The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.
Bill Mullins
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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby Bill Mullins » October 16th, 2012, 5:08 pm

As someone who has Pongols in his family (from my wife's side), I refuse to buy any Ali Bongo DVDs.

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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby Ted M » October 16th, 2012, 5:55 pm

John, your research is great. Thanks for the link to the image. Here it is:

Image

Unmentioned so far is that this fellow has horns. It's not even a person. It's a demonized Other.

But maybe Kevin thinks this is simply what Chinese people look like, and sees no racism here?

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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby Bill Mullins » October 16th, 2012, 6:19 pm

JohnCox wrote: I just found a 1914 reference.


NY Evening World, 10/3/1914 (found in the Library of Congress Chronicling America newspaper database) refers to the trick -- is your reference earlier than that?

The earliest reference to his performing the "Water Torture Cell" that I found is 6/1/1913.

And while searching for these, I ran across this, in which Houdini considers doing a little BASE jumping (doing Xtreme sport years ahead of anyone else . . .).

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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby JohnCox » October 16th, 2012, 6:40 pm

Nice work Bill. Mine is October 18, 1914, so yours is indeed earlier.

You can go right to Sept 21, 1912 with "Water Torture Cell":
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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby JohnCox » October 16th, 2012, 6:51 pm

Ted M wrote:John, your research is great. Thanks for the link to the image.

Unmentioned so far is that this fellow has horns. It's not even a person. It's a demonized Other.

Yeah, it's even worse than I remembered. Probably why Houdini replaced it with the big blue monster.
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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby Eric Fry » October 16th, 2012, 7:37 pm

The guy with the horns is clearly intended to be Chinese. It matches cliched images of pigtails, eyes, moustaches, robes. It conveys a devilish person, not a nonhuman.

Also, I think the blue figure isn't blue. It's dark-skinned. The blue represents highlights on dark skin.

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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby Ted M » October 16th, 2012, 8:31 pm

Yes, a demonized Chinese Other. By Other, I mean that it is marked as Other than (generally lesser than) a civilized human. Here, in addition to the pigtails etc, we have the demon horns and the savage mouth.

And yes, the blue guy is really just swarthy, which marks him as some kind of barbaric person. He's a semi-animalistic, brutish, Othered, depiction of some non-WASP person, pretty characteristic of racist art of the day. Here's some anti-Irish and anti-German art from the period:

Image

Image

Image

But the swarthy brute lacks the characteristics which, as Eric notes, would mark him as Chinese. Upon closer inspection, the swarthy brute poster only bills the act as the "Water Torture Cell".

We know it started out only as "Water Torture Cell", then the gratuitous "Chinese" was added and apparently kept. This would suggest that the swarthy brute poster was an earlier advertisement for the act.

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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby erdnasephile » October 17th, 2012, 12:35 pm

Certainly no shortage of racist images on the internet--magic or otherwise.

However, when I think of "others", this is what comes to mind:

[img:center]http://thenoniche.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/the-others-lost.jpg[/img]

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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby JohnCox » October 17th, 2012, 5:20 pm

Bill Mullins wrote:And while searching for these, I ran across this, in which Houdini considers doing a little BASE jumping (doing Xtreme sport years ahead of anyone else . . .).

Great find. I might need to a blog post about this.

Did you notice this article calls the USD "the box of mystery" (in quotes). Now there's a name I've never heard.
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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby Greg Edmonds » October 18th, 2012, 4:15 pm

Perhaps it's appropriate to note at this point that Houdini didn't appear particularly sensitive regarding matters of race if it's true (and documented facts seem to support ) that he, the son of a Rabbi, performed for the Ku Klux Klan. Though he never quite managed the language of the erudite "classes" of his time, and though much of his work was clearly ghost-written, Houdini was nobody's fool. He knew the Klan was about the supposed innate superiority of the Caucasion Christian (like the one he was married to, though as a Roman Catholic, the Klan would have hated her equally), but it seems business was business in his mind. Perhaps he found taking money from the b@st@rds was more than a little satisfying, we'll never know.

