Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Buried Alive surfaces in 1922

While at the Harry Ransom Center last summer I found this invoice among papers related to the Houdini Picture Corporation. It's from the Theodore Reisig Co., makers of "high grade scenery," and is dated January 4, 1922. I suspect those who saw this before me might have passed it by as just scenery for one of Houdini's movies. But Houdini was not making any movies at this time. And what's described here is, to my eye, something very different and very exciting!

Click to enlarge.

This "Sand Box with heavy ornamental iron hinges" and "apparatus for loading and unloading sand" can only be Houdini's Buried Alive escape. What we don't see here is the casket Houdini would also use in the effect. The bill is for $420, which in 2022 would be $7,450.30. Houdini settled the bill for $300.

The Buried Alive is one of Houdini's most elusive escapes. Houdini himself claimed to have performed it as early as 1908 in Germany. In 1914 he had a lithograph made for the effect, but there's no record of him performing it at this time. In 1918 he announced Buried Alive for his return to the Hippodrome in Everything, but when he broke his wrist making The Master Mystery he had to substitute it with a suspended straitjacket escape. There's also his famous 1919 accident while rehearsing a Buried Alive stunt in California, but that was an outdoor stunt, not the stage version.

Now here we have evidence of the apparatus being built in 1922. This contradicts Houdini's claim the he had the apparatus "rebuilt" in 1916. But the date does make sense career-wise. Needing money after a year of producing films, Houdini had just embarked on a 9-week vaudeville tour. It's possible he intended the Buried Alive to be his new escape for this and the tours to come. But for whatever reason, it didn't happen. The Water Torture Cell remained his marquee escape and Buried Alive wouldn't surface until 1926, and then only for a couple performances.

Maybe the biggest frustration about the Buried Alive is there are no photos of the apparatus and no good description of Houdini's presentation. The 1914 poster (right) is all there is to go on, and I'm not convinced the "Sand Box" was as large as this poster depicts. In fact, I suspect it was only a little larger than the coffin that fit inside.

Perhaps the records of the Theodore Reisig Co. survive and within them we could find the specs on the Buried Alive they built for Houdini in 1922. I could dig that!

You can unearth my Buried Alive research and see the envelope for the Reisig bill as a "Scholar" member of my Patreon below:



  1. It would be a long shot if the Reisig company records survived all these years. This effect appears to have been a long shot as well for Harry. Filling that outer box with sand probably took too long. The showstopper has to be snappy fairly brief.

  2. Houdini was working on the film, “Ashes of Passion” film at this time which was centered around Cairo Egypt and reincarnation. The Egyptian Buried Alive poster with sphinx instantly comes to mind. So very likely, Houdini was considering doing buried alive.

    1. Ashes of Passion did cross my mind. But it's unclear if Houdini ever planned to shoot any footage for it. Seems the project was mostly about creating English titles and inserting stock footage into the already existing film. But you're right. Ashes of Passion was an active project at this time, so it is possible it has something to do with it.

    2. Shades of his collaboration with Lovecraft on Imprisoned With the Pharoahs.