John Cox of Wild About Houdini has being doing a great job as usual relaying all the latest information on this item. I did a little digging myself and found a reference to the effect in the March, 1933 issue of THE SPHINX. It was reported that Hardeen appeared on the bill of The Society of American Magicians Annual Show of the Parent Assembly and performed the box mystery. The reporter wrote, "Hardeen closed the first half with a sensational act. He began by escapes from two handcuffs which led to his escape from a milk can encased in a large wooden box, both filled with water and both padlocked. The milk can was a tight fit in the box as was Hardeen a tight fit in the can. It was very effectively presented. Hardeen was working at top form even though he performed this feature effect for the first time." So, 1933 was the first time Hardeen performed this escape.
Hardeen performed the Double Fold Death Defying Mystery again at The Grand Congress of Magicians at Allentown, PA on March 30, 1935. It was reported "Hardeen closed the show with fifty gallons of water and his great milk can escape. At the matinee performance Hardeen narrowly escaped drowning when he had the milk can placed in a rough wooden box that barely enclosed it with no space to spare. Jim Collins had to enter the cabinet and help release him and the morning papers and the Associated Press carried the news all over the country. So at the evening show he was begged not to take this desperate chance just to please the magicians,..."
The most interesting fact in the next bit of information is Hardeen claims to have built a version of the DFDDM himself to combat the exposure of magic tricks by Camel Cigarettes. Here are some of Hardeen's own words provided by George LaFollette in the Jan. 1950 issue of the Linking Ring (page 28).
My Greatest Thrills in Magic by Theo Hardeen
Theo. Hardeen did not need the great name of Houdini to achieve success. I have heard many people say that they liked his presentation of the escape act even better than Houdini's. A feature attraction in his own right, he was one of the stars of the famous Olsen and Johnson's Hell's-A-Poppin all during the long run on Broadway and on the road.—George LaFollette
Call it what you may—thrill if you like, but to me, it was my life at stake—and I assure you that it was a lesson taught me in my younger days while I was one of the Bros. Houdini. My brother, Houdini, would often tell me "what ever you do, do not become panicky if anything goes wrong." Well, my friends, the time came when something did go wrong. And as usual, it happened while 1 was doing something for nothing.
I guess most of you will remember when the Camel's Cigarette Co. was running an expose of most of the best illusions, including Houdini's Milk Can Trick. Well, to get around that, and to show them and the world that the Houdini Milk Can did not work like they exposed it, I built a square box and had it filled with water and then placed the Milk Can into the box, the Milk Can also filled with water, and after the cover of the Milk Can was placed on the Can and six pad locks locked. The Cover of the box was then put on and locked with eight more locks.
In fact, I did the trick at one of the Society of American Magicians shows, and I defied any of the magicians to tell me how I did it.
At any rate, getting back to the thrill. It was at Allentown, Pa., March 30, 1935—The Grand Congress of Magicians were giving a show at the Lyric Theatre, and I was asked to help the good cause. I brought my troupe to Allentown at my own expense and gave two shows. One in the afternoon and one in the evening.
I had finished the first part of my performance, and was presenting the Famous Double Death Defying Trick. A committee was called on stage, box and can were filled with water and I got inside, both lids were clamped on and the curtain drawn. I now started to make my escape—but soon found out that something had gone wrong with the "gimmic"—I had my chief assistant, James Collins, who was with Houdini for 25 years and with me for 15 years, always looking into the cabinet with a flash light, and we had a secret signal, in case something happened—Collins also had a stop watch in his hand and knew if I did not appear at a certain time— something was wrong. Well, I did my best to escape—but nothing doing— here is where I remembered Houdini's advice—"Don't get panicky." I gave Collins the signal—in he rushed, (he closed the curtain behind him), opened the locks of both the box and can, liberated me, and walked out of the cabinet. Do you know that the audience did not even know anything had happened.
I had been imprisoned for three minutes and 10 seconds, and if I had not been able to hold my breath that long I'd be a dead magician by this time. I did not do the trick at the night show. Although the audience did not see what happened—the local newspapers wrote it up in big scare lines the next morning.
So, is the prop up for auction this Saturday Houdini's or Hardeens? I guess we will never know for sure.