How Harry Houdini Might Have Pulled Off His Most Daring Trick

Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini
Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When it comes to most people's biggest fears, being buried alive is right up there. But the master magician Harry Houdini was no stranger to stunts that would make other people sweat. In 1915, he performed a trick in Santa Ana, California, that saw him buried beneath six feet of earth. It didn't exactly go off without a hitch, however: He clawed his way out—but it nearly killed him.

Stunt expert Steve Wolf considers the buried alive illusion Houdini's most daring trick. "The margin for failure on that is zero," Wolf tells Mental Floss. Wolf is one of the stars of the new Science Channel show Houdini's Last Secrets, alongside Houdini’s grand-nephew George Hardeen and magician Lee Terbosic. In each episode, the trio explores how the notoriously secretive Houdini may have performed his most famous tricks, as well as some of the many mysteries of his life—including whether the magician may have served as a spy, and whether his sad death on Halloween in 1926 was truly an accident.

Wolf, who has served as a special effects coordinator for several films and TV series, is a science educator for kids, and runs his own theme park called Stunt Ranch in Texas, says he's long been interested in how illusions are created and how people perceive reality through visual clues. He explains that when Houdini performed his buried alive stunt (there's some controversy among historians about whether, and how often, the trick was performed), the audience would have seen Houdini enter a coffin, watch the coffin sealed inside a crypt, and then witness the crypt being buried in several thousand pounds of sand or soil.

"A curtain would go up, and the audience would wonder if he was suffocating," Wolf explains. "And after a prolonged period Houdini would emerge, unscathed."

Master stunt builder Steve Wolf, magician and daredevil Lee Terbosic, and Houdini’s grand-nephew George Hardeen on the set of "Houdini's Last Secrets"
Master stunt builder Steve Wolf, magician and daredevil Lee Terbosic, and Houdini’s grand-nephew George Hardeen on the set of Houdini's Last Secrets
Steve Wolf/Science Channel

That was the theory, anyway. In 1915, the trick didn't quite go as planned, and there are reports that Houdini fell unconscious after partially emerging and had to be rescued by assistants. But Houdini seems to have been planning a more elaborate, and hopefully safer, version of the trick toward the end of the his life.

For Houdini's Last Secrets, Wolf had to figure out a version of the illusion as similar as possible to the one Houdini worked on later in life. Most importantly, it had to be safe for Terbosic to perform. That was no easy feat, as Wolf explains: "If he's in the coffin and there's truly 3000 pounds of dirt on him and the coffin implodes, that really could cause serious injury. It could crush his lungs, it could crush his heart, he could suffocate."

As with many of Houdini's stunts, there's no surviving documentation, let alone how-to notes from Houdini. That meant Wolf and his team had to rely on problem-solving, engineering, and guesswork to figure out how the magician might have done it. One theory they considered was that Houdini may have used sand, rather than soil.

"Houdini had a traveling roadshow, and sand would have been easy to transport or source locally," Wolf explains. Wolf's team explored a process called sand liquefaction, in which air pumped through sand from the bottom makes sand act like a liquid. That means anything lighter than the sand can actually float.

"Houdini had a background working with compressed air," Wolf says. "And if he'd experimented with this, he would have known you could actually make the coffin float up from the bottom of the crypt and appear on top of the sand silently, just using compressed air to liquefy the sand. We don't know that's how he did it ... but that's one of theories we explore."

The other option, which is carried out in a large-scale stunt on the show, involves trap doors. The first step was assembling the ingredients: In this case, a clear coffin and crypt, so the audience can see what's happening, at least until the curtain goes up. While Houdini would have used glass, for safety's sake the Houdini's Last Secrets team used clear plexiglass, which is less likely to shatter. The transparency also allows the audience to see Terbosic, wearing a straitjacket, inside the coffin, and watch as the thousands pounds of soil are poured on top of him.

"It's not an illusion that he's in the coffin and you see the coffin get buried. That all really happens," Wolf explains.

Steve Wolf with the coffin used in the Buried Alive trick on "Houdini's Last Secrets"
Steve Wolf with the coffin used in the Buried Alive trick on Houdini's Last Secrets
Steve Wolf/Science Channel

The secret lies in the way the coffin, and crypt, are built. Each had a trap door—or what Wolf calls "an un-obvious way to get out of the coffin." He explains that since lifting the lid of the coffin against thousands of pounds of dirt would be almost impossible, the best way to get out of the coffin is through the sides or ends. "And if that end were very close to a second trap door, [the magician] could get out of the crypt. Ideally you would want to open the trap door at an end of the coffin, and then apply direct pressure [on a second trap door], and then something would yield, and you'd be able to get out of the crypt," he explains.