No one has noted, either, that the most famous Houdini biopic, featuring Tony Curtis in the title character role, depicted the water torture cell as a "Chinese" style pagoda. Clearly, then, the production designers all those years after Houdini's death didn't regard the issue as being "racially" sensitive.

Regarding the term "Chinese" as racist might, specious as it seems to those taking offense to John and Kevin's historically accurate portrayal of the term Houdini himself used, perhaps on shaky grounds.

Etymologically and genetically speaking, "Chinese" refers to people who are citizens of China, and not to any particular "race." If one traces the genome to its origins, it would be more accurate, as geneticists do, to refer to such individuals as being of Eastern Asian extraction. By calling "Chinese" a racist term are we not, again perhaps, therefore being just a little bit racist ourselves fellas? Though they share a heritage (again, genetically speaking), the peoples of China and Japan, for example have had "strained" relations for a very long time. Are said peoples racist because they did, and still do in no small part, have unkind things to say about one another?

Yes, the image on the poster/broadside shown above is clearly offensive by today's standards and was so even then to some (we'd like to think that would include ourselves), and mostly to one who looked--sans the horns--and dressed like the creature in the image depicted therein. It is, however, what it is. Taking umbridge to John's accurate portrayal of what Houdini's adverts state is perhaps a little specious in itself, or does not revisionist history offend you? It does me.

In Houdini's day, China (though it was the seat of much modern technology used even today) was considered, essentially, a "third world" country. It was, it seems, consequently easy to offend them in the standards of the day. Was this the right thing to do? Of course not, and it's no less offensive than Harry Keller referring to people of African decent as "darkies" in his published works (and he wasn't alone in this, of course, in the show business industry and society in general). It seems human nature to pick on the disenfranchised of the world, and makes me ashamed, as such, of being party to the race human as a result. I have little choice in the matter, though.

As to offending the body that is today's communist China, "one quarter" of the world's population. Might it not be relevant to note that said government body holds its people hostage, taking away what we in (much of) the rest of the world consider the most basic and essential freedoms. Too, if you've not followed the recent 2012 US presidential election debates, does not China cheat at every possible turn--something both major US political parties seem to agree upon--regarding its own trade agreements with the rest of the planet? Did they (the Chinese government) not kill those who attempted to claim such freedoms as their own within the Chinese borders? Remember Tienanmen Square? Though they've even hosted a major magic convention and the Olympic games, things have changed very little. Witness the level of corruption therein, too, in the recent murder trial of a British business man. Too, do not the vast majority of stolen ideas, illegal copies (even in this very small "magic community" of ours) and major forms of government-approved coordinated dishonesty originate in this very government we seem eager not to offend?

I've personally had dealings with people from today's China who come to the West for educational opportunities and live in constant fear that their government will punish their families at home (a contingency for being permitted to leave the country, save for those who are its official representatives, incidentally) if they appear to step out of line. Personally, I don't find the People's Republic quite worthy of respect, let alone praise.

Yes, genuine racism is more than offensive, it's reprehensible, but to suggest that one (Kevin, in this instance) is a racist because he elects to record historical facts as, well, facts, is in itself reprehensible. Perhaps you gentlemen doth protest too much? Perhaps it would be wise to stand before a mirror while casting your next stone.

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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby JohnCox » October 18th, 2012, 5:03 pm

Greg Edmonds wrote:Perhaps it's appropriate to note at this point that Houdini didn't appear particularly sensitive regarding matters of race if it's true (and documented facts seem to support ) that he, the son of a Rabbi, performed for the Ku Klux Klan.

Did he? You might be thinking of when he performed at the Klan Hall in Texas. But he was not performing for the KKK itself. He was touring his anti-spiritualist lecture and rented the hall because that was the only rentable public auditorium in that part of Texas. It was not a Klan event. It was a public event.

But thank you for your post. Some very well made points.
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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby Jonathan Townsend » October 18th, 2012, 5:10 pm

Any thoughts on referring to it as the "mystery box" since that's how it was first advertised?
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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby Jonathan Townsend » October 18th, 2012, 5:14 pm

It seems human nature to pick on the disenfranchised of the world, and makes me ashamed, as such, of being party to the race human as a result. I have little choice in the matter, though.


