Getty Images
Getty Images

How Houdini Stayed in an Underwater Coffin for 90 Minutes

Getty Images
Getty Images

By 1926, the year he died, Harry Houdini had made an elephant disappear, walked out of a brick wall assistants had built around him, regurgitated needles and blades, swam out of a nailed-shut box into which he'd been shackled and thrown into the East River, and escaped countless handcuffs and straitjackets (often while hanging upside-down).

The magician’s seemingly never-ending tricks were usually sleight-of-hand, the result of hidden features in his props, or exploitations of the weaknesses of his restraints. But for arguably his greatest trick, one he performed at the age of 52 just months before he died, Houdini had to master his own physiology.

In July of that year, magician Rahman Bey performed a stunt that rivaled any of Houdini’s. Bey was enclosed in a metal box, which was submerged in a swimming pool in New York’s Dalton Hotel. After an hour, assistants pulled him out, alive. Bey directly challenged Houdini to replicate the stunt.

According to Harry Houdini: Death-Defying Showman by Rita Thievon Mullin, Houdini practiced for weeks to regulate his breathing, taking shallow breaths in the hopes of conserving oxygen within an airtight container. His assistants built a glass case, one that would allow Houdini to give a visual cue if he was about suffocate. On the first practice run, he spent one hour and 10 minutes in it, emerging sweaty and gasping. He feared, however, that some air may have seeped in, so he made a second practice attempt. This time, the glass case was lowered into a pool of water. Once again, Houdini managed 70 minutes before giving the signal to be let out.

On August 5, 1926, Houdini performed the stunt in front of journalists at the Hotel Shelton in New York. He entered a metal casket, which his assistants lowered into a swimming pool. Houdini’s reputation was at stake, but he made an effort to ensure that his life wasn’t. According to Mullin, the casket was wired with a buzzer he could press in case he felt imminent death. There was also a telephone line within the device. Houdini’s assistant, James Collins, called down every few minutes to inform him how much time had passed.

Peter M. Lalley, emeritus professor of physiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told mental_floss he wouldn’t recommend trying this at home. “You’re not very long for survival in an enclosed space,” he says. Normal air is about 20 percent oxygen. Once “used” by animals breathing, that percentage goes down until there is nothing beneficial to bind to the body’s hemoglobin. There are ways to slow down the depletion, however: Taking shallower breaths helps, Lalley says, and swimmers and divers often hyperventilate before a task to lower the body’s carbon dioxide levels.

Back at the pool in 1926, Houdini chose to stay in after Collins called and told him he had exceeded Bey’s timing. He finally buzzed to be let loose after 91 minutes.

Houdini had consulted with Dr. W. J. McConnell, a former surgeon at the U.S. Bureau of Mines, who researched survival techniques for trapped miners. McConnell was present at the August 5 stunt, and a few hours after freeing himself Houdini typed him a detailed letter, outlining his experiences—including what he’d had for breakfast that morning (“a fruit salad and half a cup of coffee”)—in the hopes they’d be of use to McConnell.

“After one hour and twenty-eight minutes, I commenced to see yellow lights and carefully watched myself not to go to sleep,” the magician wrote. “I kept my eyes wide open. Moved on the broad of my back, so as to not take all the weight off my lungs, my left arm was across my chest. I laid on my right side, my left buttock against the coffin so that I could keep the telephone receiver against my ear without holding it.”

However, Houdini didn’t always know the limits of his body and may have died accomplishing a much less impressive feat. Three months later, he succumbed to complications from a ruptured appendix—the result, according to legend, of a Montreal college student testing Houdini’s boast that he could take a punch in the gut with no ill effect.

Yes, You Can Put Your Christmas Decorations Up Now—and Should, According to Psychologists

We all know at least one of those people who's already placing an angel on top of his or her Christmas tree while everyone else on the block still has paper ghosts stuck to their windows and a rotting pumpkin on the stoop. Maybe it’s your neighbor; maybe it’s you. Jolliness aside, these early decorators tend to get a bad rap. For some people, the holidays provide more stress than splendor, so the sight of that first plastic reindeer on a neighbor's roof isn't exactly a welcome one.

But according to two psychoanalysts, these eager decorators aren’t eccentric—they’re simply happier. Psychoanalyst Steve McKeown told UNILAD:

“Although there could be a number of symptomatic reasons why someone would want to obsessively put up decorations early, most commonly for nostalgic reasons either to relive the magic or to compensate for past neglect.

In a world full of stress and anxiety people like to associate to things that make them happy and Christmas decorations evoke those strong feelings of the childhood.

Decorations are simply an anchor or pathway to those old childhood magical emotions of excitement. So putting up those Christmas decorations early extend the excitement!”

Amy Morin, another psychoanalyst, linked Christmas decorations with the pleasures of childhood, telling the site: “The holiday season stirs up a sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia helps link people to their personal past and it helps people understand their identity. For many, putting up Christmas decorations early is a way for them to reconnect with their childhoods.”

She also explained that these nostalgic memories can help remind people of spending the holidays with loved ones who have since passed away. As Morin remarked, “Decorating early may help them feel more connected with that individual.”

