Who is Solomon Vanlandingham?
Reading Comprehension Activity

Author: RV Staff Writer J.C.

A mysterious thief is pulling heists all over London, but nobody knows who he is. Students will read the passage and answer questions on the language, the story elements, and character traits.

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In the dark and dirty streets of old London, you’ll find a back alley with broken street lamps and shops dusty with neglect and boarded-up windows. If you were brave enough to venture further, you’d discover a broken door to an abandoned shop that was home to a small band of pick-pockets, thieves, and ne’er-do-wells. If you had a bad reputation, you were most likely welcomed here with friendly cheers and insults shouted at you by this band of shifty brothers.

The motley pack of scoundrels had nicknames like Jake the Snake, Little Lefty, Mitch the Snitch, and Sweet Pete. Last names were for suckers; last names were how the police found you and tossed you in the clink. So it was quite a surprise one day when rumors circulated of a new, stealthy thief – a robber so impressive nobody knew who he was or what he looked like, but everyone soon knew his name: Solomon Vanlandingham.

“Who is Solomon Vanlandingham?” Little Lefty whispered. He felt like the only one who didn’t know. He’d been released from jail yesterday, after doing time for grabbing a rich lady’s handbag and getting caught by her gentleman companion. He’d missed much of the latest action on the outside.

Sweet Pete leaned over. “He’s some criminal mastermind who’s been turning up lately doing some daring stunts, and nobody knows how he’s getting away with it. We don’t even know what he looks like.”

“What kind of name is that for a crook?” wondered Lefty. “It’s a mouthful, ain’t it?”

Sweet Pete agreed. “He’s a bold one. They say he leaves a calling card with his name on it at the scene of every crime. It’s like he wants to get caught if you ask me.”

Mitch the Snitch chimed in. “Yeah, didn’t you hear about the bank job? He broke into the vault where they lock up the best necklaces and jewels from the high society customers, but nobody knows how he got in or out. Old Jerry is supposed to guard the place, but they found him the next morning fast asleep in the corner. He didn’t even know the place had been robbed! No broken windows or door, but the goods were nicked, and they only found his card behind. No fingerprints, no nothing. The guy is a ghost.”

“I heard he broke into the bakery over by Piccadilly the other night and helped himself to some fancy cakes and pies, but he didn’t touch the money still in the cash register,” said Sweet Pete, licking his lips as he thought about it. “They found his card on the counter. Didn’t even leave any crumbs behind.” The men laughed as they listened. Nobody knew what to make of it, or the strange criminal who would give away his name.

“All right, lads, I don’t know about you but I’ve got some pockets to pick! This belly isn’t going to fill itself!” Jake the Snake stood up and stretched. “Hey, I hear there’s a big party being thrown by the mayor tonight, some celebration of something-or-other. Any of you fine gents thinking about attending?” He smirked, knowing full well this gang of thugs would never make it past the front gate. But if they could, there’d be some good pickings off the well-dressed upper class set that got all dolled up for these sorts of ridiculous events.

The crew of rough men started to gather their worn coats and dusty hats and head out for the day. It was time to wander the streets, looking for easy marks who could be relieved of their wallets, and testing which shopkeepers wouldn’t notice if a few items went missing right under their noses.

As Jake the Snake walked into the town square where throngs of people headed in all directions, he glanced sideways. A young newsie was holding up the morning newspaper, hawking them loudly as people passed by. “Extra, extra! Read all about it! Mysterious menace strikes again!” Men and women crowded around him, eager for more stories about the shadowy Solomon Vanlandingham. The young boy was selling papers and pocketing coins as fast as he could, trying to keep up with the demand.

Jake sidled over, his demeanor nonchalant. Deftly, he slid his hand into a man’s coat pocket and swiftly extracted his wallet. Then removing a few coins from it, he gave them to the newspaper boy and received a paper in return. He walked away and scanned the headlines. What did Vanlandingham do now?
It seemed that the crazy criminal had made off with roughly a dozen young cats and dogs from a vendor’s stall at the farmers’ market. Along with the fruits, vegetables, and handmade crafts and garments sold at the weekly market, you could often find birds, pups, pigs, and other livestock for sale as well. How on earth had he stolen live animals without anyone noticing? Jake wondered. More importantly, why would he even want them in the first place? Any proper thief knew what was valuable, and it certainly wasn’t cakes and kittens. Jake shook his head and chuckled. Never mind him, he thought. It was time for this snake to get himself ready for some slithering tonight.

It was a gorgeous glittering night. For once, it wasn’t rainy like most London evenings. The stars were out, and so were the fancy lords and ladies parading in their finest clothes. Everyone who was anyone was on their way to the mayor’s swanky soiree. Strolling down the avenue, Jake the Snake played it cool. He walked by an outdoor café and lifted a fine wool coat from the back of an empty chair. Flourishing it like a matador’s cape, he swung it around his shoulders and put it on as he kept moving.

