Posted Tuesday, March 12, 2013, at 1:00 PM
This recording captures Harry Houdini delivering an introduction to his Chinese Water Torture Cell escape. The performer spoke into Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1914, creating one of the only known records of his voice. The audio allows us to hear Houdini’s measured cadence and careful enunciation. (Houdini did star in several silent films demonstrating his escapes. You can see a few on YouTube.)
The Water Torture Cell, which Houdini first used in 1912, was an apparatus of which the famed escape artist was particularly proud. In this illusion, the shackled Houdini was lowered upside down by manacled feet into a big aquarium. His assistants filled the tank with hoses and buckets, and then covered it with fabric curtains. The orchestra would play the familiar song “Asleep in the Deep” to heighten the suspense. The man would emerge from concealment within two minutes, unscathed. (If you want to know how he pulled it off, click here.)
The introduction stresses the lack of a supernatural element in the Water Torture trick. In the 1920s, Houdini made exposure of mediums and psychics part of his public mission, using his expertise in performance and illusion to show that séances could easily be staged. This recording shows that in 1914 Houdini was already concerned with distinguishing his act from these types of performances. He wanted his audience to know that the escape was craft, not true magic.
Thanks to the Public Domain Review for the tip. A transcript of the introduction follows the audio.
Ladies and gentlemen. Introducing my original invention, the Water Torture Cell. Although there is nothing supernatural about this, I am willing to forfeit the sum of 1,000 dollars to anyone who can prove that it is possible to obtain air inside of this torture cell, when I am locked up in it in the regulation manner after it has been filled with water. Should anything go wrong when I’m locked up, one of my assistants walks through the curtain, ready to rush in, demolishing the glass, allowing the water to flow out in order to save my life. I, Houdini, October the 29th, Nineteen Hundred and Fourteen, Flatbush, New York.