THREE years ago, John Lindley was wandering around the Museum of Buxton in Derbyshire, when he came across a display of items belonging to one Randolph Douglas, a former steelworker, locksmith, caver, collector of ephemera, miniaturist, curator, magician and escapologist, who died in 1956.
Born in 1895 and growing up in Endcliffe, Sheffield, Douglas, the son of silversmith, worked for years at Hadfields steelworks before joining the Army and going to war in 1916. In the intervening years, the young
boy became fixated by the vaudeville-style magic acts, illusionists and escapologists that were so much part of the entertainment of the day.
Lindley saw a photo of Douglas with the legendary Hungarian emigr Harry Houdini, whose feats of escapology made him one of the most famous men on the planet. There were also letters and postcards to Randolph from Houdini, which made it clear that they were had become friends.
It seemed that young Randoph had showbusiness aspirations of his own, calling himself "Randini", and working on his own acts of amazing escapes in his attic bedroom.
"I felt moved to go back and look again, " says John Lindley, who was Cheshire's Poet Laureate in 2004, and has published several well-received collections of work. "I wanted to know more about Randoph Douglas's life and his relationship with this star."
Further research revealed that Douglas had possibly first seen Houdini's act at Sheffield Empire when he was only eight years old, and saw the star again and again when he came to England over subsequent years.
A newly published American biography of Houdini is thought to be the first to mention that, after a show in Nottingham, the star went out of his way to drive up to Sheffield to visit Randolph Douglas, and that the two men discussed different kind of locks – he was apparently an expert locksmith, although only in his teens. Houdini was shown up to the attic to see work-in-progress.
There, with the help of Douglas's stepmother, Houdini helped to truss the young man in a straitjacket, chains and padlock, then suspend him upside down from a frame so that he could show off his latest.
"At the time Houdini had not performed such a feat, and it's fairly certain that he did get tips from Douglas on how to do it before he introduced it into his act," says John Lindley."It's clear from the correspondence kept among Douglas's belongs at Buxton Museum that the relationship between the two was more than simply that of superstar and fawning fan. Houdini mentions details of particular tricks, and at one point he asks Douglas to send him some knives.
But Randolph Douglas's connection to Houdini and influence on his act have never received recognition, says Lindley.
After Douglas went to war the two did not meet again, and Houdini died in 1926, when a student took him by surprise and repeatedly punched him in the abdomen, following the showman's claim that he could withstand any punch.
"Douglas did perform his own 'Randini the Self-Liberator' act two or three times in workingmen's clubs in Sheffield, but when he was later invalided out of the war with a heart condition, he was no longer strong enough to perform escapology. That part of his life was over.
"He went back to Hadfields, married, and later they moved to Castleton and opened their home as the House of Wonders museum, full of the amazing things he collected such as African weapons, and his own miniatures – everything from a tiny greenhouse, with 42 plants inside, to a thread with the Lord's Prayer printed on it."
John Lindley found elderly people around Castleton who remembered Douglas as an ordinary and unassuming man. The poet in Lindley felt there were so many extraordinary aspects to the Randolph
Douglas story that the little-known escapologist inspired him to dedicate 25 poems to him.
RUBBING SHOULDERS by John Lindley
Tight-trussed and tricked out in a straitjacket,
Houdini hangs in homage to Randolph
as Randolph had already hung, still as
a stalactite, from his bedroom ceiling.
They talk locks, swap tricks and exchange postcards –
Houdini in New York, Prague, Nuremberg,
Randolph, always Sheffield, Sheffield, Sheffield –
one sending clippings, the other pasting.
On a cold undated day, the two pose
together; half-smiles, hats and overcoats.
Rubbing shoulders, only their buttons match,
both destinies as different as their heights,
the shorter man growing large as legend
the taller shrinking smaller than footnotes.
John Lindley will read from the collection House of Wonders at 2pm on Thursday, August 14 at Castleton Visitor Centre, where some of Randolph Douglas's belongs are also on display. To order the book for 7.95 see www.johnlindley.co.uk or call 01260 273219.