The team also employed a staircase, which made it easy to climb up and pour the dirt on Terbosic. But the staircase also helped Terbosic escape—that is, once he'd gotten himself out of the straitjacket. He also had to turn his whole body around, since his head was pointed away from the trap doors. Eventually, he ended up safely inside the staircase, from which he could easily emerge, rub some dirt on himself (to make it look like he'd clawed through soil), and wait for the applause.

According to Wolf, a key part of making the trap doors was using fake welds. "One of the interesting things about the trap doors was creating them as illusions, so people invited up on stage could examine the props and not figure out where the trap doors were," Wolf says. "So one of the techniques Houdini used was fake rivets and fake screws, to make you think something was fastened that wasn't. And we may have experimented with fake welds," he notes coyly. "But anyone who was visually inspecting the props would think they were mechanically sound to keep someone in."

Even once you know how the trick was done, watching it in action in the show is suspenseful. Still, it likely won't quiet the historians and enthusiasts who are trying to understand Houdini's illusions—and his life.

"I believe that most of [Houdini's illusions] are still a mystery," Wolf says. "There are probably only a handful of ways most of them could be done, and through simple diagnostics and experimenting, you could figure out which were safest and most repeatable ways to do each of them. But we don't really know for sure how he did them."

That means the myths—and the legend—of Houdini aren't likely to be buried anytime soon.

The "Buried Alive" episode of Houdini's Last Secrets premieres on January 27.

10 Fast Facts About Jimi Hendrix

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Though he’s widely considered one of the most iconic musicians of the 20th century, Jimi Hendrix passed away as his career was really just getting started. Still, he managed to accomplish a lot in the approximately four years he spent in the spotlight, and leave this world a legend when he died on September 18, 1970, at the age of 27. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the musical legend.

1. Jimi Hendrix didn't become "Jimi" until 1966.

Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle on November 27, 1942 as John Allen Hendrix. He was initially raised by his mother while his father, James “Al” Hendrix, was in Europe fighting in World War II. When Al returned to the United States in 1945, he collected his son and renamed him James Marshall Hendrix.

In 1966, Chas Chandler—the bassist for The Animals, who would go on to become Jimi’s manager—saw the musician playing at Cafe Wha? in New York City. "This guy didn't seem anything special, then all of a sudden he started playing with his teeth," roadie James "Tappy" Wright, who was there, told the BBC in 2016. "People were saying, 'What the hell?' and Chas thought, 'I could do something with this kid.’”

Though Hendrix was performing as Jimmy James at the time, it was Chandler who suggested he use the name “Jimi.”

2. Muddy Waters turned Jimi Hendrix on to the guitar—and scared the hell out of him.

When asked about the guitarists who inspired him, Hendrix cited Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Elmore James, and B.B. King. But Muddy Waters was the first musician who truly made him aware of the instrument. “The first guitarist I was aware of was Muddy Waters,” Hendrix said. “I heard one of his old records when I was a little boy and it scared me to death because I heard all these sounds.”

3. Jimi Hendrix could not read music.


George Stroud/Express/Getty Images

In 1969, Dick Cavett asked the musician whether he could read music: “No, not at all,” the self-taught musician replied. He learned to play by ear and would often use words or colors to express what he wanted to communicate. “[S]ome feelings make you think of different colors,” he said in an interview with Crawdaddy! magazine. “Jealousy is purple—‘I'm purple with rage’ or purple with anger—and green is envy, and all this.”

4. Jimi Hendrix used his dreams as inspiration for his songwriting.

Hendrix drew inspiration for his music from a lot of places, including his dreams. “I dreamt a lot and I put a lot of my dreams down as songs,” he explained in a 1967 interview with New Musical Express. “I wrote one called ‘First Look’ and another called ‘The Purple Haze,’ which was all about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea.” (In another interview, he said the idea for “Purple Haze” came to him in a dream after reading a sci-fi novel, believed to be Philip José Farmer’s Night of Light.)

5. "Purple Haze" features one of music's most famous mondegreens.

In the same interview with New Musical Express, it's noted that the “Purple Haze” lyric “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky” was in reference to a drowning man Hendrix saw in his dream. Which makes the fact that many fans often mishear the line as “‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy” even more appropriate. It was such a common mistake that Hendrix himself was known to have some fun with it, often singing the incorrect lyrics on stage—occasionally even accompanied by a mock make-out session. There’s even a Website, KissThisGuy.com, dedicated to collecting user-generated stories of misheard lyrics.

