James Randi is one of the most famous living magicians in the United States today. In his late career he has become famous for debunking fraudulent paranormal claims, but in his youth, he was an escape artist. Back in 1959, the Amazing Randi thrilled Northwoods residents with his feats of daring. Historian Gary Entz has the story in this weeks Northwoods Moment in History.
The Houdini Club of Wisconsin was founded by five men in 1915 in honor of the magician Harry Houdini. The club started in Wisconsin because Houdini claimed Appleton as his hometown. Houdini himself was never part of it, but his international renown as an escape artist was a source of local pride. Houdini died in 1926, but the club lived on, even though it was not regularly active. In 1938, however, the club was reorganized and reinvigorated under new leadership, spread to other states, and began holding annual conventions. In September 1959, the group for the first time chose the Northwoods for its convention site. Professional and amateur magicians from around the country gathered in Land O’Lakes.
A special treat was part of this convention as the organizers booked the Amazing Randi to perform. In cooperation with the Rhinelander Jaycee Club, the Houdini Club arranged for the Amazing Randi to stage two live charity performance in downtown Rhinelander for all to see.
Born in 1928, James Randi is the founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and is better known today as a debunker who exposes fraudulent paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims. He started his career as a professional stage magician in the late 1940s but soon switched to performing as an escape artist. By 1959 he was nationally famous as the Modern Houdini and proposed to replicate one of Houdini’s famous escapes, the Suspended Straitjacket Escape, on Brown Street in downtown Rhinelander.
At 12 O’clock noon on the parking lot of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway depot on South Brown Street, the Amazing Randi was strapped and bound into a straitjacket. His feet were bound with a chain, and the chain attached to the boom of a 55-foot crane provided by the Musson Brothers. Randi was hoisted by his feet to the top, and as more than 200 Northwoods residents watched, Randi freed himself in 35 seconds.
The second show was not quite so thrilling but no less interesting. Randi, who was a master of picking locks, was taken to the Oneida County Jail for a demonstration of his skill. He was stripped to his shorts, locked into a cell by the sheriff, and handcuffed to the cell bars with three sets of handcuffs.
Randi easily picked the locks on all three sets of handcuffs and discarded them. He then went to work on the cell door lock but found that he could not defeat it. The sheriff, it seems, had used an old-style and well-worn padlock to lock Randi up. Randi explained that it was the worn and loose tumblers on the old lock that frustrated his efforts. Had the sheriff used a new, modern lock, he could easily have gotten out.
To prove his point, Randi went to two adjoining jail cells that had modern locks on them. He easily picked the locks and opened both doors in under eight minutes. If nothing else, the convention certainly taught the county sheriff which locks to use.
Image: Harry Houdini in a scene from the silent motion picture, "The Grim Game."