Randi, James (1928– )
Pseudonym of stage magician James Randall Zwinge who
has developed what amounts to a second vocation as a cofounder
and leading spokesperson of the Committee for the
Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)
and debunker of both psychics and their paranormal
claims and religious claims of supernatural occurrences. Born
August 7, 1928, in Toronto, Canada, he was exceptionally talented
as a child, although he did not have the advantage of a
college education. He was passionately interested in conjuring
magic, and in adult life he achieved worldwide fame for his skill
in legerdemain. He performed before royalty in Europe and
Asia and appeared on national television programs and at college
campuses under the stage name of ‘‘The Amazing Randi.’’
In the lineage of many stage magicians over the last two centuries,
Randi has assumed a watchdog role over people who
would perform conjuring tricks while trying to pass them off as
either supernatural or paranormal events. He has also been
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somewhat incensed at ‘‘experts’’ who have been fooled by hoaxing
through their naive trust of the hoaxer, their own will to believe
ideas which the paranormal event seems to confirm, or a
simple lack of attention in seeing a trick being worked on them.
Randi’s own skepticism concerning the paranormal has a
strong foundation in the significant element of fraud which
permeated Spiritualism in past generations and is still present
in the world of fortunetellers and psychics. In this work, Randi
performs an unquestioned public service.
According to journalist Richard Pyatt in USA Today (August
29, 1986), Randi’s interest in investigating psychic phenomena
started at the age of fifteen. Randi is quoted as stating
‘‘When I was 15 years of age, I had already started out on
my career as an amateur magician. When I attended a spiritualist
church in Toronto, I saw they were using the same gimmicks
that I had been reading about in the catalog and had been
learning to do myself. Ministers were apparently speaking with
the dead. I saw people in that congregation who really believed
that the minister was able to read the contents of sealed envelopes
and bring them messages from beyond the grave. I resented
that highly, and I tried to expose that. I was arrested for
my troubles. So at 15, I ended up in a police station, sitting
there for four hours waiting for my father to come and get me
out. I guess that was the worst four hours the psychic world ever
spent, though they didn’t know it until recently.’’ Like the late
Harry Houdini (1874–1926), also a brilliant stage magician, he
has made his concern for psychic tricks a public issue. He has
made himself available to the media to attack specific psychics
and has given public demonstrations imitating their feats and
explaining the means by which some of the tricks were accomplished.
He has also issued challenges to psychics to perform
paranormal feats under his own exacting conditions and to his
satisfaction for a prize of ten thousand dollars. One of his major
targets has been Uri Geller, and he has published a book
claiming that Geller’s metal-bending feats are not paranormal
The Magic of Uri Geller (1975).
Among his most successful exposes were of several Christian
healers, the primary one being Peter Popoff in San Francisco
in 1986. In his healing crusades, Popoff actually called sufferers
by name and described their ailments, claiming to receive such
information directly from God. Actually he had developed a
rather elaborate and involved system which Randi began to uncover
when he noticed that Popoff had a ‘‘hearing aid’’ inside
his ear. That ear piece suggested that someone might be broadcasting
information to Popoff; the problem was how to obtain
definite evidence that the identification of sufferers was fraudulent.
Randi enlisted the aid of trusted individuals from the Bay
Area Skeptics group and the Society of American Magicians.
Some members of the group took up strategic places in the
Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, where the crusade was held.
Robert Steiner and Alexander Jason (an electronics expert) established
themselves behind the balcony of the auditorium with
hidden tape recorders and electronic listening equipment.
Just before the healing service started, Jason succeeded in
tuning into and recording a backstage broadcast from Elizabeth
Popoff to her husband, the minister. The message began
‘‘Hello Petey. I love you. I’m talking to you. Can you hear me
If you can’t, you’re in trouble.’’ Here was firm evidence that the
claimed messages from God were in fact information relayed
to Popoff by his wife, and received through Popoff’s hearing
aid. The broadcast continued ‘‘I’m looking up the names right
now.’’ This appeared to be a reference to the ‘‘prayer cards’’
which those attending the healing service were asked to fill out,
giving names, description of ailments, and other information.
The tape recordings of a claimed healing from a service of
the Popoff Crusade a few weeks later in Anaheim, California,
on March 16, 1986, provided evidence of a backstage prompting
broadcast by Elizabeth Popoff to her husband. She gave the
name ‘‘Virgil Jorgenson. Virgil. . . . Way back in the back somewhere.