And that neighbor of yours who has already been decorated since Halloween? Well, according to a study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, homes that have been warmly decorated for the holidays make the residents appear more “friendly and cohesive” compared to non-decorated homes when observed by strangers. Basically, a little wreath can go a long way.

So if you want to hang those stockings before you’ve digested your Thanksgiving dinner, go ahead. You might just find yourself happier for it.

11 Black Friday Purchases That Aren't Always The Best Deal

Black Friday can bring out some of the best deals of the year (along with the worst in-store behavior), but that doesn't mean every advertised price is worth splurging on. While many shoppers are eager to save a few dollars and kickstart the holiday shopping season, some purchases are better left waiting for at least a few weeks (or longer).


Display of outdoor furniture.
Photo by Isaac Benhesed on Unsplash

Black Friday is often the best time to scope out deals on large purchases—except for furniture. That's because newer furniture models and styles often appear in showrooms in February. According to Kurt Knutsson, a consumer technology expert, the best furniture deals can be found in January, and later on in July and August. If you're aiming for outdoor patio sets, expect to find knockout prices when outdoor furniture is discounted and put on clearance closer to Labor Day.


A display of tools.

Unless you're shopping for a specific tool as a Christmas gift, it's often better to wait until warmer weather rolls around to catch great deals. While some big-name brands offer Black Friday discounts, the best tool deals roll around in late spring and early summer, just in time for Memorial Day and Father's Day.


A stack of bed linens.

Sheet and bedding sets are often used as doorbuster items for Black Friday sales, but that doesn't mean you should splurge now. Instead, wait for annual linen sales—called white sales—to pop up after New Year's. Back in January of 1878, department store operator John Wanamaker held the first white sale as a way to push bedding inventory out of his stores. Since then, retailers have offered these top-of-the-year sales and January remains the best time to buy sheets, comforters, and other cozy bed linens.


Rows of holiday gnomes.

If you are planning to snag a new Christmas tree, lights, or other festive décor, it's likely worth making due with what you have and snapping up new items after December 25. After the holidays, retailers are looking to quickly move out holiday items to make way for spring inventory, so ornaments, trees, yard inflatables, and other items often drastically drop in price, offering better deals than before the holidays. If you truly can't wait, the better option is shopping as close to Christmas as possible, when stores try to reduce their Christmas stock before resorting to clearance prices.


Child choosing a toy car.

Unless you're shopping for a very specific gift that's likely to sell out before the holidays, Black Friday toy deals often aren't the best time to fill your cart at toy stores. Stores often begin dropping toy prices two weeks before Christmas, meaning there's nothing wrong with saving all your shopping (and gift wrapping) until the last minute.


Rows of rings.

Holiday jewelry commercials can be pretty persuasive when it comes to giving diamonds and gold as gifts. But, savvy shoppers can often get the best deals on baubles come spring and summer—prices tend to be at their highest between Christmas and Valentine's Day thanks to engagements and holiday gift-giving. But come March, prices begin to drop through the end of summer as jewelers see fewer purchases, making it worth passing up Black Friday deals.


Searching for flights online.

While it's worth looking at plane ticket deals on Black Friday, it's not always the best idea to whip out your credit card. Despite some sales, the best time to purchase a flight is still between three weeks and three and a half months out. Some hotel sites will offer big deals after Thanksgiving and on Cyber Monday, but it doesn't mean you should spring for next year's vacation just yet. The best travel and accommodation deals often pop up in January and February when travel numbers are down.


Gift basket against a blue background.

Fancy fruit, meat and cheese, and snack baskets are easy gifts for friends and family (or yourself, let's be honest), but they shouldn't be snagged on Black Friday. And because baskets are jam-packed full of perishables, you likely won't want to buy them a month away from the big day anyway. But traditionally, you'll spend less cheddar if you wait to make those purchases in December.


Rack of women's winter clothing.
Photo by Hannah Morgan on Unsplash.

Buying clothing out of season is usually a big money saver, and winter clothes are no exception. Although some brands push big discounts online and in-store, the best savings on coats, gloves, and other winter accessories can still be found right before Black Friday—pre-Thanksgiving apparel markdowns can hit nearly 30 percent off—and after the holidays.


Group of hands holding smartphones.

While blowout tech sales are often reserved for Cyber Monday, retailers will try to pull you in-store with big electronics discounts on Black Friday. But, not all of them are really the best deals. The price for new iPhones, for example, may not budge much (if at all) the day after Thanksgiving. If you're in the market for a new phone, the best option might be waiting at least a few more weeks as prices on older models drop. Or, you can wait for bundle deals that crop up during December, where you pay standard retail price but receive free accessories or gift cards along with your new phone.


Row of hanging kitchen knives and utensils.

Black Friday is a great shopping day for cooking enthusiasts—at least for those who are picky about their kitchen appliances. Name-brand tools and appliances often see good sales, since stores drop prices upwards of 40 to 50 percent to move through more inventory. But that doesn't mean all slow cookers, coffee makers, and utensil prices are the best deals. Many stores advertise no-name kitchen items that are often cheaply made and cheaply priced. Purchasing these lower-grade items can be a waste of money, even on Black Friday, since chances are you may be stuck looking for a replacement next year. And while shoppers love to find deals, the whole point of America's unofficial shopping holiday is to save money on products you truly want (and love).


More from mental floss studios