As announced in a previous column, I will be writing James Randi’s biography. We will probably be starting a fundraising campaign this spring. If you want to support the project or just receive news and updates you can send me an email here: email@example.com and I will keep you informed. Meanwhile, here is the second part of a sample chapter from the book that I hope you will enjoy.
So, how did The Amazing Randi escape not only from the cell that kept him a prisoner but also from the building of the police station in Valleyfield Quebec, as described in Part 1 of this article? Here is the ingenious solution devised by Randi.
Just two days after the extraordinary escape, Randi wrote to his friend P. Howard Lyons, editor of the Canadian conjuring magazine Ibidem, with all the details still fresh in his memory.
In it, Randi even drew a map of the Valleyfield police station that helps to clarify how things were actually accomplished:
The letter “C” indicates the main entrance door, where Randi first entered along with Danny Dean (acting as his assistant) and where the police and the reporters greeted them. The main part of the building is occupied by offices, a recreation room, and a washroom. On the far left a solid, metal door, with a small, barred window on top, led to the jail block that housed only five cells. The cells were empty, as usual—Valleyfield was small enough that its main occupants were petty criminals in for a night’s stay or locals who might need to sober up for a few hours before being sent home.
“So, now, you gotta picture this,” explains Randi. “You had a big metal door, with a very solid lock on it, that you had to enter in order to get to the block. It used a different key than the one used to open the cell doors inside, I guess, but it didn’t matter. What was important was that it opened inward, and you shall soon see why that was very nice for me.”1
Randi and the chief entered the block, followed by the party of onlookers.
“I got as many people there as I could possibly have. I wanted a lot of people that they had to work around.”2
Randi wanted to get locked in the cell furthest away from the entrance door to the corridor. This way he could not be seen when they opened the main door to check if he was okay—and in that cell there was also a small barred window with a view to the outside. Precisely—and not incidentally—on the same side where the car was parked.
“Of course, I manipulated things in order to get that specific cell. ‘I need some light and ventilation,’ I said, so one with a barred window was the best. Now, as with a magic show, the magician runs the show. They don’t know what is going to happen. They’ve never locked a magician up in jail before. They have some ideas about how they’re going to do it, but I’m way ahead of them.”3
Randi took off his clothes, but he was not left in his underwear shorts, as he would later remember it, probably because that’s what happened in many other jail escapes he performed. In a surviving clipping from Le Progrès of October 14, two pictures show Randi during the performance. In one he is sitting on a wooden chair, his wrists locked in handcuffs that are linked together below the chair with other handcuffs. His ankles are cuffed as well to the chair with leg irons. The article specifies that five cuffs were used: “Two for the feet and three for the hands.”4
In the photo Randi is wearing a white shirt, socks, and his pants are rolled up below the knees in order to show the leg irons. With his goatee, heavy eyebrows, and dark hair combed back, he looks fiercely at the cameraman. The tiny cell has only enough space for him sitting and for the bunk nailed to the wall. In the second picture, Randi is still sitting in the cell but now the barred iron door is closed, and Chief Marleau, with his thin moustache and his official cap, looks half-seriously at the reporters while he turns the key and locks the door. On the cell wall, above Randi, is a barred window of approximately two feet square.
Before getting into the cell, then, Randi had removed his shoes, tie, belt, jacket, coat, and hat and put them in the cell at the far end of the corridor.
The cell doors, however, had a very interesting and difficult additional locking mechanism that made it impossible to open them even with the key.
“All of those cells locked at the same time, with a bar on top of the cells that went all the way down the corridor and had little pegs at each cell, and that hooked into the top of the doors. It was a mechanism that could be operated only from outside the cell block. So, even if you had the individual key, you couldn’t open it because this little peg was in there.”5
Randi was handcuffed to the chair, the chief locked the door, and the party of people exited the block through the steel main door. At this moment the outside mechanism locked all of the cell doors with the additional metal bar, and it took about twenty seconds to wind the pegs into place. The Chief then asked if they could close it up and the big solid door was shut. Randi was left inside all alone, and the wait began.
“They are right outside that door, there’s no way I’m going to get by them. They’re all there, the press is lined up, paper and pens in hand, cameras ready. The chief of police is having a wonderful time: ‘What do you think, Chief? Is he gonna be able to do it?’ And the Chief replies: ‘No one’s ever broken out of this jail and no one will,’ they are pouring coffee and so on.”6 Meanwhile, Randi was already halfway through his escape.