6. Jimi Hendrix played his guitar upside-down.

Ever the showman, Hendrix’s many guitar-playing quirks became part of his legend: In addition to playing with his teeth, behind his back, or without touching the instrument’s strings, he also played his guitar upside-down—though there was a very simple reason for that. He was left-handed. (His father tried to get him to play right-handed, as he considered left-handed playing a sign of the devil.)

7. Jimi Hendrix played backup for a number of big names.

Though Hendrix’s name would eventually eclipse most of those he played with in his early days, he played backup guitar for a number of big names under the name Jimmy James, including Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Isley Brothers.

In addition to the aforementioned musical legends, Hendrix also helped actress Jayne Mansfield in her musical career. In 1965, he played lead and bass guitar on “Suey,” the B-side to her single “As The Clouds Drift By.”

8. Jimi Hendrix was once kidnapped after a show.

Though the details surrounding Hendrix’s kidnapping are a bit sketchy, in Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, Charles R. Cross wrote about how the musician was kidnapped following a show at The Salvation, a club in Greenwich Village:

“He left with a stranger to score cocaine, but was instead held hostage at an apartment in Manhattan. The kidnappers demanded that [Hendrix’s manager] Michael Jeffrey turn over Jimi’s contract in exchange for his release. Rather than agree to the ransom demand, Jeffrey hired his own goons to search out the extorters. Mysteriously, Jeffrey’s thugs found Jimi two days later … unharmed.

“It was such a strange incident that Noel Redding suspected that Jeffrey had arranged the kidnapping to discourage Hendrix from seeking other managers; others … argued the kidnapping was authentic.”

9. Jimi Hendrix opened for The Monkees.

Though it’s funny to imagine such a pairing today, Hendrix warming up The Monkees’s crowd of teenybopper fans actually made sense for both acts back in 1967. For the band, having a serious talent like Hendrix open for them would help lend them some credibility among serious music fans and critics. Though Hendrix thought The Monkees’s music was “dishwater,” he wasn’t well known in America and his manager convinced him that partnering with the band would help raise his profile. One thing they didn’t take into account: the young girls who were in the midst of Monkeemania.

The Monkees’s tween fans were confused by Hendrix’s overtly sexual stage antics. On July 16, 1967, after playing just eight of their 29 scheduled tour dates, Hendrix flipped off an audience in Queens, New York, threw down his guitar, and walked off the stage.

10. You can visit Jimi Hendrix's London apartment.

In 2016, the London flat where Hendrix really began his career was restored to what it would have looked like when Jimi lived there from 1968 to 1969 and reopened as a museum. The living room that doubled as his bedroom is decked out in bohemian décor, and a pack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes sits on the bedside table. There’s also space dedicated to his record collection.

Amazingly, the same apartment building—which is located in the city’s Mayfair neighborhood—was also home to George Handel from 1723 until his death in 1759; the rest of the building serves as a museum to the famed composer’s life and work.

John Carpenter’s Original Halloween Is Coming Back to Theaters This Month

Anchor Bay Entertainment
Anchor Bay Entertainment

From September 27 through October 31, the original 1978 Halloween—directed by John Carpenter and produced by Debra Hill—will be returning to theaters, though it will look a little different. Hypebeast reports that the film’s cinematographer, Dean Cundey, helped remaster and restore a copy of the original film, giving this updated version better lighting and effects.

Upon its release on October 25, 1978, Halloween became one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time (it grossed $47 million domestically on a $325,000 budget), and kicked off a decade of copycat slasher films. In 2006, the Library of Congress chose to preserve Halloween in the U.S. National Film Registry. Last year, David Gordon Green directed Halloween, a “sequel” to the original. (Basically, the new Halloween ignored plots from 37 years of Halloween sequels and remakes.)

In 2020 and 2021, two more Halloweens, both starring Jamie Lee Curtis and directed by Green, will hit theaters worldwide. But between the end of September and Halloween, you’ll have a chance to see one of the greatest horror films of all time in theaters. (While watching you can look out for these Halloween goofs.)

Unlike a lot of classic movie re-releases, however, Halloween will not be shown at big chains like AMC. And the dates, times, and ticket costs will vary among venues, which will include select art house theaters, Rooftop Cinema Clubs, and event centers across North America. To find out if Halloween will be screening at a theater near you, go to CineLife’s site and type in your zip code.

[h/t Hypebeast]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER