Randi, James (1928-)

views updated May 29 2018

Randi, James (1928-)

Pseudonym of stage magician James Randall Zwinge who has developed what amounts to a second vocation as a co-founder 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 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 spiritual-ist 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 some where. 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.


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).

The Amazing Randi

views updated May 11 2018

"The Amazing Randi"

Stage name of professional conjuring magician James Randi (or Randall Zwinge), who is the self-appointed archenemy of psychics and the paranormal.

About this article

James Randi

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic