Showing posts with label Water Torture Cell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Water Torture Cell. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Water Torture Cell In Miniature


Just saw this and I'm freaking out. It looks PERFECT. And it can be yours. Not sure how many were made. It's a piece of art. Here is the link

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Houdini's Water Torture Cell by Norman Bigelow

Norman Bigelow is an interesting fellow. He is an escape artist of the highest order. He is a Houdini devotee. He is a psychic investigator and in fact he has spent a great deal of time of late exposing and researching modern day mediums and fake spiritualist con artists. I also want to add, above all these things Norman Bigelow is a Patriot! Follow him on Facebook and you'll understand why I say that.
By the way, Norm's Birthday is Aug12th, and if you haven't done so, be sure to wish him a Happy Birthday as well!!!

The Bigelow Cell has two bands around the center, no doubt for stability and also protection in case the glass needs to be broken to save his life. The bands would stop him from hitting any glass that might remain in the frame. Houdini used an inner cage on his Cell as a precautionary measure for the same reason.

One thing you have to know about Norman, he was the first escape artist to introduce the 'full-view'
picking technique. No hiding behind curtains for Norm. He does everything out in the open. For his Water Torture Cell, he is put into a leather harness, chained and locked and then dropped head first into his 360 Gallon tank of water.

Through sheer will and ability he stays underwater, in full view, and escapes from the locks, chains and harness before getting out of the cell itself.

Now, in his own words, Norman Bigelow describes his Water Torture Cell.
"I built my first one before I was twenty out of hard wood and glass but the glass blew out from the pressure. I was on top getting ready to get in. So Philip Moore of Vermont built me a steel tank. I had the lowering rig built in my home town so it was all self contained and I need no stage rigging to lower me..

At first I had an open top and my legs were in loops and chained. I was in a Trudel harness called the Spider Web Escape. Later we made the top solid and it opened like a bulk head door. Some one would lock the stocks with a padlock inside and then the top was lowered and locked from the out side. So I was always able to do it full view.

I could escape the harness and then get up to the lock between my legs. Later on I replaced the Water Cell for the Gas Chamber escape and avoided needed all that water and weight on a stage. One over looked problem a lot is sneezing. If you sneeze all locked in you could die."

Bigelow toured with his Water Torture Cell in the College Market in the 1970s. I'm trying to wrap my head around the idea of bringing this huge prop, along with all his other equipment for a college audience. But I'm thinking in terms of modern day college students who tend to be jaded. I've read some of the reviews that Bigelow received back in the 1970s and 80s and they are nothing short of overwhelmingly fantastic. The college audiences held their breath, bit their lips and grabbed their chairs while sitting spellbound by his mindblowing escapes.

I think Houdini would be quite proud of this version of his escape!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Houdini's Water Torture Cell by Steve Baker

When I was a kid, I saw Steve Baker's performance of the Escape from The Water Torture Cell on TV. I don't recall if it was a rerun or if I was seeing it live.  I have had the good fortune to talk to Steve about his version of the Water Torture Cell many times. There were some features of Steve's routine that were different from the usual escape. For one, a chain held his hands to the bottom of the tank. Two, he was known to present the cell slightly differently each time he was on TV.

The first performance was on a show called Dick Clark's LIVE Wednesday Show. This was a weekly Variety Show on NBC. Steve's appearance was so impressive, that he was brought back numerous times to appear and do different escapes on the show. When the show ended and Dick Clark started another show, well he again brought over Steve Baker.