Arthritis in knees. He’s got a cane . . . He’s got arthritis.
He’s praying for his sister in Sweden, too.’’
In the auditorium, the Rev. Popoff called out ‘‘Virgil. Is it
Jorgenson Who is Virgil’’ A man, apparently in his sixties and
limping with a cane, came forward, and Popoff continued ‘‘Are
you ready for God to overhaul those knees’’ Jorgenson then
appeared to walk more easily, and Popoff continued ‘‘Oh,
glory to God. I’ll tell you, God’s going to touch that sister of
yours all the way over in Sweden.’’ Popoff then broke Jorgenson’s
cane, while the sufferer, apparently cured of his arthritis,
walked about the auditorium, praising God and the minister
Popoff.
This healing was so impressive that Peter Popoff used the
film clip for three consecutive weeks on his television show. Unfortunately
for the Popoff Crusade, ‘‘Virgil Jorgenson’’ was Don
Henvick, program coordinator for Bay Area Skeptics and president
of Assembly #70 of the Society of American Magicians,
and he does not suffer from arthritis. His disguise as ‘‘Virgil
Jorgenson’’ was only one of several appearances that challenged
the claimed divine source of Peter Popoff’s information
and healing. Under the name ‘‘Tom Hendrys,’’ Henvick was
‘‘healed’’ of nonexistent alcoholism at the San Francisco Civic
Auditorium. In a Detroit healing crusade, Popoff ‘‘healed’’
Henvick of uterine cancer when this master of disguise appeared
dressed in woman’s garb under the name ‘‘Bernice
Manicoff,’’ seated in a wheelchair.
The decisive exposure of the electronic source of Popoff’s
claimed divine messages from God was made by Randi nationwide
on a Johnny Carson ‘‘Tonight’’ show on April 22, 1986,
when scenes of a claimed healing were shown with a soundtrack
of the secret information broadcast identifying the sufferer.
This brilliantly organized and presented exposure of Popoff
showed Randi at his best, identifying the techniques of an intricate
hoax set within the trusting environment of a church service.
At the same time it provided a platform for him at his
worst, making broad generalizations branding all faith healers
by associating them with the guilt of the few. His attempts to
push his conclusions far beyond what the data would suggest
has tended to sever Randi from the larger audience who would
be open to his actual uncovering of hoaxing.
Randi went beyond the uncovering of hoaxes to perpetuating
one himself in what was termed Project Alpha. He sent two
magicians to the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research
at Washington University in St. Louis. Their ability to fool the
researchers into believing that they were genuine psychics became
a matter of great embarrassment to the parapsychological
community and the university and the laboratory was closed
a short time afterward. This project was based upon the idea
that most people in parapsychology are ill-equipped to do psychical
research and need the help of a trained magician.
Randi served as a founding member of the Committee for
Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)
and a member of the editorial board of their journal The Skeptical
Inquirer The Zetetic. When he is not traveling the world performing
and exposing the paranormal as fraud and conjuring,
Randi lives in New Jersey in a house full of unusual and remarkable
illusions, with doors that open unexpectedly on the
side opposite the door knob and clocks that run backward.
On July 14, 1986, Randi was the recipient of a $272,000
award by the MacArthur Foundation of Chicago through his efforts
in ‘‘alerting the unsuspecting public to hoaxers who, for
example, claim to perform miracle cures of cancer, and also to
support his exposure of shoddy, pseudo-science through his investigations
and public lectures.’’ The MacArthur Fellow
Awards are tax-free, no-strings grants to individuals to permit
them to continue their work without economic hindrance.
In 1992, the Skeptical Inquirer noted that Randi is no longer
associated with CSICOP due to two libel suits; he resigned in
order to protect the committee from further suits because of
legal issues. But in 1999 Randi was still in the public eye when
he addressed the U.S. Congress on medical and scientific
quackery.
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Sources
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Randi, James. The Faith Healers. Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus
Books, 1987.
———. Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and Other Delusions.
Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus Books, 1980.
———. The Magic of Uri Geller. New York Ballantine Books,
1975. Reprinted as The Truth About Uri Geller. Buffalo, N.Y.
Prometheus Books, 1982.
———. ‘‘Project Alpha Experiment.’’ In Kenneth Frazier,
ed. Science Confronts the Paranormal. Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus
Books, 1986.
Steiner, Robert A. ‘‘Exposing the Faith-Healers.’’ The Skeptical
Inquirer 11, 1 (fall 1986).