Sunday, January 6, 2019

No, that's NOT the secret of Houdini's Water Torture Cell


The first episode of Houdini's Last Secrets aired tonight on the Science Channel. Based on what it offered, it looks like this 4-part series might be a mixed bag. While there are some good interviews and peeks inside some nice collections, there's also the typical reality TV hokum about spy work and murder theories. But the real hot button is the show's promise to reveal Houdini's secrets. So do they?

This first episode, "The Torture Escape", investigates Houdini's Water Torture Cell, and in the end you are led to believe that they've discovered and exposed the secret of Houdini's most famous escape. But they actually did no such thing. They created their own luxuriously large cell and their own means of release which is not how Houdini's cell looked or worked. And as far as learning the secret from David Haversat's two page Houdini design (an incredible artifact!), know that the production had already built their cell and filmed their escape sequence before they ever saw that document, which doesn't reveal the real secret anyway.

So this is really a faux exposure of the Water Torture Cell in the tradition of R.D. Adams and others. Does that make it okay? That's something to debate, but I admit I'm relieved. I knew the production had Patrick Culliton's book Houdini The Key, so they could have gone all the way and didn't. For that I'm thankful.

For me the greater offense was devoting a good chuck of the episode to the notion that Houdini was a spy. You may have even gotten the impression from my own interview that I'm somewhat onboard with this idea, which I am absolutely NOT. In fact, I recall giving a very clear and strong repudiation of the entire theory, but that hit the cutting room floor. It's a shame to see this pseudohistory once again getting attention, but Hollywood just can't resist a spy story.

Speaking of inaccuracies, in my interview I said Houdini never did a diving suit escape. This is not strictly true. He did once accept a non-submerged diving suit challenge, and he escaped from a diving suit in The Master Mystery. So I'm sorry I said that.

On the upside, the series has a cool title sequence, George Hardeen is a natural (must run in the family), and seeing John Magic's museum and his excellent Water Torture Cell replica was a treat. And who knew former CIA Director John McLaughlin was a Houdini buff? I also liked the swimming pool test when they were working with dimensions similar to Houdini's cell, which shows just how constricting it really was. Of course, they don't mention the inner cage Houdini used that constricted the inside of the cell even more, and would have made turning around in the way magician Lee Terbosic did so impossible.

So it looks like this series will ride an ethical razors edge. While not revealing Houdini's actual methods, they are technically still doing exposures, so I can see them getting some heat for this. But at least the first episode is behind us and the secret of the Water Torture Cell is safe. We'll see what comes next!


Houdini's Last Secrets airs on the Science Channel and the SciGO app. You can also stream the episodes at their website. I've launched an Episode Guide HERE.

If you're interested in more information on Houdini's Water Torture Cell, check out these links:

14 comments:

  1. After your post this morning, I dug out my copy of Patrick's superb book and read the real explanation, so watching them fumble around it was both satisfying and frustrating. That said, I'm glad they didn't reveal the actual method.

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  2. WOW John. I was so excited to see you last night on the episode-- and so disappointed they revealed the secret to Houdini's Water Torture Chamber! Now it sounds like it will be fakery! too bad!

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    1. But they didn't reveal the actual secret, so that's good. And, fyi, that isn't my house. The production flew me to Fort Worth and we filmed in a rental. So that's fake too. :)

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  3. BTW, I should say I've now seen Episode 2 and I think it's very good.

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  4. John, I am also glad the real secret to the USD was not revealed, especially when they actually had "The Key". I did not see this show but whenever I hear of programs that hype the exposure angle, I cringe. I am glad that so many of them turn out to be lame at best. Anyone can develop a method to perform a well known magic trick and claim it to be Houdini's or Blackstone's or some other luminary. I really don't care as long as it really isn't the method belonging or used by the famous magician claimed AND that it also isn't a standard method used by someone else in the magic community for a standard magic affect. If all this is true, then what they have exposed is not a secret at all. It is something they dreamed up in their own mind and inflated its validity by hanging someone's name on it to sell the show. I hope I get to see this show some day. Maybe it will be available in a media other than cable only. The one good thing this type of show sometimes does is to give us a photographic glimpse into special collections and equipment that did belong to a famous magician. They only do this as a means of validating their premise. That's o.k too as long as we get to see some of the real stuff, especially Houdini's. Keep us posted on this series. Thanks.

