Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Rare photo of Houdini's early Water Torture Cell

Eric Colleary of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has shared to his Twitter this phenomenal photo of Houdini's Water Torture Cell in the workshop (click the image to see it full size). This is a rare image that I've never seen with such clarity. One can clearly see that the stocks are prototypes. There is no built-in lock. Indeed, there aren't even the folding lock hasps on the cell itself.

I expect this photo was taken in England during the cell's construction in 1911 or 1912. I'm afraid I don't recognize the man in the background, nor the man reflected in the glass.

This photo and the Milk Can poster are currently on display as part of the Harry Ransom Center's Vaudeville! exhibition that runs through July 15. Check out the official website for more details.

Thanks to Eric for sharing this fantastic image!



  1. Wonderful picture, John! This looks like it was taken at the same time as that other photo of HH in a dry cell. Both cells have the stock hasp on the front with a padlock. The picture that's been around for a while shows only a cloth between Houdini's head and the cell bottom. It appears the cell is of a height that makes it so he can't point his toes at the viewer. In other words, his toes are pointing at the ceiling because his feet don't stick out of the stocks far enough to get the bottoms of his feet parallel to the floor. In Eric's picture, it appears to be the same set-up and backdrop etc. But Houdini has raised himself up with his hands against the cell bottom so his feet protrude further from the stocks and now his feet can be parallel to the floor and toes pointed toward the viewer. That is another reason why I agree this cell was a prototype. If the viewer saw Houdini as in the other photo with his head on the bottom and his toes pointed skyward, they would tend to believe his feet are already halfway free from the stocks! Houdini must have eventually shortened the USD so his head could be on the bottom but his feet would stick out of the stocks and all would be as it should to the viewer. I also think doing so probably made it easier to effect the escape. It's great to see another view of this cell. Thanks to Eric for sharing it!

    1. I thought you might like this. :)

      This was taken at the same time as those other more well-known pics. Eric tells me they have several photos from this session in the collection.

      I kinda think the cell is the actual cell, though unfinished, and the stocks are a prototype. Or maybe just unfinished as well? Collins would maybe work with them privately from this point.

      I don't think HH is being supported by the stocks in any of these pics. In this one he's pushing himself up, probably to give the camera a better shot of his feet. In the one with his arms are folded, I think he balancing on his head, hence the cloth beneath it.

  2. Spectacular pic - thanks to you and to Eric for sharing this (like suddenly seeing the real Houdini on Blu-Ray!) Perhaps the man reflected in the glass of the cell is the photographer. There also seems to be a long object on a table or slab (looks like a mummy!) reflected in the glass.

  3. Scroll down his Facebook page to March 27th for a couple more crystal clear Houdini related photos - David W

  4. Correction. His Twitter page....

  5. Also right after the this image Eric posted a wonderful Houdini love letter to Bess that I've not read before.