Wednesday, April 24, 2024

1971: Year of the Torture Cell(s)

Houdini's Water Torture Cell made its last public appearance on the night of October 11, 1926, in Albany, New York. This was the night Houdini broke his ankle. Despite plans to resume the cell in Detroit, Houdini died before that happened. After that, the famed prop remained out of sight for the next 45 years. Then, in 1971, two Water Torture Cells, both claiming to be the original, returned to public view.

In May 1971, the Water Torture Cell that Sidney Radner acquired from Hardeen in 1942 was put on permanent display at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. Some assume the cell was in the museum from the start (the museum opened in 1968), but it was actually a later addition, as we can see below.

The Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram, May 29, 1971.

Later that same year, magician Abb Dickson announced that he had acquired Houdini's original Water Torture Cell and was making plans to display it. Abb claimed he found the cell in England and had even solved its secrets by having it x-rayed.

The Atlanta Journal, Sept. 6, 1971.

In October, Abb's cell was revealed alongside a collection of other alleged Houdini ratites at the Dutch Square Mall in Columbia, South Carolina.

The Columbia Record, Oct. 25, 1971.

Of course, Abb's cell was pure hokum—it was made of sheet metal with a shower drain at the bottom. One wonders if the arrival of the real cell in Canada had inspired Abb in this endeavor? Abb would tour his Houdini exhibit and cell for several years. The cell was also used in the 1976 television biopic, The Great Houdinis.

The real Water Torture Cell remained on display at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame until a fire destroyed much of the cell in 1995. Today, the restored cell is back on display at David Copperfield's International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas.

Abb Dickson's cell also survives today in the collection of Troy Milligan. On occasion, it has been offered for sale on eBay, but I'm not sure of its current status.

Want more? I've uploaded to my Patreon a collection of photos of the original Water Torture Cell on display at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame throughout the years and what remained of it after the fire.



  1. I was a 12 year old houdini nut who lived 10 minutes from Dutch Square never heard it was there. The Columbia Record was an evening paper my mom did not I guess I was uninformed. Damn pre-internet days!

  2. From the The Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram, May 29, 1971 group photo, Radner valued the USD at $50,000. That would be $385, 359 in 2024.

    1. I wonder how reasonable that valuation was back then? Wasn't it insured for a million in the end?

    2. It was very reasonable. Radner did his inflation calculations very well. Harry built the cell around roughly 1910 at a cost of $10,000. By 1971 it was worth about $43,000. Add $7,000 for the Houdini MOJO. The man performed with it. Don't know about the insurance Radner might have done.

    3. You're welcome! I'm sure Hardeen told Radner it cost Harry about 10 grand when he built the cell. Radner then had his starting point to put a price on it. He had to do the inflation calculations without the help of the Internet to give fast answers. I'd like to see the source of Radner's insurance on the cell--if it's out there. Maybe it's in the catalog of that big Radner auction?

  3. Abb told me personally that he had been looking through the Houdini collection ar UT (long before it was cataloged and moved to the HEC) and found in a scrapbook a claim ticket for a storage unit in London. He said he went; paid the balance due, and discovered he was now in possession of the Water Torture Cell

    I can and will attest that this is the story he told me. It was at an Unconventional Convention - the annual gathering held hit IBM Ring 60 (Lexington KY).

    1. Thanks, Brad. Yep, that's the story Abb told folks. If you click my second related link, you see the same story as told to James Criswell.