Harry Houdini, one of history’s greatest magicians, was a master of illusions, stunts and death-defying escapes. Many of his acts included handcuffs, ropes, chains and straitjackets, and his audiences were thrilled by his sensational performances and the never ending possibility of failure and death. Houdini performed his most daring magic tricks right up until the week before his untimely death.
Over the course of his illustrious career, these are his most notable and daring eight:
1. Belly of a Whale Escape
In 1911, while Houdini was performing in Boston, ten prominent businessmen challenged him to escape from the belly of a whale. They stipulated that Houdini had to be shackled in handcuffs and leg-irons supplied by local police and then sewn up inside the whale’s belly. Not one to refuse an exciting challenge, Houdini agreed.
With Houdini manacled inside, the carcass of a beached whale was tightly laced and completely wrapped in chains. Fifteen minutes later, the great magician emerges smiling, and audiences had no idea that he nearly suffocated on arsenic fumes – the chemical used to embalm the whale.
2. East Indian Needle Trick
For the unlucky folks who can’t swallow pills, this trick will make you cringe. Houdini could swallow 100 needles and 20 yards of thread with nothing more than a drink of water. After showing his empty mouth to the audience, he reached inside his mouth and pulled out every single needle, fully threaded together and often spanning the length of the stage.
3. Milk Can Escape
A Houdini original act, the milk can is one of the magician’s best known magic tricks. Handcuffed and sealed inside an over-sized milk can filled with water, failure to escape meant drowning. Adding to the suspense, Houdini’s inviting members of the audience to hold their breath along with him.
Later performances featured the milk can locked inside a chained or padlocked wooden chest, because the plain old milk can trick apparently wasn’t dangerous enough.
4. The Overboard Box Escape
Within 57 seconds, Houdini escaped from a packing crate weighed down by two hundred pounds of lead in New York’s East River. And of course, it wouldn’t be a classic Houdini trick without handcuffs, leg-irons and a crate with its lid nailed shut. When the crate was pulled out of the water, observers found it to be completely intact with Houdini’s discarded manacles inside.
5. Buried Alive Stunt
The first time Houdini performed a buried alive stunt it very nearly killed him. Buried six feet under without a casket, Houdini struggled to dig his way to the surface and panicked when overcome by exhaustion. He cried for help and had to be pulled unconscious from the grave by his assistants.
While one terrifying near death experience would be more than enough for most to quit the game, Houdini went on to perform two other variations of the buried alive trick. One required him to be sealed inside a coffin while submerged underwater for one and a half hours. Another had him strapped in a straitjacket, sealed in a casket and buried in a large tank filled with sand.
Third time’s a charm.
6. Escape from Murderer’s Row
In 1906, Houdini escaped from Murderer’s Row, the south wing of Washington, D.C.’s Old Jail. The guards stripped Houdini of all his clothes and handcuffed Houdini before locking him inside a cell. While it only took him two minutes to escape, he used the last nineteen minutes of his act to open eight other locked cells, switch the prisoners around and lock them inside again. Would love to know how the inmates felt about that.
7. Suspended Straitjacket Escape
Strapped in a standard regulation straitjacket and suspended by his ankles from a tall building or crane, Houdini made his escapes in full view of his audience crowding on the streets below. It would only take him three minutes to break free. Still, what a head rush and terrifying reminder of one’s own mortality.
8. Chinese Water Torture Cell a.k.a. the “Houdini Upside Down”
A combination of his suspended straitjacket and milk can escape stunts, this was his most famous and daring trick yet. Locked in stocks by the feet, Houdini was lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. If he couldn’t escape within two minutes, an assistant stood by with an axe ready to break the glass. One can only be so die hard.
Haven’t had enough of the famous Harry Houdini’s greatest tricks? Are you curious about the circumstances that led up to his untimely death? If so, check out the second episode of Remarkable Lives. Tragic Deaths, the Parcast Network’s new hit podcast series.