Dec '16/Jan '17

To whom it may concern

By Kate Sheridan

Houdini with crate
Houdini’s stunt at the Shelton Hotel was not his only submersion-based feat; in 1912, he escaped from a box dropped into New York’s East River | United States Library of Congress, ggbain.50100

After 90 minutes locked in an airtight coffin at the bottom of a hotel pool, Harry Houdini was annoyed, hallucinating and drifting into unconsciousness. The internationally-famous illusionist and escape artist called his assistant on the telephone installed in the coffin and asked to be brought to the surface and set free.

Shortly after he emerged, he sat down at his typewriter, put in a piece of paper with his letterhead, and began to write a three-page letter to a scientist with the United States Bureau of Mines.

“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,” he wrote.

“I know you are doing worthwhile work and as my body and brain are trained for this particular line, I am at your service.”

Houdini’s primary motivation for the stunt was to expose Rahman Bey, an Egyptian performer who claimed to rely on supernatural powers to stay alive in a sealed casket. As he prepared for the stunt, Houdini realized his feat might have other benefits. Perhaps his experience could help people survive in areas with very little air – like miners trapped underground.

He contacted Dr. W.J. McConnell, a physiologist with the Bureau of Mines. McConnell helped supervise one of the two practice runs Houdini performed before attempting the stunt in front of the audience at New York City’s Shelton Hotel on Aug. 5, 1926.

McConnell, a specialist in industrial hygiene, was the author of papers on a variety of subjects over the course of his career, including volatile solvents, asbestos and ventilation standards in the workplace. In a letter to his colleague, McConnell wrote that he believed Houdini’s stunt “may have some value to us.”

In Houdini’s letter to McConnell following the stunt, he described the physical sensations he had while in the coffin – he saw yellow lights towards the end of the experiment, he wrote, and in each test he was irritated and annoyed. (“I was going to have them stop shaking the galvanized iron coffin,” Houdini told McConnell, as it was irritating him, “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 important thing is to believe that you are safe, don’t breathe too deeply and don’t make any unnecessary movements,” he told the New York Times, adding that fear was the reason miners died when trapped in airtight spaces.

He also sent McConnell temperature readings from his second test run, taken every ten minutes from the area around his head and feet as well as from the outside.

Though McConnell appears to have never published an academic paper based on Houdini’s experiment, mining authorities kept the letter. Houdini’s letter ended up buried in the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration’s (MESA) files until a staff member, June Rodano, discovered it in 1975, according to the administration’s employee newsletter.

“To [MESA], Houdini’s experiment has special interest as a historic attempt to dramatize that a miner trapped underground can survive for a surprisingly long time if he remains calm,” stated the administration’s employee newsletter.

The administration was the predecessor to the Mining Safety and Health Administration, which became part of the U.S. Department of Labor when the U.S. Bureau of Mines dissolved in the 90s.

The head of the administration, a lawyer named James Day, donated the letter to the Library of Congress and it has been uploaded to the Library’s website, where anyone can see what Houdini had to say.

The stunt proved to be his last. On Halloween in 1926, Houdini died due to complications from a burst appendix. He was buried in one of the caskets used to prepare for the stunt.

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