Thursday, January 6, 2011

Digging into Houdini's Buried Alive

Houdini was fascinated by the idea of doing a "Buried Alive" stunt, but he could never quite figure out to present it onstage or off. Because of this, accounts of his Buried Alive experimentations are a little unclear. Well, I'm about to make them more so.

The accepted story has it that Houdini first tried a Buried Alive stunt in California. He was buried shackled in a pit of earth six feet deep, and it almost killed him. Houdini shelved the idea until the mid 1920s when he performed "Buried Alive" as an endurance test -- remaining in a sealed casket submerged in the pool of the Hotel Shelton for 90 minutes, using controlled breathing to stay alive. Off that success, he planned to debut an elaborate stage version that would see him strapped in a straitjacket, sealed in a casket, and buried in a large tank filled with sand. He had a well-known poster created advertising the new escape ("Egyptian Fakirs Outdone"), but died before he could make it a part of his full evening show.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Then how do we explain THIS...

Buried 1914?

This gorgeous lithograph can be found on page 98 in Taschen's awesome MAGIC 1400s-1950s (a black and white version can be seen in Randi's Houdini His Life and Art.) This is clearly the big stage version of Buried Alive that Houdini was planning for his last season. But this lithograph is dated 1914!

That puts this three years before the infamous California test and twelve years before his "new" effect for his full evening show.

According to the caption in MAGIC, this particular buried alive stunt "was never produced, and proved too difficult." The 1914 date is printed on the poster itself, so it's not a misprint. Besides, that is clearly a younger Houdini in the poster image. For all his vanity in other ways, Houdini did not portray himself as younger than he was on his publicity (just look at the later Buried Alive poster).

There is no mention of this in Ken Silverman's Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. Kalush and Slomon in The Secret Life of Houdini also make no mention of this effect in 1914. However, they do state that Houdini was working on a "big new illusion, Buried Alive" in 1918, but offer no details (possibly he was still working on the 1914 stage version?).

So I guess the new story needs to go something like this: In 1914 Houdini first developed an elaborate stage version of Buried Alive. But he never performed it as it proved to be too difficult (to stage?). Three years later, he tried a no-frills version as an outdoor stunt in California, and it darn near killed him. He dropped the concept until the Shelton test in 1926. He then pulled out his old stage version, once again had posters prepared, but died before he ever performed it. [Actually, he did. See UPDATE below.]

By the way, the coffin that was used to ship Houdini's body back to New York after his death was either the coffin he had prepared for this effect, or it was the new casket he had made for his little-known second underwater pool test in Worcester MA. Or maybe they are one in the same? That is also still somewhat unclear.

One last thought on Buried Alive. While the Bullet Catch is generally considered the most dangerous effect in magic, surely Buried Alive can't be far behind. There have been fatalities even in modern times. As Houdini discovered, "the weight of the earth is killing."

UPDATE: Looks like the mystery of the death casket has been cleared up. Read: Uncovering Houdini's THIRD air-tight container test and death casket.

UPDATE 2: So much for the idea that Houdini never performed this version of Buried Alive. Read: Ad shows Houdini performed Buried Alive in 1926 and Houdini on his 1926 Buried Alive: "I like it very much."


  1. I'm really surprised that you missed the most important detail. Apparently (looking at the poster) Houdini also grows 7 ft tall!!!

    All jokes aside, very interesting. Buried Alive is probably on par with the Bullet Catch for danger.

  2. I'm stunned no biographer had picked up (or chose to pick up) the date on that poster. Maybe it's one of those instances where it just scrambles the established story so much, they just decided not to deal. Or maybe this poster was not available until Magic (but what about the Randi one?). 1914. Time to deal.

  3. You know what I find surprising? Houdini had two posters for an effect that he either only did once or never quite figured out how to work it. And for certainly one of the most talked about effects in magic history, the Vanishing Elephant, no poster. I don't think there was a poster for Walking Through A Brick Wall either.
    There must be another story here that has not been uncovered.

  4. That's a very good point, Dean. Of course, I think there are still a lot of Houdini posters we've never seen. For instance -- what about the overboard box escape? Well, check out Randi (again) on page 85. There is what looks to be a beautiful poster for the overboard box escape that I've never seen anywhere else! So I'm not giving up hope that one day we'll see a Vanishing Elephant or Brick Wall sheet. It could be we have these Buried Alive posters precisely because they weren't used?

  5. I hadn't thought about that, you're probably correct. Houdini wasn't one to sit on his promotional material, he used it! Imagine finding a Vanishing Elephant poster, wow!

  6. Oh, I would completely lose it! Recall what a surprise it was to suddenly see a full color lithograph for Houdini's spiritualist lectures put up at the NYC exhibition. It can happen!

  7. I don't perceive the Shelton test as an escape or even a performance. I thought it was presented as a demonstration -- in which the point was to stay in the box -- in order to debunk the notion that Rahman Bey used supernatural powers to do his coffin stunt. The point was to prove that there's more air in a coffin-size box that one would imagine.

    In fact, the case can be made that Bey was obviously a magic performer himself -- he did a whole act of mystic stunts -- and didn't deserve to be debunked any more than Thurston's levitation should have been debunked.

    The buried alive test in California appears to be an effort to dig himself out of dirt -- a stunt-like escape requiring strength and calmness of mind, but not a mystery.

    Meanwhile, the effect on the poster appears to be a magic trick-escape, like the milk can or upside down. It would be presented as a mystery. The audience was expected to think there was no way he could get out of those enclosures and out from under the dirt. The dirt represents the same kind of danger of death as being immersed in water.

    Maybe the California stunt was a test to see if it was possible to achieve the final stage of the trick-escape on the poster, which would be to dig his way out of the sand or dirt.