The Amazing James Randi (1928-2020)

“Hanging over Niagara Falls in a straightjacket is something you can do for a number of years, but it’s strenuous. I got tired of looking at the world upside down.”

—James Randi, in a 2010 interview with Max Maven at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, CA

James Randi, known as “the Amazing Randi” and the father of the modern skeptic movement, died Tuesday at his home in Plantation, Florida, at the age of ninety-two.

James Randi was born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge on August 7, 1928, in Toronto, Canada. He was the oldest of three children. (Caveat: In 2004 Randi wrote, “in each of the biographical sketches of me that have appeared in various parts of the world, I’ve planted one totally invented piece of family information, a different one for each biography. Then, when I’ve been given back one of those false bits of information by a ‘reader’ or a ‘spiritualist,’ I can tell where they really got the item.”)

Identified early on as a child prodigy, Randi often skipped school to frequent the public library, museums, and the weekly matinee, which is where he first saw the magician Harry Blackstone Sr. The young Randi was captivated and credits Blackstone for getting him into the magic trade.

Finding he could make good money performing magic at kids’ birthday parties, Randi joined the Hat & Rabbit club in Toronto as a junior member. At the age of seventeen he started doing table work at a local nightclub. He also began to specialize in mentalism and became curious about spiritualists and mind readers. Hearing of a spirit church in Toronto where a preacher was purportedly working miracles, Randi attended a service. He saw the preacher’s trick, exposed him, and was promptly arrested for disrupting a religious meeting. A 2001 Time magazine profile stated it was at the police station where Randi vowed to “someday fight back against those who defiled his art.”

He became known for his escape act, and after a show in Quebec, several policemen dared him to try getting out of their handcuffs, which he did easily. They took him back to the station and put him in a cell, from which he also escaped with ease. The next day’s paper carried the headline (in French), “The Amazing Randi Escapes from Quebec Prison,”  and a stage name was born.

For the next several decades Randi enjoyed a thriving career performing in nightclubs and on TV in North America and overseas. He was on the CBS show It’s Magic in New York in the mid-1950s and describes being suspended upside-down in a straight jacket ten stories up. He also had multiple appearances on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

But after hearing from more and more people who believed performers had psychic powers, or whose family members had squandered their savings attempting to reach dead relatives, Randi began investigating all manner of psychic and paranormal claims. His targets were the people who used tricks in order to swindle the public. Beginning in the 1970s, Randi went after so-called faith healers, “psychic” spoon-benders, peddlers of homeopathic remedies, and so on. He helped found CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) and wrote numerous books on related topics, including The Truth About Uri Geller, Flim-Flam!, and An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural.

For his work exposing what he called “charlatans” peddling their “woo-woo,” Randi was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1986. Ten years later he established the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), whose mission has been to educate the public and the media on the dangers of accepting unproven claims. To this end the JREF sponsored the “$1 Million Paranormal Challenge” and held an annual skeptics convention called “The Amaz!ing Meeting.”

Having eschewed church-going from an early age, Randi applied his skeptical genius to religion in the same manner as other claims, noting he wasn’t the kind of atheist to say there was no God: “If I were to claim that no god exists, I would have to produce evidence to establish that claim, and I cannot.”

Randi was awarded the American Humanist Association’s Lifetime Achievement award in 2012. In his acceptance remarks at the AHA’s annual conference, held that year in New Orleans, he told a series of amusing anecdotes about comparing comet sizes with Isaac Asimov, refusing to perform in a segregated theater in Florida, and debunking TV charlatans.

A documentary of Randi’s life, titled An Honest Liar, was screened at film festivals in 2014, including the AFI Docs festival where it won the Audience Award. In addition to tracing his amazing career, the film also featured Randi’s husband, José Alvarez, a Venezuelan artist who’d been his partner for some twenty years and whom he married in 2013.

Addressing the crowd at the 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, DC, the ardent skeptic lamented our culture’s emphasis on authority over expertise, warning that “constant vigilance can never be relaxed or the woo-woos can and will move in permanently.”

“Skepticism,” Randi declared, “means having good reasons for holding any belief.”