Steve told me his tank was built by John Gaughan but after he picked it up from him, he went about altering the escape methodology. Steve was very proud of his tank and his method. He would boast that no one, outside of his crew knew the method he used to escape, not even the original builder. Though, one young escape artist was up for the challenge and figured out the secret. Steve was quite taken back that his closely guarded method was figured out. The escape artist swore to never reveal it to anyone, and I haven't. :)

Steve presented the Water Torture Cell on TV several times. The first was for Dick Clark's LIVE Wednesday as mentioned above. The second was as the opening escape of an HBO Special featuring the Greatest Escape Artists in the World. Third time was below and then there was a very controversial time on Australian TV, the Don Lane Show, where Steve was trapped in the cell for real, an apparent attempt at sabatoge by a member of his own crew. Steve came out of the cell with bloody feet from trying to kick and break the top of the lid open. It took him over 6 minutes to free himself, all of his other WTC escapes were 2-3 minutes.

Sadly, today Steve's tank is gone. The whereabouts are unknown. IF anyone knows where this tank might be today, I'd surely love to know.

The video below is of one of the later presentations of the Water Torture Cell by Steve. I think this was in the early 1980s. The original WTC on Dick Clark LIVE Wednesday was around 1976.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Houdini's Water Torture Cell by Doug Henning

In the 1970s Doug Henning was making a name for himself, first in a show called Spellbound and then on Broadway in The Magic Show. Soon, NBC came calling and the First Annual Doug Henning's World of Magic was about to debut. The 'hook' for the show was to be the recreation of the Houdini Water Torture Cell. A very un-Doug Henning like effect really. However, according to the book Spellbound by John Harrison, the idea of the Water Torture Cell was Doug's.

The first thing to notice is the slight alteration in the look of the cell. In the Houdini Cell, only the front had glass, the other sides were wood and metal. The Henning Cell looks more like a phone booth.......(a phone booth was a tall rectangular box with glass and all sides and a door. Inside was a phone that you could use that accepted coins as payment...I figured I'd explain that to the younger readers) There was a specific reason the tank was built with glass on all sides. Doug and his crew feared the audience wouldn't have as good a view and it wouldn't look as strong on television if it only had glass on the front. But on all sides gave a great view from every angle.

The cell was built by Owen Magic in California and they actually developed the intricate mechanics to make the thing work. The reason for this, no one had a clear idea of how Houdini's Water Torture Cell worked.

Henning also chose not to present an actual escape, but rather present it as an illusion because he wanted to piece to appear more magical, according to John Harrison in Spellbound. In the escape version, the performer would be put into the cell, the entire thing covered with a cloth and eventually the performer would be free, the curtain dropped to reveal indeed no one was in the cell any longer.

The illusion version was different. It started the same way as the escape version and the tension built up in the same manner. But just as the tension reached it's peak, and it seemed like the performer was unable to get free from the tank, a masked assistant came over with an ax and pulled down the curtain revealing the performer was gone. Then the masked assistant removed his robe/mask to reveal that he was the performer, Doug Henning!

No 'reward' was issued for anyone able to obtain air while hanging upside down in a tank of water. But they did make sure to promote the aspect of the escape being performed "LIVE". There is a sentence at the bottom of the poster which reads "Remember: This will be a "live" broadcast of a breathtaking feat never attempted before under these circumstances."  Interesting, except the Water Torture Cell is ALWAYS performed LIVE. It's just it was never presented on LIVE tv.

Doug Henning only performed this escape once to my knowledge. If memory serves, the Tank was later sold to illusionist Brett Daniels and then from Brett it went to escape artist Dean Gunnerson.

Below is a video of Doug Henning's performance of Houdini's Water Torture Escape.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The UnMasking of Harry Houdini Part 5

Even though Houdini is recognized as the most famous magician in history, he often gets a bad rap in the magic world. The Houdini-haters, and there are lots of them, like to say he was not a very good magician and many still hold a grudge over his book The UnMasking of Robert-Houdin. Still others dislike Houdini because they feel other magicians deserved to be remembered over Houdini, like Thurston for example. I honestly wish that other magicians were remembered by the public, along with Houdini. I was surprised at how many people had forgotten Joe Dunninger, given the fact that Dunninger was a very popular performer for years and years. Dunninger even performed on Television, which is something Houdini never got to do. But, very few remember Joe, and that is sad.

