In 1906, world-famous magician Harry Houdini published a guide to crime and its prevention called The Right Way to Do Wrong. It began, “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. You who live your life in placid respectability know but little of the real denizens of this world.”
Though Houdini repeatedly claimed the book was meant to teach law-abiding citizens to avoid crime, it functions equally well as a criminal instruction manual, providing creative and unexpected ways to get away with all kinds of burglaries, heists, and hoaxes.
Infused with Houdini's flair for drama, the work incorporates collected interviews with famous criminals and law enforcement officers, and cites real criminal cases from the 19th and 20th centuries. So whether you're an aspiring delinquent or crime fighter, here are some of Houdini's tips for "how to do wrong the right way":
1. WALK BACKWARDS IN THE SNOW.
If you’re planning a burglary in the winter, make sure to approach your target backwards. That way, any footsteps you leave will appear to be moving away from your mark instead of towards it. As Houdini notes, “any tracks going forward would attract the next policeman who should pass.”
2. IF YOU WANT TO STEAL A DIAMOND, TRY HIDING IT IN A PIECE OF CHEWED GUM.
This piece of advice comes from “one of the cleverest and most unscrupulous diamond thieves” of the period, Houdini noted: When lifting a priceless diamond from a jewelry store, hire an innocent, wealthy-looking woman to enter the store ahead of you. As she peruses the jewelry display, she’ll simply slip a valuable diamond into a piece of gum, and stick it to the bottom of the counter. Of course, the shop’s proprietor will quickly notice the diamond is missing and call the police. But in the uproar that follows it’ll be easy to slip in “with the crowd of curious and remove the gum containing the diamond.”
3. PROSTHETIC LIMBS ARE USEFUL FOR ALL OCCASIONS.
Whether you’re trying to snatch a purse or pick a pocket, a prosthetic arm is a perfect accessory to the crime. Houdini dubs this the “false-arm game, or the ‘third mit.’” In the strategy, “A loose cape overcoat is worn in one of the sleeves of which a false arm and hand are fixed. Thus a detective who may be watching the pickpocket will see apparently both of his hands in view, while in reality the light skillful fingers of the operator’s left hand are going through the pockets of the man beside whom he is standing.”
4. ALWAYS ROB A TRAIN DURING THE WINTER.
Houdini explains, “It is when the dark days come round that the railway-station thief most safely conducts his operations. The summer tourist he loves not, for his luggage contains few valuables, and there is too much light about.”
5. A HAT FULL OF MOLASSES MAKES A GREAT DISTRACTION.
Here’s a novel approach to the classic grocery store heist—all you need is a friend and an old-fashioned stovepipe hat. Houdini explains that two men enter the store in “earnest argument.” Then, “One man says to the proprietor, ‘My friend and I have gotten into an argument over a peculiar matter which we believe you can settle for us. I have bet him my hat will hold more than four quarts of molasses, while he contends that it will hold hardly three quarts. We are willing to buy the molasses if you will fill this hat and prove the question to decide the bet.’ The shopkeeper good-humoredly agrees, and brings the hat brimful with sticky molasses, at which one of the thieves slaps it over the shopkeeper’s head, and before he can extricate himself and call for help they have robbed the till and disappeared.”
6. A HOLLOWED OUT SOFA MAKES FOR A GREAT HIDING PLACE.
The hollowed out sofa is the perfect device for thieves of jewels and small valuables. Simply hide inside, and have your crew deliver you to your victim’s front door “as a gift.” Once inside the house, pop out of the sofa, grab the goods, and return to your hiding spot. Later in the day, your pals will return, announcing the “gift” sofa was meant for another person, and simply hoist you and the sofa away—by the time anyone notices anything missing, you’ll be long gone.
7. START A FAKE MAIL ORDER BUSINESS.
Some of the most successful thieves, says Houdini, simply start fake businesses. Many of them even have their own offices and a full staff. For instance, one highly successful swindler took out ads in the paper, promising the secret to eradicating infestations of chinch bugs for only a dollar. Once the victim sent in their dollar, the man sent back a letter that simply read: “Catch the chinch bug. Hold it by the legs carefully between the thumb and forefinger. Lay its head on the anvil, and hit it with a hammer as hard as you can.”
8. DON'T FALL IN LOVE WITH YOUR MARK.
Matters of the heart and a successful life of crime do not mix. Houdini tells the story of “Madame Clarice” who became wealthy by seducing and extorting men. But Clarice’s life of crime came to an end in an unexpected, though romantic, way: she accidentally fell in love with her latest husband, whose “face haunted her dreams.” Houdini explains, “After a few days she returned to Vienna, sought him out, and confessed all, but threw herself on his mercy and love. The denouement, unusual in such cases, was that the couple were actually married, and today are living happily on the continent.”
9. HIDE SECRET MESSAGES UNDER POSTAGE STAMPS.
If you’re worried someone’s reading your mail, Houdini suggests writing a tiny message at the top of the envelope, then covering it with a postage stamp. Your confederate need only soak off the stamp to read the message.
10. BECOME A MASTER OF DISGUISE.
If you’d like to commit a daytime burglary, try disguising yourself as a handyman or plumber. That way, you’ll have an excuse if your victims wander in unexpectedly. For other kinds of crime that require a quick getaway, false mustaches and reversible pants are a must-have. And don’t skimp on the disguise: Houdini notes that good criminals only wear “false side-whiskers and moustache[s] of the best quality.”