A crowd watches Harry Houdini as he wears a straitjacket and hangs from a crane during one of his beloved escape acts over Broadway and 46th Street in Manhattan during the 1910s.
Harry Houdini may not have escaped death — but the legendary magician is still remembered for his daring acts.
The Hungarian-born American illusionist died at 52 on Halloween day in 1926 — not from a tragic end to one of his famous feats, but from a ruptured appendix.
Houdini is well-known for his performances that included escaping from jails, ropes, straitjackets and boxes submerged in water.
Most notably he was a master at breaking free from handcuffs and was often referred to as the “Handcuff King.”
Many of his shows were so widely attended because of how closely the magician came to his demise.
“The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death,” Houdini is quoted saying.
Here are five of Houdini’s most notable stunts:
Milk Can Escape
Referred to by Houdini as the “the best escape he ever invented” — the Milk Can Escape began with Houdini questioning how long members of the audience could hold their breath.
He then poured gallons of water into the jug before he was handcuffed and folded himself inside.
The milk can was secured shut with six padlocks, but after just two minutes, Houdini emerged breathless from a nearby cabinet while the can remained locked.
A promotional poster for the escape featured the tagline: “Failure Means a Drowning Death.”
Water Torture Cell
Coming off the success of the Milk Can Escape, Houdini developed the infamous Water Torture Cell.
He entered the water chamber head first from above, while his feet were bound in stocks. The stunt was often referred to by Houdini as “the Upside Down.”
The cell was made of mahogany and metal and featured a glass front in order for audience members to view Houdini inside the chamber.
The Water Torture Cell was practiced from 1912 to 1926 and the only known recordings of Houdini’s voice are said to have been recorded in Flatbush, Brooklyn, as introductory speeches for the stunt.
Hanging Straitjacket Escape
A go-to act for Houdini that continues to be imitated is the straitjacket escape.
Houdini would perform the trick while dangling over a large crowd, usually outdoors in the street. At times, he would perform the trick upside down for additional shock.
The first attempt at being buried alive left Houdini trapped six-feet-under pounds of dirt.
After clawing his way to the surface, assistants pulled the unconscious magician the rest of the way out.
He attempted the escape a second time while inside of a casket emerged in a hotel pool in 1920. Houdini was successful during the second 90-minute stunt thanks to controlled breathing techniques.
The final version of buried alive was supposed to happen on stage, but Houdini died before the escape routine could be added to his shows.
Escape from Murderer’s Row
An early portrait of Harry Houdini in handcuffs.
Another notable Houdini escape was labeled as one of his most spectacular jail breaks. The magician broke free from Murderer’s Row of the United States Jail after accepting a challenge from Warden J.H. Harris.
Houdini freed himself from the locked brick cell in just two minutes – but not before breaking into two other prisoners’ cells and swapping them. This was the 64th jail break he completed – and Harris found it to be amusing. It also brought into question the strength and security of the cells.
Besides Houdini’s countless escapes, he also conjured up other shocking tricks, such as the “Vanishing Elephant” or the “East Indian Needle Trick,” where he swallowed 50 to 100 needles.
The burial site of Houdini is located in Queens at the Machpelah Cemetery. Visitors flock to the site each year to remember the magician, especially on Halloween.
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