Wednesday, July 4, 2012

When failure meant a drowning death

Last night I took a friend to the Magic Castle in Hollywood and, of course, showed her the Houdini Seance Room (I always save it for last). This room -- which has a truly spooky ambience -- is filled with remarkable Houdini artifacts, such as a white straitjacket, handcuffs, and rare photos, much of which had been passed to William Larsen Sr. by Bess Houdini herself. While there is much to be impressed by in the room, what my friend really responded to was an image of the poster below.

Of course, this poster is well-known to Houdini and magic buffs. But sometimes it takes the reaction of a "civilian" to remind us just what a masterpiece poster this is. It could even be Houdini's greatest poster. Just look at it! There's the cutaway image of Houdini inside the can, which has been likened to a womb. There's the frightening image of the can locked tight, seemingly impossible to escape. And last but not least is the incredibly effective tagline: Failure Means a Drowning Death.

The Milk Can marked an evolution of Houdini as a performer. Recall this was 1908 when Houdini was  still known as "The Handcuff King and Prison Breaker." Apart from his bridge jumps, failure meant humiliation and loss of reputation. But now Houdini brought death into the theater. To use a modern expression, he was "taking it to the next level" by creating stakes that were now, literally, life and death. And all of that was first announced here with this remarkable poster.

And lest you think this tagline is just for effect, know that at least one performer has died performing the Milk Can. Even Houdini and Hardeen had close calls. It is a dangerous escape.

Houdini would perform the Milk Can for only four years (frequently accepting the "challenge" of having it filled with real milk or beer). But the escape would be so imitated that Houdini would pass it onto his brother, Hardeen (who used his own version of this same poster), and replace it with his masterpiece, The Chinese Water Torture Cell. But the Milk Can has remained one of Houdini's most famous and iconic escapes to this day. And last night in the Houdini Seance Room, even after a century, I saw it still has the power to make someone say..."Whoa!"


  1. You write some great stuff and often reveal things about Houdini that are unknown or forgotten, but this might be my favorite piece. The reason, you mind us through the eyes of a lay person how incredible and iconic Houdini was. How often we forget because we are too close to the subject. Sure, we know he was great, but are we taken back by the simple beauty of a poster the same way someone viewing it for the first time is? And remember in 1908 the manager at the Columbus theatre in St Louis told Houdini his handcuff act was over, handcuff kings were a dime a dozen. Houdini then introduced the Milk Can and his career was on fire again.

    1. The word above 'mind' should be remind. I'm typing on a mobile device and it self corrected and I missed it.

    2. Wow, what a nice comment. Thank you, Dean. You made my morning. :)

  2. John, you probably know the answer to this question. When touring guests at the Castle, I often show them the milk can in the Houdini room.

    I have heard conflicting things on that. Is that Houdini's? Or is it from the Tony Curtis film?

    1. It's not a Houdini can as far as I know. It certianly appears to be the can that was used in the Curtis film (in a cut scene). I believe Pat Culliton knows what collection it came from. I'll have to ask him.

  3. My understanding is that the milk can on display at the Castle is from Earle Lockman, who featured it for years (although I have no images of him performing it). I welcome correction on the above statement. The tag line 'Failure means a drowning death', is echoed in a Clempert postcard I have where the tag line is 'Your failure means death'.
    Creepy, but cool stuff!
    Bruce Thomson


Legal Disclosure

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


Receive updates via email