Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Right Way To Do Wrong

There is a dark side to pretty much every aspect of life, and the allure of the dark side fascinates. What a person does with this fascination becomes a question a character, the old pull between good-versus-evil. To squelch this attention only seems to make it more attractive.

One hundred years ago magician Harry Houdini used his popularity and fame to publish a magazine filled with articles exposing many of the fakes, cranks, hacks, crooks, thieves, and con artists of his day. The Right Way To Do Wrong is a recent collection based on some of those earlier publications, and is an entertaining read on everything from escape artists to sword swallowers to organized confidence gangs who once (and to some extent still do) prowl the streets looking for easy marks.

Though he preserves the secrets to many of his own trademark escapes, he quite freely exposes those who attempted to better his attempts, especially those who claim to have bested Houdini's own routines. The great magician notes that because his methods and routines cannot be trademarked or copyrighted he was forced to defend his craft by exposing fakes and, when he could, show them up in public to underscore his own reputation. I don't know that I ever would have imagined Houdini's performances were as much about his reputation as they were for entertainment, but his writing shows that his was also a quest of public service.

Ah, but it's not all good.

In some ways Houdini's writing could just as easily be a blueprint for burgeoning bad guys and wannabe petty criminals. And he knew this by imploring his readers in the title essay, and ending the essay, by saying "But don't do it." It seems an odd request from a man who divided his time between performing impossible feats while exposing others – a little like a high school chemistry teacher showing his class how to make a bomb out of common materials but ending the demonstration with "Don't try this at home" – but in a lot of ways there is something about this that heightens the craft of those who get away with it.

The selected essays in The Right Way To Do Wrong fall roughly into two camps – the "correct" method in performing certain illusions versus the fakes, and exposes of masterful con artists. With the former, Houdini explains the process whereby trained artists learn how to swallow swords, which it turns out is not a trick but simply a process of getting past the gag reflex. In the telling Houdini details performances given by his contemporaries, passes along anecdotes of performances gone wrong, and derides and exposes (by name!) those who have performed the feat using trick devices. For Houdini there is a distinct "wrong" and "right" way to do things and he isn't shy in telling the reader which is which.

[In this tradition Penn Jillette, whose silent partner Teller provides the introduction for The Right Way To Do Wrong, recently wrote an article for the Smithsonian explaining how fire eaters perform their feat. And much like Houdini as he breaks down exactly how it is done he also implores the reader not to do this at home.]

While it might seem like a bad idea to give teens a book loaded with bad advice and detailed methods of criminal behavior, the simple truth is that no book alone could ever alter the personality of its reader; there has to be a predisposition or environmental conditions at play before any larcenous seed can be planted or take root. Like most audiences, few leave a magic show with a desire to devote their lives to the craft of performing illusions though we may want desperately to know, exactly, how those tricks were performed. And over one hundred years later Houdini is still more than happy to provide some insight.

The Right Way To Do Wrong: 
A Unique Selection of Writings by History's Greatest Escape Artist 
by Harry Houdini
introduction by Teller
Neversink Press 2012


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1 comment:

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

James Randi and Milbourne Christopher are also magicians who have written books exposing con artists and showing how they work. It never occurred to me to try the tricks myself, though!