Next, he passed a group of well-dressed, chattering couples. He bumped into one of the women, and she dropped her bag, the contents spilling out on the cobblestones. As the group bent and scrambled to help her pick them up, Jake silently lifted a handsome hat off one gentleman’s head, and slipped a silky white scarf from the lapels of the other. Placing the hat on his own head and wrapping the scarf around his neck, Jake swiftly walked away and turned at the next corner. Now decked out in fine fashion, he decided he was ready for the party.

He walked up to the big house, the lit torches making shadows dance along the pathway. The open windows blazed brightly in the dark night, and he could hear lively music playing inside. He was swept into the crush of the well-to-do and the government dignitaries, nodding and smiling at anyone who looked his way. He accepted a drink from a waiter with a silver tray, and waited to see what opportunities might present themselves.

When the band took a break, the mayor headed to the stage and made a long-winded speech. Jake wasn’t listening until he heard a name he recognized.

“And now, with great pleasure, may I introduce all of you to the marvelous, mysterious Solomon Vanlandingham!” The mayor beamed proudly, knowing the impact this announcement would have on the crowd. He was right.

They murmured and gossiped as a tall, handsome gentleman in a top hat and red cape approached the stage. Making a formal bow, he tipped his hat and smiled. “I am Solomon Vanlandingham,” he boomed. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“You’re a thief!” shouted a man from the crowd. Others hissed in agreement. With a wave of his hand, he silenced them.

“I see my reputation has proceeded me! Allow me then, to correct the wrong you think I have done. First, I cannot help but notice the beauty of the ladies in tonight’s audience. But could they, perhaps, be even more alluring?” He snapped his fingers, and in an instant, all the lights in the house went black. A collective gasp escaped the crowd, and a fearful woman screamed.

“One, two, three!” Solomon shouted, and the lights immediately came back to life. The guests looked at each other, and soon the men were pointing at the women, and the women’s puzzlement turned to delight when they realized that their necks, ears, and wrists were now adorned with the “stolen” jewelry from the raided bank vault! “Look how dazzling these lovely ladies are now,” smiled Solomon Vanlandingham, and he took a bow. A flutter of applause grew louder until it filled the whole room.

Solomon took a step forward. “I see we have some junior party guests here tonight,” and beckoned to the group of boys and girls, scrubbed squeaky clean for the occasion. They were the children of the mayor and other officials. “Why don’t you come here and say hello, young miss?” He reached out a hand toward a petite girl with green ribbons in her hair, and she came over to shake it. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Jane,” the mayor’s daughter replied. She gave a polite little curtsy. The crowd was charmed.

“Well then, Jane, as a special guest, I have a party favor for you. Would you like it?” The little girl nodded vigorously. Solomon took off his top hat and showed her that it was empty. He took the red silk handkerchief out of his jacket and waved it over the hat. “What’s the magic word?” he asked her.

“Please?” Jane guessed. There was a tinkle of laughter.

“Good enough,” replied Solomon. He reached into the empty hat and pulled out a white kitten with a green ribbon around its neck, and gently gave it to the beaming girl. “Now how about the rest of you?” he asked the other children. They all nodded and jumped up and down.

“Then, all together now, close your eyes, clap your hands, and say ‘Abracadabra!” The children did as they were told, then opened their eyes and looked around. Confused, they didn’t see anything and turned back to the man on stage. He laughed heartily. “You aren’t looking in the right place; check under your chairs!” The children tumbled towards the table where they would be sitting for dinner, and sure enough, under each seat was a pretty box with a bow on top that had not been there before. The children squealed and lifted the lids to reveal little kittens and puppies inside who sniffed and licked happy noses. The audience erupted with applause.

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen! It was so kind of the mayor to invite me to your celebration, but I don’t want to take up much more of your time! I did want you to know that I, the mysterious Solomon Vanlandingham, will be performing my one-of-a-kind, not-to-be-missed, traveling magic show across London and the rest of the country this year! I have many more surprises I would love to share with you all, like this one!” With a boom, a burst of light flashed dangerously on both sides of the room, creating clouds of white smoke. As it lifted, it revealed two tables filled with delicious cakes, pies, and pastries!

“But for now, I wish you farewell, and please enjoy your party!” The magician took a deep bow and disappeared from the stage to a roar of approval and wild cheering.

From the back of the room, one man stood quietly, taking in the whole scene. “Too bad he turned out to be a magician,” muttered Jake the Snake. “He would’ve made a fine criminal.”

Comprehension Questions

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