Houdini is the most famous magician on the planet, but few know that his most famous feat – escaping from a straitjacket while hanging upside down – sprang from the imagination of 19-year-old Randolph Douglas (1895–1956), who demonstrated the idea to him after a show. Houdini popularised the feat by performing it in front of crowds numbering in the thousands.
Douglas was Houdini’s number one fan, an expert on locks and an amateur escapologist. But he was far more, as this impressively researched book demonstrates. He constantly read, tinkered and collected to satisfy his craving for knowledge of esoteric subjects.
By the age of nine, he was spending his pocket money on handcuffs and locks. He would dismantle them, figure out how they worked, then reassemble them. He drew intricate designs of locks and colourful escape act ideas (some with equally colourful titles such as the Mongolian Torture Chest Escape).
Randolph – known as The Great Randini when he performed small-scale escapology shows in his home town – regularly attended magic and variety shows. He eventually met his idol when Houdini toured England. The two corresponded for decades. Douglas sent Houdini ideas for escapes, and Houdini reciprocated with locks from around the world.
Douglas was unable to fulfill his dream of becoming a great escapologist like Houdini. He worked as a silversmith to make ends meet. Later, health problems, worsened by a stint in the Army, ended any chance of performing strenuous escapes.
This led to another phase of his life. Along with his wife Hetty and a few close friends, he walked the Derbyshire hills and explored the potholes and caves under them.
Douglas also turned his silversmithing skills to the creation of intricate miniature models such as fully detailed houses the size of matchboxes.
For many years, Douglas bought locks and handcuffs to research escapology. He added to this with a huge selection of detailed miniatures he had made and a wide variety of oddities he collected. This obsession eventually led to his final business venture, the House of Wonders museum in Castleton. The varied contents of this museum included fossils, stalagmites, crystals, rock specimens, stuffed tropical birds, petrified birds nests, poisoned darts, Chinese opium pipes and Buddhist prayer wheels. Part of his collection of historical locks and keys was recently selected for inclusion in the BBC’s A History of The World In 100 Objects.
Beedham covers Douglas’s life in engaging detail. The effort involved in tracking down the numerous paintings, drawings and photographs that illustrate this volume must also be applauded.
My only quibble – and it is a very minor one – is that a strong editorial eye could have tightened up the sometimes slightly cramped layout and occasional repetition of phrase.