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    1. It's on the Science Channel website. You can log onto the Internet at your local library, or Kinko's Fed Ex copy store.

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    2. I've tried that and they insist I have a tv subscription from one of the many providers, which I don't. Now what? Remember, I don't have any kind of cable TV. I get it the old fashioned way from the rooftop antenna!

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  5. “Spy” is a general term thrown around describing anyone associated with foreign intelligence collection OR counterintelligence... which Houdini was. Full on James Bond ? No. Legal traveler to foreign lands of Intelligence interest? Yes. Which is why he was oriented to tradecraft, sensitized to collection requirements, then voluntarily debriefed upon his return.

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    1. I like your distinction. However, I've just never seen any PROOF that "he was oriented to tradecraft, sensitized to collection requirements, then voluntarily debriefed upon his return." All I've ever read/heard is speculation that he could have been so.

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  6. The problem with these TV shows, and we have done many, once a premise is bought into by a sponsor or network, there is no changing that idea even if along the way, they find out it or parts of it are totally false or not factual they barrel ahead any way. As we know there’s better evidence on the WTC available, but preconceived ideas must persist. On the idea of measurements of the WTC ours on display is exactly the same, even to the number of bolts, their measurements, distance apart, etc. Our builder was given permission by Henry Mueller to do so. We reached out to them as soon as the show concept was announced. I guess the script was already put together with the sponsor approval. They never asked about what we knew in this area as the die was already cast. I would guess looking at John’s interview they edited it to include things that went along with their story and left out anything that went in a different direction. It is sad but that is the nature of the beast.
    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum, Scranton PA
    The only building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

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    1. I feel like they had pretty much spent their travel budget by the time they were working on this episode. Hence bringing me to Fort Worth instead of coming here. They were happy to learn about John Magic's replica because that was right there in Austin were they were based. Also, I suspect that had already built their cell before they did any "investigation." These shows are all smoke and mirrors as you know, and the network only cares about sensation to promote. I feel like the film-makers are put in a tough place trying to please many masters.

      I enjoyed working on the show and the people involved. These things are done guerrilla style with not much money or time. Still they went the extra mile. When they learned of David Haversat's document, they delayed completion to work that in, and seeing that was a real highlight and treat for Houdini buffs. And putting forth a fake method was, in their own way, protecting Houdini.

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  7. This reminds me of "The Masked Magician" justifying his exposure methods by coming up with faux methods. In doing so, don't the laymen audience still believe the faux explanations? The "real" methods don't matter?

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    1. I believe that many of the laymen audience who watched the masked magician were sure they now knew the secrets to classic magic effects. That was the selling point of the show and the producers were attempting to achieve that no matter how many secrets they had to invent. That in itself is o.k. because the audience really got little or nothing in the way of real secrets. Some magicians I knew went to extra lengths at that time to disprove the methods supposedly exposed. They would perform an effect in such a way to make the method that had been "exposed" impossible to have been used. I'm sure at that moment folks who believed the masked magician realized they had been taken to the cleaners by the premise of the show. As time passed and the exposures continued it became a joke among many of the lay people I knew who follow magic. The validity of the premise was gone and now it was entertaining at best but certainly not instructive. Interest waned. Yes, the real methods matter but only as long as they are not revealed. Then it is no longer magic. Once one knows the real secrets the magic is gone. I believe most lay people fall into 2 categories: 1. Those that want to know the secrets just for the sake of knowing and being able to make themselves feel important among their friends because they know. 2. Those that don't want to know because they enjoy the magic and don;t want to ruin it by finding out how it's done. I like to fool with the former type by asking, after performing an effect: Do you want to know how it is done? When they say yes, I ask: Can you keep a secret? When they say yes, I tell them: SO CAN I !

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  8. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

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