On August 5, 1926, the greatest magician and escape artist of all time conducted his most incredible performance. Renowned for his incredible feats and death-defying stunts, Houdini secured his legendary status at the Sheraton Hotel pool in New York City by performing his Water Torture Cell trick for a record time.
The feat was rooted in showing up Houdini’s great rival, Rahman Bey, an “Egyptian fakir” who typically performed stunts such as piercing his cheek with a needle, stopping his pulse, and having himself buried alive. Bey was usually pitted against Houdini by Hereward Carrington, the American magician’s great nemesis from a rival promotional company. Carrington often claimed that Bey’s incredible ability came from “mystic powers” and his ability to go into “a cataleptic trance.”
“Bey’s feats were nothing new to Houdini. They were the standard sideshow fair that he had exposed in his book Miracle Mongers and Their Methods. To prove Bey accomplished his feats by natural means, Houdini offered to repeat his signature stunt of being buried alive. He told the Evening World: “I guarantee to remain in any coffin that the fakir does for the same length of time he does, without going into any cataleptic trance.”
Bey normally remained in his casket for 8-10 minutes. But spurred by Houdini’s words, he stayed for a full hour while submerged in the swimming pool at the Hotel Dalton. The challenge was on,” explains Wild About Harry.
“Houdini went into training, shedding 13 pounds and working to get his lungs ‘accustomed to battle without air.’ With Dr. W.J. McConnell watching over him, he conducted practice tests in the back room of the Boyertown Burial Casket Co., who had provided Bey’s casket. Houdini remained in his casket for an hour and ten minutes, but he did not trust the results. He suspected air had somehow seeped inside. So he repeated the test a few days later submerged in water. What stood out for him during both tests was his increased irritability; but he otherwise felt comfortable and confident he could duplicate Bey’s feat.
Houdini’s public test would take place at the Hotel Shelton on Lexington Ave. in New York City, which had a large indoor swimming pool. Houdini sent out invitations to press, friends, and scientists. Among the gathering was mentalist Joseph Dunninger, who can be spotted in some of the event photos, and Houdini’s boyhood friend and fellow psychic investigator, Joseph Rinn. Even the dreaded Hereward Carrington was there to watch the demonstration.
The Boyertown Company provided a new casket that held 34.398 cubic inches of air (larger than Houdini’s practice casket). Still, physicians estimated that a human being could only survive for three to four minutes as the container would rapidly fill with carbon dioxide. The coffin was equipped with an alarm bell and a telephone so Houdini could communicate with his assistant Jim Collins on the surface. Houdini’s one major concern on arriving was that the pool area was overly warm.”
During his fantastic feat, Houdini demonstrated an incredible ability to hold his breath and control his bodily functions under immense pressure. The intense physical and psychological demands to remain in the coffin required him to stay focused and composed for over an hour and a half. Houdini’s act pushed the boundaries of human endurance and showcased his unmatched skills as a showman and escapologist.
The success of the Water Torture Cell act hinged on meticulous planning and precise execution. Houdini spent countless hours perfecting the show, training his body and mind to endure the lengthy confinement and oxygen deprivation. Additionally, he employed specially designed equipment and locks that allowed for rapid escape in case of an emergency. Despite the precautions taken, the act was not without risks, and the potential for disaster loomed large with each performance.
Houdini’s daring 91-minute submersion became a sensation, propelling him to international stardom. Audiences marveled at his apparent superhuman abilities. Houdini’s legacy as a master illusionist and fearless performer lives on, and his iconic Water Torture Cell act remains an enduring symbol of his audacity and ingenuity in the face of danger.
The magician’s unparalleled showmanship and courage have left an indelible mark on the world of magic and entertainment, inspiring generations of performers to push the boundaries of human capability and imagination.
On August 5, 1926, Houdini cemented his mark and became an American icon.