Origins of Houdini's Act

I suppose the pinnacle of acheivement for Houdini was the creation of his Water-Filled Torture Cell.
I've read that the Water Torture Cell was a combination of the Milk Can, Glass Lined box, The hanging Strait Jacket Escape, and even the Double Fold Death Defying Mystery. It all makes sense to me. Whether or not this was how Houdini developed it, I'm not really certain. But it sure looks like a logical progression.

I've written about the WTC before (by the way, Houdini referred to his escape as the USD, short for Upside Down). I'm fascinated by the WTC on many levels. It was supposed to be a death-defying feat, something for audiences to really freak out over. You want the truth? Hang upside down in a tank of water, you'll find out who is really freaking out! It takes a lot of rehearsal to get over the fear of hanging upside down in confined tank of water. And HOUDINI was the FIRST! This was his baby, his creation. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE who has done it since Houdini was copying the master.

When the WTC was first rolled out to audiences it came with some amazing posters! Look at the graphics on these posters, they really send chills up your spine. I was just thinking, I always heard it called 'The Chinese Water Torture Cell' but looking at the posters, it doesn't ever appear to be listed that way. Rather, Water-Filled Torture Cell or simply Water Torture Cell appears most of the time. Does anyone know the origin of adding the 'Chinese' part to the title? (see comments below for answer)

Hollywood loves the Water Torture Cell because they imply Houdini died presenting the escape in countless movies, starting with the Tony Curtis version.  In reality, Houdini presented the Water Torture Cell Escape many many times. I guess that is all part of the attraction and mystery of the escape is that it does carry the 'possible death' theme right to the edge.

Here is an interesting thing I just noticed. On several of the posters there is a $1000 Reward Notice at the bottom of the poster "To Anyone Who Can Prove It's Possible To Obtain Air In The Upside-Down Position While Under Water". However, look at the poster to the left. The reward was $200. The answer is simple enough. The poster to the left came out in 1912 and was one of the first to advertise the sensational invention. The poster above is from 1913. So obviously, Houdini and Company realized there money was safe with this 'Reward' so they upped it to $1000.

I'm working on another Water Torture Cell article for the 30 Days of Houdini which will cover Cells presented by other performers.

Finally, please check out this piece written by John Cox on the Double Fold Death Defying Mystery, as he does make a connection to that effect and the Water Torture Cell.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Upside Down x 2 or More- Reposted

Today, September 21, 2012 marks the 100th Anniversary of Houdini's most famous escape, The Water Torture Cell. The article below was originally posted to my blog on Jan 2, 2011 and I'm reposting it now for those that missed it. My take on this is that there were more than 2 Water Torture Cells.

I would encourage you also to go visit John Cox's fantabulous website because he has a fact filled article on the history of the Water Torture Cell right up till today,

I'm also researching a new lead for more information on this topic, so perhaps down the road I'll have some new information to share.

The USD or The Water Torture Cell or Houdini's Original Invention, whatever you call it, this is one of the most unique escape illusions in all of magic. It's also one of the most copied since the time of Houdini. Many performers have built their careers with this effect.

In the Patrick Culliton book 'Houdini-The Key' he mentions that there were two Water Torture Cells. This was something I had never known. But imagine my surprise when I heard recently that there were as many as four.  The person I heard this from said he sold the cell in the 1980s and so far the only thing I've turned up has been a fabricated mock-up and not an original cell. Being able to turn up proof of more than two Houdini cells has not worked out so well.

However, let's get back to the two cells that Pat mentioned. I think there is photographic proof of  two cells and if you look carefully in the following photos I'll point out why I think we are looking at two different Water Torture Cells.

This image is a classic. Houdini hanging in the  UP-SIDE-DOWN Water Torture Cell or USD, as he called it. Notice the stocks. Patrick Culliton points out in his book that the yale lock in the front of the stock was added for the photo. However, I don't think so. These are different foot stocks altogether. They are missing handles, they are missing the metal trim on the sides and they are even missing the four corner circles that were used to hook cables to raise the stocks and Houdini in the air.

