By Harry Houdini
Melville House. 150 pp. Paperback, $15
Before David Copperfield made the Great Wall of China disappear and David Blaine was frozen in a block of ice, there was a Hungarian-born Jew who made a career of escaping from handcuffs, milk cans and prison cells: Harry Houdini. In “The Right Way to Do Wrong,” the reprint of a book originally published in 1906, he offers advice, in memoir form, for upright citizens seeking to avoid pickpockets and confidence men. Houdini was famous not just as an illusionist but for exposing spiritualist mediums, whom he was able to catch cheating during seances.
“There is an under world — a world of cheat and crime — a world whose highest good is successful evasion of the laws of the land,” he writes. “You who live your life in placid respectability know but little of the real life of the denizens of this world.” Unfortunately, one learns little about Houdini himelf from this at least partly ghostwritten book. Transplanted to Wisconsin at age 4, he ran away to join the circus at 9. Yet “The Right Way to Do Wrong” doesn’t explore his passions for carnivals and escapes.
Still, Houdini’s words give a sense of the man and his times in a way that a straight autobiography might miss. Sure, it would be nice to know more about why he ran away from home, but it’s also fun to learn about “defiers” of poisonous reptiles and about burglars’ superstitions, which include the avoidance of stopped clocks, broken mirrors, unframed oil paintings and newly painted houses.
Perhaps more interesting than Houdini’s lengthy asides on sword-swallowing and escaping rope ties, however, is Teller’s short introduction to the book. Unlike Houdini, the silent half of the libertarian magic duo Penn and Teller dares to ask what’s interesting about the dark arts. “Part of us still hungers to chase our steak through the forest and kill it with our own sharp teeth,” Teller writes. “So the people who love to read about crime and violence are generally gentle folk like you and me.” Houdini’s century-old peek into the criminal underworld may be dated, but it gives some insight into the mind of an American original.