Friday, November 16, 2018

Was Houdini's caged Water Torture Cell a reality?

We are all familiar with the famous 1916 lithograph showing Houdini's Water Torture Cell encased in a cage of padlocks of different makes. Like most, I assumed this poster was just an exaggeration for dramatic effect. This certainly isn't how Houdini's Water Torture Cell was actually presented on stage.

Or was it?

Recently I found two pieces of evidence that suggest Houdini did perform the Water Torture Cell with this cage of locks when he was touring the U.S. in 1915-16, right around the time this lithograph was created.

The first piece of evidence comes from the Baltimore Evening Sun, April 27, 1915. The paper features an artist's illustration (above) of The Water Torture Cell as seen at the Maryland Theater. It looks very similar to the caged cell of the poster. And this illustration was done before the creation of the Strobridge litho, so it could only have come from life.

The next piece of evidence is even more compelling. In a January 29, 1916 review of Houdini's performance at the Majestic Theater in Houston, the Water Torture Cell is described as having "solid steel cage" with "22 locks"!

This leads me to believe that the Water Torture Cell went through a few incarnations, as did many of Houdini's escapes. We know he originally used an inner cage (or "steel grill" as he calls in in the uncut voice recordings). I'm thinking this may have been the next evolution; the inner cage was replaced by an outer cage of locks. How long Houdini did it this is unknown, but we know by the time of 3 Shows in One, the cell appeared on stage as we know it today.

Interestingly, illusion builders and Water Torture Cell specialists Sherry and Krall created a their own caged Water Torture Cell based on the famous poster art. They advertise it as "coming to life for the first time." But maybe not!

UPDATE: Richard Sherry left the following comment on Kevin's Connolly Conjuring History Facebook Group which I thought was worth sharing here:

"My Grandmother saw Houdini when she was a teenager. She often spoke of him and Shirley Temple as I was growing up. When we watched Henning's Water Torture Cell on television she said to me that's not what Houdini's looked like. It looked like a jail cell with many locks. I thought it was time for her to take her medicine but maybe, just maybe it wasn't!"



  1. The Scotland post from 2012 shows a photo from 1920 with the two straps and locks like the above drawing.

  2. Wow! I also thought that poster was an exaggeration. I believe there are two reasons why HH discontinued this heavily padlocked version. Too much to fuss over and transport. This was an illusion that depended on a degree of practicality to present from city to city.

    It also reduced visibility. Harry must have realized the clear glass made for a more dramatic visual presentation. All those bars and padlocks made the cell look more formidable, but obscured his body.

  3. If he did it this way the gaff would be obstructed.

    1. That USD poster depicts the straps at the top blocking the front section of the stocks, so it would in theory obstruct the workings. But HH covered his tracks and possibly instructed the illustrator to depict those upper straps. I doubt those upper straps were there in reality.

      If you look at his Milk Can poster, there are also metal straps that go all the way to the top of the lid. In reality, the can was not designed that way. Harry was just a good magician camouflaging the secret.

    2. Careful people. Don't reveal secrets. :)

  4. Certainly not, but Patrick Culliton's The Key will take you behind the curtains.