Houdini's Water Torture Cell
The greatest and most sensational of all Houdini's escapes was without doubt his "Chinese Water Torture Cell." In this trick, Houdini was to escape an extraordinary contraption resembling a fish tank. This is filled with water while Houdini is placed head down, in full view of the audience. His feet are manacled and when the tank is covered it is difficult to imagine how he can possibly escape. But escape he does. It was, in a sense, a "double challenge" —first, to the audience to solve and second to his imitators to try to design something even half as wonderful. During his lifetime and for many years after, he was the only man to perform the escape from the Water Torture Cell., or anything quite like it. With all its seeming danger, and the definite difficulties it presented, Houdini never failed in the escape.
To begin the trick, Houdini would devote five minutes to a detailed description of the tank, stocks, grill and steel tackle comprising the apparatus. Inviting a representative committee of the audience, Houdini would retire for a moment or two to change while his assistants rapidly filled the tank from a high-pressure hose and with buckets of heated water from ornamental cauldrons at either side of the setting. Returning in swimming costume, Houdini would lie on his back in the center of the stage as members of the committee adjust his feet within the stocks and snap the locks. The steel frame is next passed over the body until at the base of the stocks, where it is clamped securely. The metal grill has been placed in the tank and pulleys haul the artist in mid-air, where he remains suspended by his feet ready for his plunge into the water below.
A few seconds later he drops, head first, into the tank; the stocks are instantly fixed in place of a lid, the steel frets quickly cover the sides and top, leaving space in their design to give view of the performer's submerged head; locks are bustled on, and a cabinet of draperies veil the rest. Two minutes of suspense follow. An axe is kept at the ready, to break the glass in case of danger. The orchestra with "Asleep in the Deep" helps to awaken the awful possibility of failure. But a second later, Houdini bursts his cabinet and stands smiling and listening to the applause of a bewildered house.
Houdini continued to present the one and original Chinese Water Torture Cell from that time on. It appeared that the ultimate in escapes had indeed been achieved. With all the magic that he presented, all his skill at sleight of hand, all the spirit tricks he demonstrated, the Water Torture Cell still held he audience breathless and spellbound, during those two minutes and one second from the time the cabinet closed until Houdini reappeared free.
It was Houdini's cardinal rule, with all dangerous escapes and especially those of the underwater variety, to make sure that the device used was sure and efficient. It had to be, for him to work the escape successfully, night after night, show after show. During his attempts to create the ultimate underwater escape, Houdini switched from all suggested underwater gadgets to the ingenious idea of doing it above water, in the form of an escape from a pair of stocks. While experimenting with a conventional top, decided to convert it into a pair of stocks. This automatically eliminated all the complicated mechanical devises required in earlier types of water cells. Houdini would be "locked in" the cell while "standing on his head" but, the stocks were set on the cell and attached to it. Houdini gave the idea that he was sealed inside the cell, totally filled with water. However, there was a lot of air at the top, because water gushed in waves over the brim when Houdini was let down quickly into the cabinet, and there was some leakage at joints. What apparently sealed the cell were Houdini's own ankles. The stocks and the edges of the top could not be labeled airtight.
So the Water Torture Cell had an actual top that not only imprisoned Houdini but kept him in an upside-down position while the locks were being secured and the curtains were being closed. Yet all this was accomplished with rapid precision in a minimum amount of time, allowing that much more for the escape. In a late version, four hasps held the top framework; keys were inserted in each keyhole, locking the hasps, but secretly releasing the two boards which formed the stocks. The bars at the front of the cell enabled Houdini to gain a firm grip and work his body upward to apply full strength in getting his feet free. He could then twist sideways, draw his feet down into the cell, do a quick flip turnover and come up for air, head first.
The top was deep-set and Houdini had no trouble getting his head above water level, which had already been lowered by the splash from his upside-down immersion. It was then a matter of opening the top "doors" fully and climbing out between the two stock boards that had been unlatched when the hasp-lock keys were turned. The two stock boards could then be flipped open on end hinges. Houdini then let himself down outside the tank, closed it completely and made his dramatic appearance from the cabinet.
Up until Houdini's death, during the time that he was denouncing fraud mediums and exposing their trickery, believers insisted that Houdini actually dematerialized himself from the water cell; They argued that he was afraid to admit his mediumistic powers in the face of public antagonism.