On Aug. 5, 1926, legendary magician Harry Houdini performed his last and greatest feat by spending 91 minutes inside a coffin submerged in a swimming pool.
Houdini’s Last Escape
Harry Houdini was one of the world’s greatest escape artists and illusionists, dazzling audiences around the world with his incredible and record-breaking feats.
In July 1926, Egyptian magician Rahman Bey enclosed himself in a metal box and remained underwater in New York’s Dalton Hotel for an hour—setting the first major record for an underwater burial. Houdini was challenged by the fellow stuntman to duplicate the feat. He loved competition, and thus was determined to beat Bey’s record.
On Aug. 5, 1926, after making two practice tests in private, Houdini performed the trick in front of journalists at the swimming pool of the Hotel Shelton in New York. “Houdini felt disturbed by the strong heat he felt inside the box,” writes “Final Séance” author Massimo Polidoro, “and became more irritable than he had been during the tests. … He had visualized the box breaking in two and thought he was going to drown before he could be taken out of it.”
“After one hour and twenty-eight minutes I commenced to see yellow lights and carefully watched myself not to go to sleep,” Houdini would write of his experience. “I kept my eyes wide open.”
He spent 91 minutes in the 700-pound coffin, breaking Bey’s record by about 30 minutes. He emerged from the coffin looking “deathly white,” says Polidoro.
Houdini believed that his experiment could serve as an example for miners who were trapped in shafts with limited oxygen. He said that it was important to not be overwhelmingly afraid when faced with a lack of oxygen.
“The important thing is to believe that you are safe, don’t breathe deeply and don’t make any unnecessary movements,” he remarked.
On the evening of Aug. 5, he sent a letter to Dr. W.J. McConnell, a psychologist with the U.S. Bureau of Mines, who was analyzing data on ways to maximize physical endurance for miners who had limited supplies of oxygen at times.
“There is no doubt in my mind that had this test been where fresh air could have gotten into the galvanized iron coffin as I was put in same, I could have readily stayed fifteen or thirty minutes longer,” he wrote.
Biography: Harry Houdini
Sources in this Story
- James Randi Educational Foundation: My Heroes, The Pale Blue Dot, Houdini's Last Stunt …
- Library of Congress (AP): Variety Stage Houdini
- Library of Congress: Four page letter and one page of temperature readings from Houdini
- findingDulcinea: Happy Birthday, Harry Houdini, Escape Artist Extraordinaire
- PBS: American Experience: Houdini
Born Ehrich (or Erik) Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874, Houdini moved to Wisconsin with his family at a very early age, and began performing in a trapeze act. Years later, he moved to New York City and, under the stage name Harry Houdini, made a living by dazzling audiences with his impressive escapes and illusions.
“Time and again, his escapes from seemingly impossible predicaments thrilled audiences, who found in him a metaphor for their own lives, an affirmation of the human capacity to overcome adversity,” writes PBS.
The underwater coffin experiment would be Houdini’s last great escape. The famed magician died two months later, on Halloween, from peritonitis due to a rupture in his appendix. He suffered the injury when a McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead punched him in the stomach to test his abdominal muscles.