You can choose how you express yourself in both words and actions.

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Re: The Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby Greg Edmonds » October 18th, 2012, 5:14 pm

Jonathan Townsend wrote:
JohnCox wrote:But that's what it was called.


So f*'ing what? ... The language known back then as Mandarin is now known as national language or common speech.


Actually, Jonathan, this isn't technically true. While Mandarin is widely spoken in China today, it is far from the "national" or "common" language of all Chinese people. Cantonese is spoken widely in large regions, as is Taiwanese, to a lesser degree. Of course, the latter is somewhat contingent upon the fact that China regards Taiwan as belonging to the Peoples Republic. Naturally, folks actually residing in the genuinely democratic country of Taiwan have other ideas.

In any event, there are ongoing problems with people in one region not being able to understand one of the three primary (and actually, NINE language families) languages contemporaneously used, in the country, from another region.

If you doubt this, speak with a person visiting from China at your local post-secondary educational institution. Better still, during a medical emergency, accidentally get a person from one region to try and translate the words of a patient from another. The results can lead to disaster.

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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby JohnCox » October 18th, 2012, 5:16 pm

Jonathan Townsend wrote:Any thoughts on referring to it as the "mystery box" since that's how it was first advertised?

It wasn't first advertised as mystery box (or "the box of mystery"). That article is from 1914, two years after it was introduced, and I think that might have been a misquote. It was first called "Houdini Upside Down" in the playlet used to copyright the effect in 1911. In the first public performance in 1912 it was called "The Water Torture Cell". We see that on the first poster and the commemorative plaque. The earliest reference to "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" appears to be 1914.

I'm now thinking the name could have been changed for America. HH performed the USD as "Water Torture Cell" in Europe from 1912-13. Although the devil-man image was used in Germany.
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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby Greg Edmonds » October 18th, 2012, 5:42 pm

JohnCox wrote:
Greg Edmonds wrote:Perhaps it's appropriate to note at this point that Houdini didn't appear particularly sensitive regarding matters of race if it's true (and documented facts seem to support ) that he, the son of a Rabbi, performed for the Ku Klux Klan.

Did he? You might be thinking of when he performed at the Klan Hall in Texas. But he was not performing for the KKK itself. He was touring his anti-spiritualist lecture and rented the hall because that was the only rentable public auditorium in that part of Texas. It was not a Klan event. It was a public event.

But thank you for your post. Some very well made points.


To be completely forthcoming, John, I'm not sure at this point. While the hall in question was (I think you're correct) rented for convenience' sake, my confusion arises from Fleischman and at least one other Houdini bio--I'm afraid I can't recall which just now--I've reread in preparation for the Marie Blood book, has him working for the Klan itself. I personally regard Silverman as the authoritative work, but will have to dig my copy back out to refresh my memory. I set up book signings with Marie (at which I performed a little "spiritualistic" magic, while seated next to her) so she could autograph her section in the back of Ken Silverman's book. It was at one of these, in fact, that Marie and husband Forrest asked me to work her own manuscript (to which I'd offered suggestions, such as starting with the Houdini funeral) into a full-fledged book. You know, I think, the rest of the story. Slowly but slowly, the book remains a work in progress, though there's now light at the end of the tunnel.

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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby JohnCox » October 18th, 2012, 5:58 pm

Greg Edmonds wrote:
JohnCox wrote:
Greg Edmonds wrote:Perhaps it's appropriate to note at this point that Houdini didn't appear particularly sensitive regarding matters of race if it's true (and documented facts seem to support ) that he, the son of a Rabbi, performed for the Ku Klux Klan.

Did he? You might be thinking of when he performed at the Klan Hall in Texas. But he was not performing for the KKK itself. He was touring his anti-spiritualist lecture and rented the hall because that was the only rentable public auditorium in that part of Texas. It was not a Klan event. It was a public event.

But thank you for your post. Some very well made points.