Now look at the frame around the glass, specifically the rivets along the top. There are seven rivets and the two on the far right and far left are closer together. In every photo of the USD there are seven rivets along the top and bottom of the front framework. However, most of the the other photos of the USD the rivets are equally spaced along the top and bottom. But not here. Also, take note of the width of this USD. It appears wider than those in other photos. I think this is because originally Houdini had a cage placed in the USD and there needed to be a little extra room to move around. Take a good look at the next photo. You'll see the cage inside, I believe this is the same cell as in the first photo. But notice the difference in foot stocks in this photo as compared to the photo above. This cell is the same as the one in the above photo, the distance between the rivets helps to identify it as the same cell (look at the lower rivets as the upper ones are hardly visible in the photo)

Now check out this photo. I believe this photo was taken after the clean-up that John Gaughn did to the cell but prior to it's destruction in the fire of the Niagara Falls Museum. Notice the evenly spaced rivets along the top of the frame. Also notice that the glass in this photo is much narrower than the photos above. The glass is as wide as the cage in the upper photos. But in the cage photo the glass extends beyond the edges of the cage several inches. This cell to the right is the one that went into the Houdini museum in Niagara Falls and was later destroyed in the fire. The remnants of this USD were used to build the recreated cell that sits in David Copperfield's museum.

Next compare the foot stocks in the photo directly above and the color photo to the right. Specifically look at the space to the left and right of the handles on the stocks. You'll see in the upper photo the space is wider than the photo to the right. More proof the upper cell was a wider cell.

To me it's pretty strong photographic proof of two different cells, but trust me you've really got to stare at these things to see the differences. The two cell photos at the top are of Cell #1, the color cell photo is Cell#2.

Oh, if you are wondering what happened to the cages that went inside the Houdini USD, according to Sidney Radner (via John Cox's Site they were lost while in Henry Mueller's possession.

Patrick Culliton says that the second cell deteriorated in the backyard of Bess's sisters house. Though I honestly think the cell that deteriorated  was probably 'the first/wider/original'. Sid Radner received a later version of the cell. We know that Hardeen was considering rebuilding the second cell to train Sid but that cell would have to have been slightly larger to accomodate Hardeen. There is a famous photo of Hardeen and Sidney Radner standing next to the USD and they both dwarf this small cell.

But my mind does keep going back to the idea that there might have been more than two cells. I've certainly seen photos of at least three Houdini milk cans. So maybe there is a third Water Torture Cell out there somewhere. The next question is, what on earth does someone do with one of these things if it isn't being used or on display? I know Steve Baker's Water Torture Cell is gone. Who has it? No idea. It too was unique enough that if someone else performed with it it could be identified. Other people have performed the USD over the years with their own cells, are there just dozens of these things sitting in storage units all over the country???

Third Cell? Not this one, but I'll keep searching
The supposed third Water Torture Cell I was told about was sold to a museum in Nashville and later moved to Gatlinburg TN and still sits on display. However, the only USD I could turn up in Gatlinburg is this one at the Ripleys/Guinness Museum, and it's clearly not an original. (see side photo) Take a moment and read what is printed on the card that is stuck on the upper part of the cell. The last paragraph says "Although the exact history of this water torture cell is unknown, it was built in the early 1900s and is rumored to have been used by Houdini himself."

This WTC is even smaller in height than the others. The hardware on it is clearly modern. IF for some reason it was real, only the lower portion could be as the stocks are also very obviously made of modern plywood. I want to thank my friend Terry Evanswood for his help in searching this out and for taking the pictures.

Still, I'm holding out hope that a third one shows up someday as it would be almost like the holy grail of magic props.

