that's your pic, please let me know. Likewise if you'd like me to take it down, just let me know that as well. It's a great shot!

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    1. John, this photo was shot by Homer Liwag. He works for David Copperfield and is a very talented photographer & videographer.

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    2. Thank you, Kevin. I'll add his credit to the photo. Hopefully he's okay with me using it.

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  2. This is a great post. Very informative.

    Pete

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  3. Superb, but then again I don't expect anything less. Great job.

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    1. Thanks as always for all your support, Dean. Figured I needed to do something special for USD day.

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  4. I've told my story before of visiting the
    Houdini museum in Niagra Falls back in the late 1980's. Went there when it opened before the cameras were on and I was all alone as if I was dreaming among all the Houdini apparatus. with sweat pouring down my face and heart pounding in my chest I crawled under the barricade and jumped on the table the USD was sitting on. There I was actually touching the escape
    Houdini himself used for the last 14 years of his life....it was thrilling! Incredibly the gaff that allowed Houdini to escape was not locked. There I was not only beside the USD but actually working it's mechanism! what struck me also was how small the cell was....I had imagined it so much larger. I also tried lifting the top but was amazed how heavy it was.....I could barely lift it slightly off it's base. One question I do have is......the table that it was sitting on at the museum.....was that the same table you see it sitting upon in photos of Houdini on stage in his later years? From memory it certainly looked like it was.

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    1. Great story! Yes, I had always heard that the stocks where incredibly heavy. Don't know about the table. That's a great question.

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  5. Nice work, John. Can't add much more than that. =)

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    1. Happy you liked it, Melbo. Thanks as always for being such a loyal reader. :)

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  6. Great article John! Michael Edwards wrote in his 2005 Genii article that there may have been more than two cells and that Houdini had them destroyed/cannibalized as he built newer successive cells.

    It's obvious from the photo that Hardeen and Radner were too tall to perform the cell.

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    1. Thanks Leo. I didn't include it, but Michael also mentions the mysteriously pristine condition of the Radner cell -- as if it had never been used. This is something John Gaughan mentioned to me personally -- how he could find no signs that the cell had ever been filled with water. I've always wondered if it was possible Hardeen sold Sid the "newer" backup cell and the original died in the backyard of the Hinsons.

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  7. John, I wanted to take the opportunity to congratulate you on the job (and research) you did for this wonderful article. One of the best articles I have had the pleasure of reading in a long time. In fact, your entire website is top-notch.

    Keep up the great work,

    Mark

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    1. Wow, thank you very much, Mark. That's a huge honor coming from someone like yourself. You've made my day. :)

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  8. Excellent story John. I too was able to see and touch the original USD in 1979 while it was on display in Niagara Falls. Your story was very informative, great job.

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    1. Thanks Stacey. For all the hell the cell had to endure in that place, at least it gave us all a chance to see it up close.

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  9. John,

    As always, superb! Your affection for the subject comes through every time you write of it.

    Dave Dorsett
    Douglas~Wayne Illusioneering

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    1. Thanks Dave. I still love my USD model! It holds the piece of glass John Gaughan gave me, btw.

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  10. Here are some thoughts on the USD. Could it be that the Original USD is gone forever? Houdini made two USD, One was the one he used in his show and the other one was a back up unit.When Johnny Gaughan restored it the first time, before the fire he said, "that it looked like it had never been used".Hardeen was famous for finding old Darby Handcuffs in pawn shops and selling them as "the one that Houdini used" to collectors. If Hardeen was a con-man then maybe he sold Sidney Radney the "Back up Torture cell and kept the original for his own, after all Gaughan said it looked like it was never used.Gaughan was hired once again to restore the USD after the fire, but as he restored it, he made another exacted copy.Here is the question, did Gaughan kept the real USD and pass off the copy as real? Did David Cooperfield end up with the fake? If Cooperfield did then Gaughan is a happy man! Makes for a good bed time story, doesn't it?

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    1. Interesting theories, Steve. I've also sometimes wondered whether Sid got the back up cell, or at least parts of the back up cell. With it disassembled, maybe Hardeen didn't even know which was which and gave Sid the parts that looked to be in the best condition.

      There's no way John Gaughan would have pulled a switch on Sid. He's a pure professional and a very honest guy. No way.

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  11. Dear Mr.John Cox, I'm Glad to hear you say that.I know everyone loves Johnny Gaughan (Except David Cooperfield) I saw both the Original and the restored USD and I have been interested in the USD for all of my life.I was 6 years old when I saw Tony Curtis bring it to my attention,I'm now 56. I will build my own copy of the USD in 2013 just to add to my collection of Houdini props. I have studied that illusion closly but I cant get a good photo of an empty front shot of the USD. I could use just a little info on one fact that I'm not 100% sure of . Did the cell have 2 drains or 3 ? Paul Daniels has a clip on Youtube and he said he had a copy made but his has 3 drains. Can you or anyone tell me for sure how many drains? Thanks Magic Men. Stevekilgorenashville@yahoo.com

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    1. As far as I know, it only had two drains, unless there's one that isn't visible.

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  12. One more question if I may. On the restored USD I see from a side view of the cell that the front looks as it may be able to come off from the cell itself. That would be the part with the 1/2 inch glass and frame. I saw were someone said that it had 4 packing crates. Maybe one for the cell, one for the top, one for the Curtains and maybe one for the glass with the chrome frame? Anyone know what I'm talking about? Why is there 2 chrome Strips on the side facing the front? Would love to know, Thanks again.

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  13. One last question that I have wondered about for years. Is there anyone who knows for sure, exactly how many USD were made by Houdini. When I look at the photo of Hardeen and Radner it looks like the 26.5 across, but I see other photos that look like 36 or 40 inches wide. I have tried to look at every photo of this Illusion I can find and that what makes me wonder how many USD were really made. By now you can see my Magic Friends, that I am eaten up with info on the USD.

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    1. It's a good question. Afraid I don't know the answer.

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  14. After looking at ever picture I can find on the net, I believe I can see 3 different models of the USD. there might have been more, who knows but three for for sure! Stevekilgorenashville@yahoo.com

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