The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini

The Right Way to Do Wrong

Yeah, that Houdini. Houdini was fascinating man and a great magician, but what made him famous was his ability to escape from every cage, cell, rope, and handcuffs. It was this later capability that birthed the idea for this work. Houdini became friends with police officer, investigators and jailors across the world and from those contacts, he compiled a book of true stories along with the correct way to commit crimes. As he wrote in the foreword, this book is not teaching people how to commit crime but to teach the public how to protect themselves.

Those in the “know” still debate whether people should be told how to commit crime. Yes, some good people will learn how to protect themselves, but some bad people will now learn how to commit crimes more effectively. We’ll come back to this debate later, but I think it’s plainly obvious on which side of the debate Houdini fell.

This book covers mail fraud, all-purpose scams, house breaking, safe cracking, and plenty of other nefarious deeds. Many of these schemes still make the rounds today. The name and faces might change but the methods still work.

Houdini spends much time covering the various techniques used to break into homes. Often, crooks will scout out a house and/or neighborhood for a while before they break into a home. In fact, Houdini argued that good criminals only robbed one home a month or so. He also points out that they usually get caught in the end. A major component to avoiding burglary is watchful neighborhood. If neighbors watch for people scouting out a neighborhood, they will protect others and themselves. Simply talking to those who appear out of place can scare away potential crime. Few criminals will return if a neighbor spoke with them for a while. Houdini also argues that homeowners should take simple precautions commonsense precautions: lock the doors and windows, keep valuables in a room other than a bedroom and so on.

Mail fraud you say? Whether it was in 1906 or 2007, mail fraud is the same and quite prolific. Mail fraud lures people with the hope of a free fortune or a fantastic deal. Its mail fraud because the victim nevery meets the crook; everything is handled by mail. Now, mail fraud takes place via e-mail and on the internet. Either way, the rules are straightforward. The crook will contact you and offer you the latest whizbang doodad or deal for a price way below cost. Or maybe you just won a foreign lottery. All you need to do is send the lottery a certified check for $200 for processing fees and they’ll send you $5,000,000. Sounds too good to be true? That’s cause it is.

The subject that interested me the most in this book was begging. In 1906 after traveling around the world, Houdini was convinced that <90% of all beggars were professional beggars or in begging gangs. Whether on the street or via mail, these professional beggars would plead for your hard-earned cash. Now, I have seen too many professional beggars (and known of a few confirmed cases); I don’t trust any beggars. A friend told me that he always gives and figures that God will handle the details. He says that we should give and God will take care of us. I see my position as a bit more frugal and I don’t want to support a slothful person. Oh well, you decide which way you handle it. 🙂

Houdini has a great story about a man visiting Russia who discovered that his coat kept accruing cash while he walked the streets. It’s worth reading the book for that story.

Overall, if crime interests you, then you’ll want to read this book. Despite having been published slightly more than 100 years ago, the principals are still relevant. And if you need a gift for that person who finds crime interesting (from an intellectual point of view), then this might be a great book for a gift.

Buy it here

The audio books is here

The text is here


11 thoughts on “The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini

  1. That sounds like my kind of book! Its interesting how we try so hard to secure our personal posessions, and yet when the house keys are lost, it can be as simple as five minutes of thinking before one finds a way in!

    Have you ever read a biography of Houdini? His remains are being examined at the moment, so we finally figure out for sure how he died.

  2. Yeah, if we can figure it out in 5 minutes, what about a “pro?”

    I did many moons ago read a biography on Houdini. I didn’t realize that there was a debate. According to what I’ve always read, he died of a burst appendix. The story goes that he was being interviewed by a young reporter. The reporter asked if it was true that Houdini could withstand a punch by any man. When Houdini (reading his mail) absentmindedly responded in the affirmative, the young reporter thought that this meant Houdini was prepared.

