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Water Torture Cell

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Water Torture Cell was an escape developed by Harry Houdini that followed his Giant Milk Can Escape, which was beginning to have a vast number of imitators. He began to perform it during his fall tour with the Circus Busch in Germany in 1912, calling it simple "The Upside Down".

In this escape, Houdini's feet would be locked in stocks, and he would be lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The mahogany and metal cell featured a glass front, through which audiences could clearly see Houdini. The stocks would be locked to the top of the cell, and a curtain would conceal his escape. In the earliest version of the Torture Cell, a metal cage was lowered into the cell, and Houdini was enclosed inside that. While making the escape more difficult (the cage prevented Houdini from turning), the cage bars also offered protection should the front glass break.

A committee of volunteers was chosen prior to the show to examine the tank. Houdini would be hauled upward, turned upside down and lowered down into the water. Assistants would locked the top of the tank and push a canopy over it to cover the top. Houdini was visible through the plate glass on the front of the tank until the drapes around it were closed. Assistants stood by with axes; ready to break the glass in case of emergency. After several suspenseful minutes passed, Houdini would escape and emerge through the curtains usually to a show-stopping applause.

The original cell was built in England, where Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called "Houdini Upside Down". This was so he could copyright the effect and have grounds to sue imitators (which he did). While the escape was advertised as "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" or "The Water Torture Cell", Houdini always referred to it as "the Upside Down" or "USD". The first public performance of the USD was at the Circus Busch in Berlin, on September 21, 1912. Houdini continued to perform the escape until his death in 1926. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture Cell, the escape had nothing to do with his demise.