A self-taught escape artist from small-town Wisconsin delivers death-defying skydives that double as warnings against humanity’s cavalier path toward hell.
After hurling themselves out of an airplane, skydivers over northern Illinois can generally enjoy one minute of free fall while the heavens open up, revealing sublime views of Midwestern farmland intricately stitched together like a grandmother’s patchwork quilting.
But while plummeting through the sky over America’s heartland in 2013, Anthony Martin’s circumstances were different. For one thing, he didn’t jump from the plane – he was sucked out of its cargo bay. And those exalted views from 14,000 feet didn’t matter while he was falling to earth locked inside of a dark wooden box the size of a coffin.
As he cascaded towards imminent death at 200 feet per second, Martin’s utmost priority was unlocking the shackles that bound his right hand to the side of the coffin. Without this dexterity, he couldn’t then break through the additional layer of tight, metal cuffs that cut into his circulation and locked his hands beside his waist. And then, of course, there was the matter of the intricate prison lock bolting the entire box closed…
Martin had rehearsed this escape countless times while securely on the ground, but during free fall, the coffin whipped around like a plastic bag tossed between the wheel wells of a truck on a busy freeway. In one minute flat, he had to break through the box before time ran short and he risked deploying his parachute too late.
Just thirty-seven seconds after being shoved out the back of a twin turboprop plane, the door to the airborne coffin swung open and Anthony Martin tumbled into the low afternoon clouds hanging over the farmlands of Serena, Illinois.
It’s difficult to conjure up the image of a man reckless enough to attempt such a perilous stunt. Perhaps a flashy magician with a cheesy grin and a velour unitard might try it – or a madcap young daredevil with the gleam of foolhardy invincibility in his eyes. But Martin is neither of these things. Or rather, he is no longer either of them.
At forty-nine years old, Martin’s chiseled face has softened and his most intimidating features – a tight crew cut and meticulously trimmed goatee – are tempered by his warm laughter and a kind, Midwestern sincerity that’s settled deep into his brown eyes. When interrogated about the extreme escapes he continues to perform, Wisconsin-born Martin tenderly pitches each sentence with a rising inflection and stalls on long, elevated vowels that might be mistaken for those of a soft-spoken Canadian.
“I hear people talk about some of my escapes like they’re insane, like they shouldn’t be done,” he says, punctuating several of his words with reflective pauses.
Anthony Martin knows that some people think he’s a little bit crazy for cheating death. But for him, it’s a little like living in “The Twilight Zone.” Martin thinks it’s even crazier to see so much of humanity leading an unexamined life of sin – a risk that he believes bears consequences far graver than death.
“‘You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away,’” Martin says, quoting James 4:14 from his modest rambler on a leafy street in Sheboygan, a small industrial town hugging the western shore of Lake Michigan.
“One hundred and fifty thousand people die every day,” he continues. “And a lot of them have dinner plans.”
For these people and the rest of imperiled humanity, professional escape artist/evangelist Anthony Martin jumps out of planes with a message as clear as skydiving on a cloudless day: We are all bound by the shackles of sin, falling toward imminent death. The only surefire escape from the perils of hell is to embrace the word of the Lord before our misdeeds catch up to us. And we must repent now because, as any skydiver knows, life can end faster than a one-minute free fall through the heavens.
* * *
Though he and his only sister attended a Christian day school while growing up in small-town Wisconsin, Martin insists he didn’t come from an especially religious background.
“When I was a kid, [religion] felt forced sometimes,” Martin says on a bright Sunday afternoon in Sheboygan, where he was born and raised. After a protracted silence, he stumbles onto the word “ritualistic” to try qualifying his Lutheran upbringing but then stops again to search for a kinder, more apt descriptor.
For Martin, it was probably the same relationship to church that many of his peers had in this quiet, rural town: wake up on the weekend, go to church, have a Sunday meal with the family. In a community still largely composed of descendants from a wave of devout nineteenth-century German immigrants, the bond with church here is often just a distant refraction of their ancestors’ – a diluted set of unquestioned weekly customs that fit neatly between beer, bratwurst and football games.
