James Randi, illusionist dubbed ‘the man no jail can hold’ who exposed psychic fraudsters – obituary

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Randi at work - Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images
Randi at work - Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

James Randi, the psychic and illusionist, who has died aged 92, called himself the Amazing Randi and billed himself as “the man no jail can hold” in the tradition of the escapologist Harry Houdini; but above all he crusaded as the world’s pre-eminent debunker of pseudoscience and fraudulent magic.

As the scourge of dishonest psychics, hoaxers, fakers and charlatans, Randi claimed to speak on behalf of rationalists, and rejected the existence of psychic phenomena, which he believed were nothing more than “flim-flam” that could be explained by simple skulduggery or cheating.

One particular target was Uri Geller, the Israeli-born British illusionist who shot to fame in the 1970s with his spoon-bending act which featured on television all over the world. Although Randi was able to demonstrate how the illusion could be achieved using an ordinary magician’s sleight-of-hand, he believed that in a credulous age, many viewers were gulled not only into accepting what they were seeing as literal truth, but also – in some cases – they abandoned life-saving medical treatment in favour of what he called “the latest miracles”.

In 1975 Randi demonstrated Geller’s methods to a group of eminent British scientists, including Maurice Wilkins, the Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, at King’s College, London. “We believe that in investigating phenomena of apparently paranormal nature,” the scientists subsequently affirmed in a letter to Randi, “a qualified conjurer must be closely involved.”

Four years later Randi initiated his “Uri Awards”, which he distributed every April Fool’s Day to assorted scientists, journalists, and faith healers who claimed to be able to perform “psychic surgery” using paranormal powers.

The Amazing Randi, professional escapologist, peering out from a sealed underwater coffin in West Ham Municipal Baths, London, 1958 - Ron Burton/Getty
The Amazing Randi, professional escapologist, peering out from a sealed underwater coffin in West Ham Municipal Baths, London, 1958 - Ron Burton/Getty

As a performing magician and escape artist in his own right, Randi appeared all over the world, from Manila and Sydney to Paris, New York and London. In 1975 he toured with Alice Cooper as an executioner who simulated a guillotining of the rock star on stage every night.

For World of Wizards on Canadian television, Randi was filmed suspended above the raging Niagara Falls while wriggling out of a straitjacket bound in chains. In 1985 he escaped from another straitjacket while dangling from a helicopter over Tokyo.

He regularly performed the Milk Churn escape borrowed from Houdini’s act, Houdini himself having once almost come to grief at the Empire Theatre, Leeds, when he accepted a challenge from the Tetley brewery to escape from a beer-filled galvanised metal container, only to fail after being overcome by the fumes and having to be rescued unconscious by an assistant.

James Randi was born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto on August 7 1928, the son of a telephone company manager. He became hooked on magic as a child when he watched a friend perform a billiard-ball illusion. Scouring department stores for magic tricks to buy, he was 13 when he discovered the Toronto Arcade Magic and Novelty Store, and spent every Saturday there learning new tricks.

Randi wrote several books on hoaxers and magic
Randi wrote several books on hoaxers and magic

A child prodigy with an IQ of 168, James was bored and disruptive at the Oakwood Collegiate Institute, and often cut class to educate himself at Toronto’s public library, where, among other things, he learnt to read hieroglyphics.

When he was 15 he was arrested for disrupting a meeting at his local spiritualist church, where the pastor’s party piece was reading out the contents of sealed envelopes. Young James rushed on to the stage and demonstrated how the trick worked, spending four hours in a police cell before his father collected him.

A shy child who stuttered and stammered, Randi found that performing magic tricks boosted his self-confidence, and at 17 he left school to join Peter March’s travelling carnival. His initial persona was as a conjurer, Prince Ibis, complete with goatee, turban and a mouldy suit of tails, but by the age of 20 he was styling himself The Great Randall, Telepath. His displays of “mentalism” (extrasensory perception or ESP) so convinced onlookers that he was asked to help find missing children and even pick winning horses; failing to convince people that his psychic powers derived from trickery, he returned to his rabbits and wands.

By the mid-1960s he had his own all-night radio show in New York, drawing up to 150 letters a day. It was then that Randi, realising the growing scale of public credulity about clairvoyants and faith healers, decided to mobilise a campaign against charlatanry.

As an illusionist he starred in his own television specials around the world, and made a memorable appearance in Britain on Paul Daniels’s television show, when he apparently passed through the solid wall of a partly demolished building.

Randi in the film An Honest Liar (2014)
Randi in the film An Honest Liar (2014)

Having completed three world tours as a performer and lecturer, in 1974 Randi performed for President Ford at the White House. He became a prolific journalist and writer of books, the most celebrated of which was Conjuring (1992), acclaimed as the definitive history of “the venerable arts of sorcery, prestidigitation, wizardry, deception and chicanery, and of the mountebanks and scoundrels who have perpetrated these subterfuges on a bewildered public”.

Indeed, he became a recognised authority on the history of stage magic and an even more celebrated debunker of false claims about the paranormal. Discussing Randi’s 1982 book The Truth About Uri Geller, the astronomer and author Carl Sagan acclaimed it “a witty and fascinating dissection of Uri Geller’s humbuggery … a healthy antidote to charlatanry at all levels”.

A more sweeping indictment of the paranormal was contained in Randi’s Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and Other Delusions (1980). His other works included Harry Houdini: His Life And Art (1976); Test Your ESP Potential (1982); The Faith Healers (1987); The Magic World of the Amazing Randi (1989); The Mask of Nostradamus (1990); and James Randi, Psychic Investigator (1991).

His Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural was published in 1995 and he was the subject of a biographical film documentary, An Honest Liar, in 2014.

Like his hero, Houdini, James Randi escaped from notorious jails around the world, having been bound with ropes and handcuffs and entombed in boxes and coffins. It is likely, however, that Randi will be remembered more as a writer and a zealous guardian of legitimate stage magic than for his own performances.

In a coffin, again at West Ham Municipal baths in 1958 - Ron Burton/Getty Images
In a coffin, again at West Ham Municipal baths in 1958 - Ron Burton/Getty Images

He continued his campaign against bogus practitioners well into old age, holding forth on their devious methods at such institutions as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution in London and even at the American Parapsychological Association, an experience Randi likened to “Martin Luther walking into the Vatican for lunch”.

In 1987 the Academy of Magical Arts in Los Angeles created a special fellowship for Randi in recognition of his efforts to preserve the art of conjuring as an entertainment rather than for deception and fraud.

Randi considered hate-mail an occupational hazard, and dealt with several threats to his life by fortifying his house, wearing body armour and surrounding himself with large bodyguards in bulky suits. Whenever he was pointed out as a representative of Satan, he would bow and wave.

He became a naturalised American citizen in 1987 and settled in Florida in the company of “a mellow old red cat named Charles, several untalented parrots, numerous other unnamed creatures and the occasional visiting magus or sorcerer’s apprentice”.

Randi was a founding fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), and received a “genius grant” from the American MacArthur Foundation.

He also set up the James Randi Educational Foundation, which gave prizes and scholarships, provided data for researchers and the media – and offered a $1 million (£750,000) reward to anybody who could prove supernatural or paranormal powers under scientific conditions.

The foundation stopped taking applications when Randi stepped down in 2015, and the money remained unclaimed.

James Randi married, in 2013, Deyvi Peña, who survives him.

James Randi, born August 7 1928, died October 20 2020     

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