Harry Houdini

Handcuffs slipped off Harry Houdini’s wrists like elastic bracelets. He was a famous magician and escape artist in the early 20th century. He was my hero when I was a boy.

His most famous trick was the Chinese Water Torture Cell. At his shows, Houdini would reveal the giant, water-filled chamber. If I close my eyes, I can see him performing the trick in front of an audience.

Houdini walks to the center of the stage, his eyes bright. The audience leans forward in their seats — shards of steel compelled by a strong magnet.

“Behind me,” Houdini gestures at the massive tank, “is the Chinese Water Torture Cell. My assistants will fill the tank with water, secure my feet in stocks, then lower me upside down into the tank … and I will attempt to escape before I run out of air.”

His assistants put him into stocks, and then he is lowered upside down into the tank. The audience sees a last glimpse of Houdini through the glass front before an assistant whisks the curtain across the tank.

The average healthy human can hold their breath for 1-2 minutes. But it’s hard to control your breathing when you’re locked inside a water-coffin. Other escape artists since have attempted similar tricks and passed out and almost died.

Two minutes later, Houdini steps out of the curtain, dripping and victorious. He beams at the audience — his smile is not relief but rather joy at pleasing his audience.

The Water Torture Cell was built so the glass front could be smashed to save Houdini’s life, and an assistant held an ax ready to break the glass. But Houdini always escaped the tank.

Harry Houdini skirted death again and again in his tricks. When I read about him, he seemed like a demi-god or a super hero.

If I met him, I would ask, “How do you get into the Water Torture Cell knowing you might not make it out alive?”

Houdini would smiles slowly.

“None of us lives forever, Jonathan. I will die the same way I live — performing magic.”

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  1. i wish i could hear more about how you (and the rest of the audience; the general atmosphere) felt as you were waiting for him to emerge from behind the curtains. i think that made it hard for me to feel his joy of pleasing his audience, which i think is key to this piece (or i might be wrong). the success of his trick feels somewhat anti-climactic. i would have liked to see it drawn out in more detail – in terms of what you saw and how you felt. very nice ending. 🙂


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