To be completely forthcoming, John, I'm not sure at this point. While the hall in question was (I think you're correct) rented for convenience' sake, my confusion arises from Fleischman and at least one other Houdini bio--I'm afraid I can't recall which just now--I've reread in preparation for the Marie Blood book, has him working for the Klan itself. I personally regard Silverman as the authoritative work, but will have to dig my copy back out to refresh my memory. I set up book signings with Marie (at which I performed a little "spiritualistic" magic, while seated next to her) so she could autograph her section in the back of Ken Silverman's book. It was at one of these, in fact, that Marie and husband Forrest asked me to work her own manuscript (to which I'd offered suggestions, such as starting with the Houdini funeral) into a full-fledged book. You know, I think, the rest of the story. Slowly but slowly, the book remains a work in progress, though there's now light at the end of the tunnel.

If you have it, check out Ron Cartlidge's Houdini & The Ku Klux Klan. He really got into it and figured out exactly what this Klan Auditorium performance was all about. The trouble is some local newspapers wrote about a Klan BBQ and Houdini's performance in the same article. But they were not the same event. Not even the same day.

But maybe there's some other Klan performance that I'm not recalling. This is the only Klan/Houdini thing that comes to mind for me.

Looking forward to your book! :)
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Re: The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby JohnCox » October 18th, 2012, 6:15 pm

But back to the Chinese, a bright Houdinite just pointed me to pages 162-163 in the Silverman bio that shows HH was fascinated by (real) Chinese torture scenarios and did some escapes from actual Chinese torture devices before he created the USD. Racist or not, the Chinese angle seemed to be good theater.
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Re: The Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby erdnasephile » October 18th, 2012, 6:31 pm

Greg Edmonds wrote:
Jonathan Townsend wrote:
JohnCox wrote:But that's what it was called.


So f*'ing what? ... The language known back then as Mandarin is now known as national language or common speech.


Actually, Jonathan, this isn't technically true. While Mandarin is widely spoken in China today, it is far from the "national" or "common" language of all Chinese people. Cantonese is spoken widely in large regions, as is Taiwanese, to a lesser degree. Of course, the latter is somewhat contingent upon the fact that China regards Taiwan as belonging to the Peoples Republic. Naturally, folks actually residing in the genuinely democratic country of Taiwan have other ideas.

In any event, there are ongoing problems with people in one region not being able to understand one of the three primary (and actually, NINE language families) languages contemporaneously used, in the country, from another region.

If you doubt this, speak with a person visiting from China at your local post-secondary educational institution. Better still, during a medical emergency, accidentally get a person from one region to try and translate the words of a patient from another. The results can lead to disaster.


Greg is correct, but Jon is also not completely incorrect, as Mandarin is the official language of the communist government.

Here's a language map to illustrate Greg's point:

[img:center]http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/19/Map_of_sinitic_dialect_-_English_version.svg/757px-Map_of_sinitic_dialect_-_English_version.svg.png[/img]

Cantonese tends to be spoken in the southern, more agrarian portions of the country (plus Hong Kong), while traditionally Mandarin was the language of the ruling classes. (Cantonese food is 1000X better, though, in my family's opinion, but YMMV).

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Re: The Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby David Byron » October 18th, 2012, 8:36 pm

I'm really going to have to insist that you stop referring to him as the "American" Self-Liberator.

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Re: The Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby houdini's ghost » October 18th, 2012, 8:52 pm

The Houdini birther matter is settled now. I have made the observation that the cell is referred to in Houdini's advertising and interviews as the Chinese Water Torture Cell far less oten than as simply the Water Torture Cell. And "Chinese" does not come up in the patter recordings we have heard.

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Re: The Water Torture Cell at 100

Postby JohnCox » October 18th, 2012, 9:27 pm

houdini's ghost wrote:And "Chinese" does not come up in the patter recordings we have heard.

That's a great point. And those recordings were made in Oct of 1914 when the cell was being billed as The Chinese Water Torture Cell, yet Houdini himself is saying Water Torture Cell in his stage patter.
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