If anyone knows the location of ANY Water Torture cell, original or otherwise, please let me know. If there is a third Houdini cell out there I'd love to find it. I'd also like to find what happened to Steve Baker's WTC. His cell was nearly 7ft tall when the stocks were put on. It was massive compared to Houdini's and I know it's been out of his possession since the early 1990s. And where is Doug Henning's WTC today? I know Brett Daniel's owned it for a time but I don't think he has it any more.

Any leads, please email me at

Now if you want to read MORE about Houdini's Water Torture Cell, please read this blog about the 'Two Torture Cells' which is different than what I covered.  visit 
I have a theory on this too that I may share eventually.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Houdini's Magic, The Best for Last

I saved the best for last. But when I finish this, I'm going to ADD to the list on another blog. First, as Houdini presented these two effects, they were escapes. But both can be done as a straight escape or as magic.

The Straight Jacket Escape: This is pure Houdini. He came up with the method, the idea and the delivery. It was his brother Hardeen however who took it up a notch.
Houdini claims he got the idea after seeing an inmate in an insane asylum struggling inside a straight jacket.

Houdini went about devising a method of escaping from one and sure enough he discovered it. In his original routine he would be strapped into the jacket by members of the audience and then step behind a curtained cabinet. The reaction was not quite as strong as he expected.

His brother Theo Hardeen, stumbled upon the idea of presenting it without the curtain. Hardeen would present the escape in full view for all to see. It was a hit. Houdini adopted the same idea and it became a hit for him as well.
His most amazing adaptation was hanging upside down from a building in the straightjacket. This idea of hanging upside down was not Houdini's however, he got the idea from a young fan from Sheffield England. The story is told in full in the Patrick Culliton book, Houdini The Key. (click the link and order the book if any are left)

His ultimate trick has become legend. The Chinese Water Torture Cell. Many people still think that Houdini died in the WTC because that was the Hollywood ending in the Tony Curtis HOUDINI movie. But Houdini presented the trick probably hundreds of times if not more. He ALWAYS escaped!
It's kind of a combination of his previous effects. You've got the water element from the Milk Can and the upside down element from the StraightJacket escape but the enclosed element from another of his previous effects the Glass Box Escape. All together it made a frightening effect. There were several different posters for this Houdini effect. The most famous one is on the right.

There is a fantastic article on John Cox's Blog about 'The Two Water Torture Cells'. This is a must read. Now, as to the effectiveness of the WTC today, let's put it like this, it's still being used by magicians. Doug Henning solidified his star on TV by using it on his first special in the 70s. David Copperfield presented an unusual version of it in the 80s. Criss Angel also used the WTC early in his TV career to make a name for himself. But to my mind the most effective presentation I've seen of the Water Torture Cell was presented by Steve Baker, also known as Mr. Escape. The video above is of one of Steve.

Sadly, both the Straightjacket escape and the Water Torture Cell have been overdone by magicians, so much so that they no longer seem to hold the impact that they once had. Now there are exceptions to the rule. One exception I can think of is from the couple Ridgeway and Johnson also known as Living Illusions. In their version of the WTC, the cell is cylindrical and completely see through. Also, their version features a female, Kristen Johnson as the escape artist rather than the male. And finally, they do it in full view. These alterations to the escape have made their routine unique to them.

The straightjacket has been done right into the ground. It is rarely presented as an escape anymore, most of the acts use it as a comedy piece, thus diminishing the allure of the effect even more. The Upside Down Straight Jacket Escape surely seems to thrill, but it doesn't draw the crowds anymore that Houdini did in his day.

The material from Houdini's act was powerful in his time and as you can see, is just as powerful today which is why entertainers still use his material almost 85 years after his death. He obviously presented it as the true showman he was. Even Dai Vernon who disliked Houdini admitted his Needle Trick was well done. Houdini may not have been a general practitioner but with the effects in his regular act he became a legend.

Tomorrow, a slightly different take on the MAGIC of Houdini...