But what did hold Martin’s attention from an early age was his insatiable fascination with locks. For his eighth Christmas in 1972, Martin was given a cheap magic set. At first, he only found a “levitating” wand in the kit, a lame parlor trick easily decoded with a quick adjustment to the viewer’s angle. But later that Christmas evening, after all the presents were unwrapped, Martin discovered a small lock and chain set in the same box. It was to become his fixation – an educational tool and personal puzzle that he would dismantle and reconstruct countless times.
“Locks are different than magic. They require knowledge and a refined skill set,” Martin says. “You don’t need tricks to figure out locks.”
So while Martin’s friends were off swimming in the local quarry or messing around off the main drag on Eighth Street, he was convincing his grandfather to buy locks that he could disassemble and examine in the basement.
Inspiring Martin’s desire to learn more about the mechanics of escape was the career of Wisconsin’s most celebrated performer: the legendary Harry Houdini. Martin was voracious in consuming information about the world-renowned magician who grew up a mere fifty miles northwest of his own hometown; he gobbled up every bit of historical record or pop culture memorialization he could find.
And while each of these tidbits initially fueled Martin’s desire to start his own performing career, he quickly realized that the legend of Houdini was often bigger than the man himself. As a kid researching the 1953 Tony Curtis “Houdini” film, Martin was crestfallen to learn that one of his favorite scenes – in which Houdini is trapped beneath the ice of a frozen river – never actually happened.
“I remember thinking, ‘That escape is too cool not to happen.’ And then I vowed to do it myself someday,” he says. And with that, Martin’s quest to abandon illusion and perform only the cold, hard authenticity of truth began.
At ten, Martin publicly performed his first handcuff escape for an audience at a small community picnic; his mom even fastened a turban to his head to lend a touch of exotic intrigue.
“I was terrible,” Martin laughs. “But you have to be okay with being bad to improve and get any good.”
And improve he did – quickly, too. By the age of thirteen, Martin performed his first successful escape from a local county jail cell – while handcuffed and straightjacketed, no less. At fourteen, he escaped the confines of a maximum-security prison cell on nationally syndicated television. By twenty, Ripley’s crowned him “The King of Escapists” after he broke through six prison doors in under five minutes in the same facility that housed infamous Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein.
But Martin longed to push the boundaries even further and perform an escape that would beat everyone – including Houdini.
“That’s how my young mind operated: think of the scariest and most extreme escapes and then worry about the logistics later,” Martin chuckles.
So in 1988 at the age of twenty-two, Martin took up skydiving with the sole purpose of performing a death-defying escape while shackled and falling through the air. Against the advice of his own crew members, Martin performed his first midair escape during only his seventeenth solo flight after being locked inside of a freight box and pushed out of an airplane. Even the man who took Martin under his skydiving wing, Roger Nelson—a United States skydiving national champion and notorious skydiving badboy – advised him against the jump. But he executed it without a hitch.
Soon Martin was in demand for premier media appearances, performing a handcuff stunt on Ross Schafer’s “The Late Show” and a perilous escape involving a canvas bag and a python on “Dick Clark Presents.” In 1990, Martin even followed through on his promise to execute the frozen escape that Houdini never performed – breaking through a steel cage beneath the thick ice of his hometown quarry for a private filmmaker. A few years later in a glitzy Vegas performance hosted by a mustachioed James Brolin, Martin thrilled crowds by barely escaping a coffin buried under the weight of Mojave Desert sands.
Part of Martin was thrilled to be performing at the Vegas Hilton – the same site where Leon Spinks defeated Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley performed his iconic series of sold-out shows. This would mark as the career pinnacle for many showmen. But after almost a decade of major successes as an escape artist, Martin was plagued with questions. And though he continued high on the wave of mid-’90s made-for-TV magician specials and a pervasive national fascination with illusionists, Martin wasn’t sure this spotlight was where he belonged.
“I don’t have anything against magic and the people who perform it,” Martin stresses, speaking with an earnest deliberation as though standing before a boisterous courthouse. “But as I got older, I saw more friends and family pass on and realized that life is over so quickly. When I was younger, I just wanted to make my mark. But then I started being more reflective – Why am I here? Why does the sun go up and down each day?”
