On this day in 1926, Hungarian-born American magician, illusionist, and stunt performer Harry Houdini performed his greatest feat: he spent 91 minutes underwater in a sealed tank before escaping.
Born Ehrich Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, in March of 1874, Houdini moved to Wisconsin, USA, at an early age, where he began performing in trapeze acts. Years later he moved to New York, adopted the stage name Harry Houdini, and began a career mesmerizing audiences with his daring escapes and dangerous stunts. His stunts included escaping from top-security handcuffs, straitjackets, even clawing himself to the surface of the Earth after being buried alive. But perhaps his greatest feat was his last major public stunt, his underwater test. It was competition that inspired Houdini to take on this challenge.
In July 1926 Egyptian magician Rahman Bey locked himself in a metal box and remained underwater in New York’s Dalton Hotel for an hour. It was the first major record for an underwater burial. After he surfaced, Bey challenged Houdini to replicate the stunt. Houdini, of course, was determined to beat Bey’s record. After undergoing two practice tests, Houdini performed his own underwater burial in front of journalists at the swimming pool of the Hotel Shelton in New York. On 6 August 1926 he enclosed himself in a 320-kilogram sealed coffin that reportedly had enough air for five minutes’ survival. The airtight glass coffin was then submerged in water. During that time, Houdini reported feeling extremely warm and became visibly irritated. “After one hour and 28 minutes I commenced to see yellow lights and carefully watched myself not to go to sleep,” he later wrote of the experience. “I kept my eyes wide open.” After an impressive 91 minutes, the coffin was raised and Houdini emerged, deathly white. He had beat Bey’s record by 30 minutes.
As gimmicky as the stunt may have appeared, Houdini believed it served a practical purpose as an example for miners who were trapped in shafts with limited oxygen. From the stunt, Houdini learned it is important not to become overwhelmed with fear 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 said after his own stunt. He sent this advice in a letter to Dr. W.J. McConnell, a psychologist with the US Bureau of Mines, who was analysing data on maximising endurance for miners with limited oxygen supplies.
The underwater burial test turned out to be Houdini’s last major stunt. He died a few months later, on 31 October 1926, of a ruptured appendix.