Houdini's Box Escapes

Houdini was also known for his infamous "box escapes." There were boxes of wood, glass and metal. Specifically, he was able to escape from a submerged box lowered into a river, a challenge box supplies by builders, and escape from a box of his own design.

The Underwater Box

The underwater box escape utilized a box resembling a packing case with four boards on each side and a flat lid nailed into place once Houdini was inside. The box also had air holes which served the dual purposes of allowing air to breathe if it became necessary as well as allowing water to enter the box to quickly submerge it into the water. The lower two boards were not nailed to the sides of the box. Any nails showing were simply for display. Instead, the lower board was attached through hidden hinges, forming a type of trap door which opened inward, allowing room for Houdini to escape through the bottom. To pass inspection, the upper board had two automatic catches that fit into slots in the edge of the board above. The joint was hidden, but allowed Harry to release the trap door. The air holes allowed him a finger grip and once outside the box, he was able to pull the trap outward with the catches springing back into place.

The Challenge-Box

The challenge box escape utilized the sort that could be gaffed or altered by the challenger, such as the slide up box. Harry could be use the box with an inner brace on the stage of a theater, where he was able to put it back in place from the outside. To do this, he had the brace fastened to the box with screws both outside and inside. To make this trick work, the screws on the inner were longer, while the inner screws were short and did not reach the brace. When he removed the longer screws, Houdini was able to loosen the brace. Once the trap was opened, Houdini could replace the trap door using the long screws and used the short screws to fill in the holes.

The Metal-Rimmed Box

To escape the metal-rimmed box, no posts were needed because the corners of what appeared to be an ordinary wooden packing case were bound with angle-shaped strips of metal along the top edge, down the corners of the box, and along the bottom edge of the box. All along were nails to hold the box together. Once Houdini was inside, a fitted lid was put on top with the metal edge hammered and nailed into place. The box was formed in two sections with the top row of boards kept in position with pins and sockets, and the lower section left free with dummy nail heads. There were cleats at the lower corners of the box where portions of the rim slid down. Though the impression was given of a complete, solid frame, the bottom rim was in fact attached to the bottom edge of the box. When pushed, the top would lift with the metal rim.

The Iron Box Challenge

This escape is made from a box of solid iron, the corners and the sides being riveted in place, with an iron cover that fits over the box. The box itself does not lock and contains air holes on the top as well as a large hole on each side of both the box and its cover. Four bolts are used to fasten the box through the holes in the sides. To these bolts, padlocks are attached and the box is put on display for all to view. Houdini would then enter the box and be covered with a cabinet. Minutes later, he would appear beside the box, padlocks and bolts still in place.

The key to this trick is in the box cover. The heads of the bolts must be facing inside so the locks can be attached from outside. When the cover is put on, the bolts are drawn in to allow it to pass, which are seemingly reattached once the cover is put on. Instead, Houdini used fake bolts that have heads which can unscrew and are made of two pieces. He would simply unscrew the false bolts and push out the bottom ends. Chains inside the box were used to keep the padlocks from falling to the ground. To replace the bolts, its theorized Houdini would use strings passed through the holes in the box and cover. These strings are drawn once the cover is replaced, pulling the bolts out.

The Plate Glass Box

The escape from a box made of sheets of plate glass in interesting is that it was performed by both Houdini and Mrs. Houdini and shows the performer visible from every angle. The box is held together by metal and heavy bolts kept in place through holes in the glass. The cover of the box lies flat and is hinged to one of the long sides. The front of the box has two hinged clasps at the upper edge with the top of the box having two metal staples projecting at the front edge. Once the performer is inside the box, the cover is closed and heavy padlocks are connected through the staples.

The secret of the escape lies in the hinges. Each bolt in the back of the box has two portions, the hollow bolt and the bolt-head, provided with a small screw-bolt. When the bolt-head is screwed into the hollow end of the bolt, the result is a solid bolt that exactly resembles the real bolts. From inside the box, the performer can unscrew the bolt-heads with a flat key hidden amongst the 42 bolts, push the bolts out of the holes, lift up the cover with the hasps acting as hinges, and escape. After escape, the heads are easily put back in place either through use of a string from inside the box or unlocking the padlocks to release the front cover, replacing the bolts in the hinges. The cover may then be closed and relocked.

The Spanish Maiden Escape

The Spanish Maiden, a modification of the famous instrument of torture, is a box shaped like the human body that stands upright with a hinged section that opens outward. The front is painted to resemble a maiden. There is both a box and a box cover, both of which are lined with spikes on the interior. When the Maiden is closed it is secured with three padlocks attached to iron bands placed through the hinges.

To escape the Spanish Maiden the performer must grip one of the spikes at the hinge side of the cover and lift upward a fraction of an inch. Each time the cover is pushed upward, the spring of each hinge works on the pin ratchet and the pins are slowly forced out of the springs. Once finished, the performer opens the box at the side, using the padlocks as hinges. After escaping, the performer replaces the pins by pushing them through the hinges from the bottom. The box appears perfectly secure and ready for inspection.