“It started the exact second that they turned their backs on me. As soon as they started to leave, I worked my way out of the cuffs immediately, no problem there. So they were walking down the corridor and there was a whole gaggle of them, eleven or twelve people. It took them a while to get down the hall and go through the door and finally shout: ‘Should we lock the door now?’ And I said: ‘What?’ And they repeated: ‘Should we lock it now?’ And I pretended I’m hard of hearing because I needed more time.”7
It took them a couple of minutes to get out, enough for Randi to slip off the handcuffs, get free from the leg irons, and open the door with the duplicate key that he had hidden under the mattress of the bed.
“When I entered the police station I had the duplicate key I made from my impression two years earlier hidden in my shoe. When I undressed in the cell, and after I was searched, I got hold of the key again as I carefully folded and stacked up my clothes.”8
“Now when they turned the bar at the far end, I had already pushed the door open a bit, which they couldn’t see because it was inset from the wall. They couldn’t see that it had been swung open so when the bar went to deadlock, the peg was not engaging the door.”9
When they finally went, Randi could already walk out the cell door, if he wanted, but there was still work to be done: “First I took all the handcuffs and put them in a chain. I attached one to the bar door and the one at the other end to the chair which I left tilted on an angle. This way, the chair was leaning to pull the door shut as soon as they operated the bar at the other end, which they had to do outside before they even opened the other door. Then I went out to get my clothes, because my duplicate key could open all the locks in the block. I got dressed and waited.”10
The first five minutes were up. From the small barred window on the metal door Chief Marleau made his call: “Halò, monsieur Randi. Ça va?”
“Oui, Ça va!”
Randi continued his preparation. First he made a signal from the barred window in cell “D.” Gerry, an accomplice who had been hiding in the car until that moment, saw the signal and started to honk the horn. Beep! Beep! Beep!
Randi closed that cell door again and quickly unscrewed all the light bulbs in the block. Finally, he waited in the dark at the opposite end of the cell that had incarcerated him only a few minutes earlier.
Ten minutes had passed. The voice from the opening in the door came again: “Monsieur Randi. Ça va bien?”
No answer. The beeping sound from the car outside got more insistent.
“Monsieur Randi? Je suis le chef de police, vous êtes bien?”
Still no answer. The beeping continued.
Now everyone was concerned that something had happened. They turned the big wheel that pulled the bar back and a crashing noise was heard coming from the jail. He must have fallen!
It was actually the chair in the cell that had fallen as soon as the catch that kept the bar door open was released from the outside, allowing the door to close and latch.
The big metal door was opened and everybody rushed in, but it was pitch black. The policemen turned their flashlights on, but everybody was moving forward, toward Randi’s cell, and nobody could see Randi behind the door.
“The Police Chief ran down to the end and I remember his exact words: ‘Oh merde!’ They all got down to the far end. Notes! Photographs! ‘Chief, stand by the door!’ The Chief was discombobulated, the horn was still sounding outside.”
Now, how was that accomplished?
“As soon as their backs were turned I just stepped out and started walking down the corridor. I saw some cops down the hall, jumped into cupboard “B” and saw on the glass door that they had walked by. I went out and into the washroom. I exited from the window and reached the car into the parking lot. I switched places with Gerry, who got inside the trunk of the car, and I continued on beep beep beeping.”11
Thirteen minutes had passed. Randi had vanished from his cell, everybody was very excited, and nobody had a clue about his whereabouts. Danny took advantage of the chaos and locked the window in the washroom, erasing even that last possible hint to how Randi had escaped. The awful noise coming from the outside was now unbearable.
“Will someone stop this racket!” ordered the exasperated Chief of Police.
His men started to head out to comply, when a constable suddenly shouted: “Look outside the window!”
“They looked outside the barred windows and there I was, sitting in my car beeping the horn with a big smile. The Chief came over to the door and he literally took his hat off, and said: ‘I have to take my hat off to that! What you did is just impossible!’ And of course it was! We did a wonderful week at the theatre, I must say.”12
1. Interview with Penn Jillette and Kim Scheinberg, March 11, 2005.
3. Various interviews with Penn, Ibid, plus: Kim Scheinberg and Angus Johnston, February 28, 2010.
4. “Evasion sensationelle à la station de police de Valleyfield,” Le progres de Valleyfield, Oct. 14, 1954.
5. Penn et al, ibid.
7. Penn et al, plus interview with Massimo Polidoro, June 24, 2014.
8. Polidoro, ibid.
9. Penn et al, ibid.
10. Polidoro, ibid.
11. Angus and Kim interview, plus Polidoro, ibid.
12. When Penn Jillette heard this story for the first time (conversation with Randi of March 11, 2005) his comment was:“That’s just beautiful! The really great thinking is the horn honking ahead of time. Because you never think that that’s the way you use a confederate. Why would you have an assistant to honk a horn? Well, because it messes up the timing! Just fabulous.”