Houdini’s Last Trick

At New York’s Shelton Hotel on August 5th, 1926, in plain view of invited journalists and using no breathing apparatus, Harry Houdini lay in a sealed casket at the bottom of a swimming pool for an hour and a half. His motivation for the feat was the opportunity to expose Egyptian fakir Rahman Bey, a man who at the time was wowing crowds with the same stunt but attributing his survival to supernatural powers. Hours after his success, Houdini generously wrote the following letter to Dr. W. J. McConnell, a physiologist at the U.S. Bureau of Mines who had been present at the event. In it, he detailed the burials and their effects and even provided temperature recordings for McConnell, who in turn used the data in studies relating to the survival techniques of trapped miners.

Sadly, Houdini passed away less than three months later as a result of a ruptured appendix.

Transcript follows.



August 5,1926.

Dr. W. J. McConnell:-

Want to dictate my experiences and feeling as soon as possible, while it is fresh in my mind. It is now 5:10 P. M. Have had one half an hour’s sleep and feel fairly comfortable.

I have made two secret trials for the test and as you saw the coffin I used at the Boyertown Casket Company and have the measurements, I will eliminate that and let you add same. In the coffin I had 26,428 cubin inches of air and in the galvanised iron coffin which was submerged at the Shelton Baths, I had, 34,396 cubin inches which I believe gave me 7960 more cubin inches of air than in the Boyertown coffin. I will give you the tests and mark them, 1, 2 and 3.

#1 – Test was made in the coffin without being submerged. I remained this first time in same for one hour and ten minutes. Was comfortable which leaves me to believe that some air must have seeped through, though very little, it helped. I started to perspire after being in about forty-five minutes and was completely saturated with perspiration, but at no time was I in agony.

I scarcely moved. With my years of training, I can remain apparently motionless without an effort. I kept my eyes open for fear I would go to sleep. Dr. William Stone was in attendance, and they were very much afraid of the experiment. As it progressed their confidence grew, so did mine.

TEST #2 – Was made with a coffin that was specially made – that is, it had a lining of galvanised iron and was strengthened and tested until it was air-tight. I got into this Wednesday, August 4th about noon and remained submerged, the coffin being in a large box which you saw on the premises. Remained in this one hour and thirteen minutes. This time I was comfortable – somewhat cold (attached is a sheet of paper giving the temperature). There was plenty of moisture on the inside and I should judge about an inch and a half water on top of the coffin. I was watched constantly. Was much more comfortable than at the first test as far as my body was concerned, Started to draw long breaths after about fifty minutes. There was always an irritability there and thought it was simply temperament on my part.

I was annoyed by movements, annoyed by one of my assistants swaying over my head, even twisting of the key. I gave the signal to let me out at seventy minutes and believe it took three minutes to unscrew the thiry-two bolts and screws on the coffin. There was no suffering. The first test, when the coffin was not in water, – when the lid was taken off and the fresh air touched me, it felt icy cold.

Test #3 – which you witnessed, I have reason to believe that the air in the Swimming Pool was rarified, because it was warm in the coffin before the two round plates were screwed on. As a matter of fact I was not comfortable at all and attributed it to the warmth of the place and the mechanical means of drawing air into the pool. At no time can I say I was as comfortable as during the other tests. The first day, the anxiety of an accident retarded me somewhat, but as you know I trained for many years as an escape artist and have been nailed in boxes and thrown into rivers; have been locked in milk cans for two and three minutes. The Torture Cell which I am now presenting I have performed for twelve years. This compels me to keep in physical condition and lung capacity all of the time.

In this test I had to breath heavily after about fifty minutes and was not sure of staying an hour. I hung along over an hour and thought I would do at least ten minutes more. By this time, I commenced to pant, that is draw rather long slow breathes. As I remembered in the first two tests, the temperature was less at my feet than at my head, I slid towards the foot of the box.

The irritability was pronounced. I was going to have them a top shaking the galvanised iron coffin, but wanted to get the benefit of the air action, having read some of your reports and figured out that by moving the box, the air would move. The time they let the box go and it sprang to the surface, the only fear I had was that there would be a rending of the coffin, allowing the water to force through and drowned me. As you know I was helpless and would have taken a number of minutes to get me out of a dangerous predicament. As you know, eight men held the coffin down and on same was about 700 pounds of dead weight. The men in moving around kept shaking it to and fro.

When the coffin was out of the water, there was a relief all over my body. In speaking with Mr. Spatz of the Boyertown Casket Company on August 6th, I told him how relieved I felt when that galvanised iron coffin sprang out of the water. He said this means that there was a give in the galvanising and the air in there had to go somewhere which forced me to be uncomfortable as that air naturally was forced into my body. The new one they are going to make, they will eliminate any chance of outside pressure having any effect on the inside.

Incidentally, the Boyertown Casket Company, furnished the bronze casket in which Rahmen Bey was sealed and soldered the first time when he was supposed to remain for one hour, but only stayed in same twenty-one minutes. They have gone out of their way a good deal with these experiments and know they are willing to co-operate with you at any time to find out just exactly what can be done in an air-tight coffin. We are all interested from a humanitarian viewpoint and any time I am in your vicinity, am gladly at your service.

I counted my respiration and averaged seventeen. When I dictated this I still had that metallic taste in my stomach and mouth. Felt rather weak in the knees. Have no headache but just seem listless.

When Collins, my assistant, phoned me that I had been in there for one hour and twelve minutes, I was going to stay three more minutes but watching my lungs rise and fall thought I could stand the strain for another fifteen minutes.

When the box jumped in the air, I felt water under my shoulders and reaching over found the handkerchief I brought into the coffin was wet. About this time I thought of it again and put it to my lips thinking it would help me, but outside of relieving the warmth on the mouth, lips and tongue and imagining it might help, I doubt if it had any air value. Nevertheless I kept it to my lips until I was ready to come up.

After one hour and twenty-eight minutes I commenced to see yellow lights and carefully watched myself not to go to sleep. I kept my eyes wide open. Moved on the broad of my back, so as to take all of 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 to my ear without holding it and told Collins to get me up within that time.

At the hour and a half or 1:31, whatever the time was, again I had that comfortable feeling when the water pressure was off, not entirely relieving my accordion like movement of lungs, but I was at ease and when the coffin was opened, the lower plate, the coffin-seemed to expand and the rush of air lifted me practically off my back. Again I was irritable and wondered why they didn’t take off the second plate. As you know I had a plate at the head, and one at the foot.

There is no doubt in my mind that had this test been where fresh air could have gotten in the galvanised iron coffin as I was put in same, I could readily have stayed fifteen or thirty minutes longer. I must tell you that I have been training for this practically three weeks. My lungs are in a remarkable condition and when I commenced to pump for air, after one hour and twelve minutes, I believe it was only the training that allowed me to remain.

In ordinary circumstances I can remain under water two minutes without any trouble. When I was a boy from sixteen to eighteen years of age I could do four minutes in a bath tub where there was not much pressure.

In making this test, I used a physic the day before, ate very light and about 10:25 A. M. August 5th had a fruit salad and a half a cup of coffee. Was somewhat nervous but that I attribute to the excitement of the test, not through any fear.

In the three weeks I was training, I reduced about twelve pounds. As the present time I weight 157½ pounds. If you want any other measurements or additional information I would be glad to let you have same.

Am having a coffin made with a glass top, and as soon as it is ready will let you know. I know you are doing a worthwhile work and as my body and brain are trained for this particular line, I am at your service. Don’t be afraid to ask any question, I will be glad to let you know.

Regards and best wishes,

(Signed, ‘Houdini’)

P.S. I must tell you that every time I spoke I would gasp for air and was angry at Collins, my assistant making me raise my hand to ring the bell. Next time I do this, will take a pear shaped bell which I can hold in my hand and simply by thumb pressure push the button, although for you, believe the coffin with the glass cover, would be the most useful.

This is the Temperature at the second test, August 4, 1926.

Had two thermometers in the coffin – one at my feet and one at my head. This was in the coffin with the glass cover.

Time                Inside at head        Outside

12:05 P.M.              80                    65
12:15                       80                    65
12:20                       80                    65
12:25                       80                    65
12:30                       82                    67
12:35                       81                    67
12:40                       80                    67
12:45                       80                    67
12:50                       80                    67
12:55                       80                    67
1 : PM                     80                    67
1:05                         80                    67
1:10                         80                    67          
1:13                         80                    67

The thermometer at the feet was 77 degrees all during the experiment.