    The young man punched Houdini and ruptured the appendix. Houdini was in pain, but assumed nothing. During his last performance, Houdini’s staff and wife performed the illusions for him. He died several days later from poisoning from the appendix.

    What have you heard?

  3. I always heard that story too, although not in quite as much detail (hmmm, no ever mentioned it was a reporter before. Interesting.) Then World’s little kiddy cousin God’s World News ran a story about the controversy.

    Apparently, there was some mystic group that Houdini had run afoul of (they claimed his illusions were due to pagan/spiritual power, while he argued/admitted it was all show, thus negating the fame they were trying to achieve at the time), and they had threatened his life on numerous occaisions. At the time of his death, it wassuspected that they had actually poisoned him, but there wasn’t the technology available to test whether it was just appendix poison or also something else. It seems someone wants to do an actual autopsy on him (they’re disembalming his corpse for DNA testing anyway) to see whether or not it was just his appendix.

    Its an excellent lesson in being wary of pride, presumption, and the press!

  4. Hmmm.

    I hadn’t heard of that group. I can pretty safely attest that Houdini was not using “magic.” I’ve seen the techniques for some of his illusions and they were just that: illusions. ALL stage magicians use scientific principals and sleight of hand.

    As for his involvement in the occult. Houdini was strongly influenced by the occult. He sought to communicate with his mother for years. He consistently sought out mediums to find one that could speak with the dead. He never found one who could. When he found another fraud, he exposed them as such.

    Houdini went so far as to create a secret passphrase with his wife. In the event that one of them died, the other would try to communicate using the passphrase as proof of that it was true communication with the dead.

    I’ll have to dig into the controversy when I get some time. Thanks for letting me know about it.

  5. Thank you for the excellent reveiw! Its interesting that so many con-artist tricks are as old as the hills.

    I can easily see him offending a group if he patronized them and then revealed them as fakes. Sounds like there were many candidates for that description.

    Even if we all know its not real magic, its fun to see the tricks anyway. Have you ever watched that tv show “Magic’s Greatest Secrets Finally Revealed”; same idea as Houdini, only the trick is explained at the end of the show. I loved that when I was a kid. They did basic tricks, usually, not complicated ones.

  6. I have seen those shows, and to be honest, I’m not a big fan of them. Having performed a few effects myself, (mostly pasteboard prestidigitation) I have seen that most people have a lower opinion of illusions after seeing the solution. It is the wonder of not understanding that makes the effect enjoyable.

    Just my opinion, but those shows tend to detract from the effect and the pleasure of the audience. There is always someone in the audience who has to spill the beans for those enjoying the effect. 🙂

    And no, I’m not bitter. much…

  7. That’s interesting! I appriciate the magic tricks alot more when I know how they are done. Just like it will be more fun when someone mentions Houdini in the future, because I know more about him from your comments. You’re probably right about most people, though.

  8. Well, I know that I love to see how it is done (or figure it out, because I appreciate the craft and skill). I also loved to be amazed when someone like Michael Ammar defies physics in front of my eyes. 😀

    But, the people who fall into that category are far smaller than those who lose interest when they know the secret. To each their own.

  9. Has anyone read “The Kite Runner”? (I post that question here because it seems it would fall under the “Historical/ Current Events” Category) What were your thoughts on it? What about his next book, which is quite hot off the press– “A Thousand Splendid Suns?”

  10. Sorry, never read any of Hosseini’s works. I do know that the book “Kite Runner” has some objectional materials. The material is sufficiently offensive to have caused fear for the boy’s life (the actor for the recent movie).

    But, honestly, other than an author interview on NPR, I know absolutely nothing about it. Have you read it?

  11. Havn’t read the book; reveiws of the movie were quite detailed though. It describes a common circumstance in the Muslim world, as I understand it. Get to know a missionary/convert from that part of the world is my preffered tactic. There’s a great festival for that in the Northwest United States this weekend: MissionConneXion.

    Although, since books are the forte here; have you read “Princess”, Christina?

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