Monday, September 23, 2013

Glass from Houdini's original Water Torture Cell

Last Saturday marked the 101st anniversary of Houdini's first public performance of his Chinese Water Torture Cell. Last year I marked the occasion by offering a historical retrospective of Houdini's most famous escape. This year I'll bring you a little closer with this look at an actual piece of half-inch tempered glass from the original cell itself.

I received this from John Gaughan, who did two major restorations on the cell, on March 1, 1999. At the time I was writing a comedy about magicians for DreamWorks and producer Judd Apatow called Bad Magic. I arranged to meet with John for research purposes. When I went to his workshop in Glendale that day, I wasn't even thinking about Houdini (believe it or not). Also, as far as I knew, the Water Torture Cell was long gone. The original press reports of the catastrophic 1995 fire at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame claimed the cell was melted into nothing.

Imagine my shock when John took me into his workshop, pointed to a metal frame sitting against the wall and asked, "Do you know what that is?" I certainly did! It was the USD itself risen from the ashes (literally).

John snapped two photos of me with the cell remains. He then went into a back room where he had collected some of the broken glass and came back with a piece for me. Today I keep this treasure housed inside my Water Torture Cell scale replica.


  1. When the Great Fire happened at the Houdini Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls we immediately called owner Henry Mueller to offer our help and even fly up to if he felt we could be helpful. He said everything was destroyed and it was all to be hauled away. We were shocked. We asked what happened to the Water Torture Cell. He said it was completely destroyed, just some broken glass and charred metal. We told him to get in there and save every piece. Even screws and bolts. He seemed surprised to hear this, but said he would do so. We are not sure, but believe if it was not for that phone call the Water Torture Cell would be ancient history, and never been able to be rebuilt from some of the original parts.

    Dorothy Dietrich& Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum, Tour & Magic Show.
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini.
    Originally founded in New York City at The Magic Towne House.

    1. It's curious, isn't it? Early reports were that everything was destroyed. But as the years passed items that I recognized from the museum started appearing for auction. Eventually everything that I recall being in that museum appeared. Turns out the only thing that was destroyed was the USD. I now hear the fire was actually contained to the diner next door and the USD room, which sat off by itself. Lots of mystery still surrounds that fire.

  2. I've told this story several wife and I took a vacation at Niagara Falls back in the late 80s. I went to the museum just as it was opened so none of the security cameras had been switched on. I climbed under the barricade, jumped up on the table the USD was sitting on and spent a good 10 minutes examining it....handling it. I noticed that the gaff Houdini used to escape was not locked so there I was working the gaff as Houdini did noticing how after all those years it worked perfectly and smoothly and was still undetectable. This was a life long dream of mine to do something like this and I remember being so excited sweat poured off my forehead. Such an amazing experience. My one regret was not taking photos of the gaff so I could now have more details in my memory. Still have plenty of photos in general....similar to the ones posted here in the past by John.

  3. Aw, John, you look so glowingly happy in that picture, which is understandable. What an outstanding place to be standing :) Also I love where you keep your piece of USD glass...perfect :)

  4. I love that you have a piece of the glass and at least got to see the original remains. I'm still boggled by the fact that no follow-up stories appeared in any Niagara Falls newspapers about that fire.