Houdini Exploited Public Interest in Criminals and Prisoners

face of a prisoner

Harry Houdini’s first mass-market book, The Right Way to Do Wrong, used well-established rhetorical routines to exploit public interest in criminals and prisoners.^ Houdini’s book was published in 1906. Houdini was then performing escapes from police stations and jails in conjunction with touring Benjamin F. (B. F.) Keith’s circuit of vaudeville theaters. The Right Way to Do Wrong seemed to allude to escaping from punishment for doing wrong. An interview with Houdini in January, 1906, in Keith’s Theatre News, which B. F. Keith published, pointed to that possibility:

“You would give the police a tough time if you should turn criminal.”

“There’s no doubt about that,” {Houdini} said with a smile. “However, there is no danger. I make all the money I want honestly.”^

The Right Way to Do Wrong seemed to offer to others the knowledge and skill that Houdini possessed. Unlike Houdini, others might feel that they are unable to make all the money they wanted honestly. But Houdini advised:

IT DOES NOT PAY TO LEAD A DISHONEST LIFE, and to those who read this book, although it will inform them “The Right Way to Do Wrong,” all I have to say is one word and that is “DON’T.”

Why then publish The Right Way to Do Wrong? The book claimed that its purpose was to promote public safety:

to safeguard the public against the practices of the criminal classes by exposing their various tricks and explaining the adroit methods by which they seek to defraud. “Knowledge is power” is an old saying. I might paraphrase it in this case by saying knowledge is safety.

Houdini further explained:

In this book I have told of the methods of criminals, and held them up to your gaze, not as heroes, but as malefactors; not as examples to be emulated, but as corruptions to be shunned, as you would shun a plague.

Encouraging oneself or others to explore vices in order to gain knowledge about evil others or to learn what to avoid is a common trick of verbal distancing. You show me a salacious photo and say, “Look at what others are looking at!” I enjoy a long look and respond, “That’s terrible. How could they do that?” To serve those seeking a more straightforward vicarious thrill, Houdini included a small advertisement:

As this book is not a history of crime or criminals, to those wishing to read positive facts of great criminals…I can safely call attention to the book called “Our Rival the Rascal!” written by my friend Chief Inspector of Police, Wm. B. Watts, of Boston, Mass. This book is the greatest book on the subject that I have ever seen.^

Accounts of criminals and crime have been at the center of the historical development of mass media. Houdini’s book is squarely within that genre of public discourse.

Houdini represented crime and criminals primarily through already publicized stories, conventional descriptions of criminal crime-types, emotional clichés, and hearsay. In the second paragraph of The Right Way to Do Wrong, Houdini declared:

You who live your life in placid respectability know but little of the real life of the denizens of this world. …Of the real thoughts and feelings of the criminal, of the terrible fascination which binds him to his nefarious career, of the thousands – yea, tens of thousands, of undiscovered crimes and unpunished criminals, you know but little.

The imperative to know the truth — “the real thoughts and feelings of the criminal” — plays out here in the field of attention-seeking public representations such as “the terrible fascination which binds him to his nefarious career.” Houdini described a burglar in theatrical disguise (“a specially made wig, with false side-whiskers and a moustache of the best quality”) and a burglar walking backwards to disguise his tracks. He described “a smart young married couple” living in “a smart little villa in one of the suburbs” while the husband led a double life as a pathetic beggar:

One arm hung helpless by his side, his head hung with the weakness of paralysis. His right leg was paralyzed, and he laboriously dragged it after him. No one on earth would have supposed a connection between the crippled match-seller, always so grateful for alms, and the snug suburban home.

Houdini then declared: “nine times out of time – yes, ninety-nine times out of one hundred – every coin that goes into the tin cup or the hand of a street beggar goes to a fraud of the worst description.” Houdini quoted criminals based on what he heard from detectives, used descriptions taken directly from books and newspapers, and described famous crimes and criminals. Houdini also drew upon the burgeoning scholarly literature of criminal anthropology:

The ordinary criminal’s hand has a peculiar rough shape, the thumb being very plump and short, while the fingers are uneven and heavy. The small finger is turned inward, and bluntness is the hand’s chief characteristic.^

Houdini’s description of criminals aren’t empirical observations. They are a mélange of established public representations.

Houdini’s accounts of crime follow conventions of attention-seeking public stories. The plot is simple, and the narrative emphasizes character and feelings:

The wayward youth sees only the advantage to be gained by unlawful acts. He does not see the years of ignominy, the furtive hiding from the law, the shame of not being able to look his fellow-man in the face – no, nor the inevitable arrest, conviction, and punishment which ends it all in ninety-nine cases out of every one hundred.

According to Houdini, “great criminals” have had a uniform fate:

all of them have either died in the poorhouse or are yet counting the weary days in prison cells, divorced from wife, from children, and from all ties that human beings hold so dear.

Houdini described prisoners as disgraced and ruining their families with shame:

Disgraced, they are ruined for life, often ruining all their family. It is a terrible thing to have the finger of fate point at you with the remark, “His father is serving time for doing so and so,” or “Her brother is now in his sixteenth year, and comes out in five years.”^

While families of prisoners may be subject to social censure, the actual hardship of prisoners’ families primarily concerns loss of communication with the prisoner and lose of personal and material support from the prisoner. Disgrace, which primarily is public status in relation to elite (socially graceful) society, has little significance in most persons’ ordinary communication.

Houdini’s attempt to meet with a disgraced prisoner failed. In The Right Way to Do Wrong, Houdini noted:

Thanksgiving, 1905, during my engagement at Keith’s Theatre, I gave a performance for the prisoners in the country jail in Cleveland.

Held in the Cleveland Jail at that time was forger and swindler Cassie Chadwick, known as the “Duchess of Diamonds” and the “Queen of Ohio.” On March 10, 1905, after a trial that attracted enormous publicity, Chadwick was convicted of conspiracy to bankrupt the Citizen’s National Bank of Oberlin, Ohio. Posing as the illegitimate daughter of the business tycoon Andrew Carnegie, Chadwick had received a $800,000 loan from the Citizen’s National Bank and between $10 million and $20 million in total in loans from various banks. Houdini’s interest in entertaining the prisoners in Cleveland Jail probably was related to Chadwick’s presence there. Chadwick, however, balked:

Mrs. Chadwick was to be entertained in her cell; but fifteen minutes before I was to show her a few conjuring tricks, she changed her mood, gave the jailer an argument, and refused to allow any one near her cell.^

Houdini’s relation to criminals and prisoners was show business. Chadwick, who like Houdini was an expert in manipulating public perceptions, apparently decided not to allow Houdini to exploit her fame to create publicity for himself.

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