The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini

“I have never seen a materialization or a manifestation which I cannot fully explain.” 

houdiniIn 1906, world-famous illusionist and stunt artist Harry Houdini published a collection of his essays on frauds, confidence tricksters, psychic charlatans, and other people of flimflammery. The purpose of his book was to enlighten the everyday reader to the various methods and cons that unsavory sorts all over the world commit easily and successfully.

The first half of the book, Houdini concerns himself with stage acts that are either real or bogus, as well as some advice to the youthful performer. He recounts instances where he saw the real deal, whether this was someone like himself who could escape from any pair of handcuffs or genuine sword swallowers who didn’t swap out real swords for fakes.

He then goes on to document various chicanery that readers should be alert to, whether this be currency forgers, scam artists, or pickpockets. Many of these confidence schemes are still relevant (Houdini documents a scam that sounds very similar to those Nigerian phishing emails).

Because the book is over 100 years old, some of the anecdotes and warnings feel dated, but Houdini is not only skilled as a performer but also as a wordsmith. He gives flare to sentences, which never feel technical or cumbersome. While describing a certain type of marine conwoman, Houdini writes,

Pirates in petticoats frequently ply their trade on ocean and lake steamers.

But even while writing about scams and sub-par illusionists, there are instances of performances I’ve never heard of before. At Oktoberfest, Houdini first witnesses frog swallowing, which he deems “very repulsive indeed.” While the entire book was a treat, the most enjoyable moments were in the second half when Houdini recounts specific scams and swindles giving each memorable titles (“The Aristocrat of Thievery,” “Humbugs,” “Fake! Fake! Fake!”). Such shakedowns include wagering on how much molasses can fit in to a stove-pipe hat to robbing a jewelry store by hiding a diamond in a wad of gum. Houdini even takes on himself and explains why he doesn’t fit into the mold of criminal or knave.

The edition I read was a recent release from Melville House, which included an introduction by Teller. You can also look at an original copy that has been digitized from the Harvard College Library. It shows the original illustrations.

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2 comments

  1. I find Houdini a fascinating character, and had no idea he’d ever written a book! Goodness. I don’t know whether it would be your thing or not, but I’m a fan of Houdini’s Box; The Art of Escape by Adam Phillips. Phillips is a psychotherapist and this is part meditation on Houdini’s life and work, part exploration of some case studies that illustrate our desire to escape. I loved it.

    1. Oooh! Sounds good. I, too, find Houdini incredibly intriguing, along with most aspects of early illusion, magic, and escape artistry. Thanks for the recommendation. Also, I think Houdini had another book as well, but I have yet to read it.

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