As his death-defying career in escapes developed a bit of existentialism in Martin’s heart and soul, he began picking up the Bible he had encountered at school to search for potential answers. And though Martin’s perfunctory religious education hadn’t left an especially indelible mark, the true word of God was finally offering the answers he sought. “[The Bible] really came to life for me once I read it for myself and interpreted it differently,” Martin says.
With Martin’s daredevil free spirit, it took grabbing the book himself for the words to truly come to life. Though he continued attending his own modest Lutheran church, as his escape career burgeoned, Martin was on the road more often and began melding his career with his developing religious metaphor for his own escapes.
And as the age of the Internet dawned as well, Martin was struck by another tremendous thought: “I realized that I had the ability to reach more people than all of those who had seen Houdini in his entire lifetime combined,” he says.
For the first time, he recognized that God had truly bestowed him with a gift of escape for a reason. Houdini had had a second act unmasking sham mediums after his mother passed away, so why couldn’t Martin’s career have a similar rebirth demonstrating the light of the Lord with escape art?
Martin could think of plenty of people from his decade-long cross-country travels to Hollywood and Vegas who could benefit from his newfound mission of showing that – like stuntmen – humanity, too, can escape sin in the nick of time. But he didn’t anticipate using his message so explicitly on his closest friend back in the quiet American heartland.
* * *
“‘So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.’” Martin eloquently recites with a deep exhale. Psalm 90:12 – it’s a passage that comes quickly to mind for Martin when he speaks tenderly of Roger Nelson, the man who taught him to hurl himself from an airplane.
The founder/owner of Skydive Chicago, a mammoth operation on a green bank of the Fox River just southwest of metropolitan Chicago, Nelson has contributed tremendously to the growth of skydiving in the United States and was instrumental in Martin’s first aerial escape.
But soon after they met and the jump was complete, Nelson was federally prosecuted for tax evasion as the ringleader of a massive smuggling operation that trafficked drugs into the Chicago area from Central America, South America and the Caribbean. After spending five years in prison – including two as the cellmate of notorious defrocked televangelist Jim Bakker – Nelson found God and was released in 1993 on good behavior. He and Martin reconnected soon after Martin was released from prison and began training together in an effort to devise even more complex skydiving stunts.
Up first was a dive over Snake River Canyon, the famous site of daredevil Evel Knievel’s failed 1974 motorcycle jump. Martin chose the location because the chasm across the gorge illustrated “the huge distance that sin could separate people from God,” he explains. With Nelson filming the whole thing on his overhead camera as they dropped from 13,000 feet, Martin sprung loose from a pair of county jail-issued handcuffs with only thirty seconds to spare.
“When I first met [Nelson in the ’80s], he compartmentalized God and only pulled him out of the drawer when he needed him. But after he left [prison], and we became closer friends, he got the Lord out of his drawer and kept him out,” Martin says proudly. “He was one of my best friends.”
As the talk of harder skydiving stunts became more concrete, so did Nelson and Martin’s plan to open a ministry together. But in 2003, mere days before their joint outreach program was scheduled to begin, Nelson was killed in a skydiving accident at SDC. In Nelson’s memory, Martin decided to carry out their planned mission work at local churches and named their ministry “Ambassador in Chains” after the escapist stunts that the two men worked so hard to build together in the name of the Lord. Without a brick and mortar church, Martin journeyed between congregations to memorialize the spirit of Nelson and speak of his escapes.
“Going on without Roger was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. But it was a moment to suck it up because our message was the most important thing,” Martin says wistfully. “But as long as a church embraces the most accepted traditional Christian doctrines, I will go there.”
After Nelson’s death, Martin doubled his efforts to spread the word of God, becoming even more open about evangelizing during his stunts. “I do the talk first, mostly, so then they have to listen,” he chuckles, employing the same tactics as a hard-sell timeshare pitch. The strategy worked: more and more people started approaching Nelson after his escapes to talk about their relationship with religion.
“Sometimes we talk in general about God but we often start to talk through particular Bible passages,” Martin says. In realizing that he’d forget some of his best material while handcuffed in front of an audience, Martin’s idea to write a book was born. “Even I can’t scribble down notes while shackled in chains,” he laughs.
And so Escape or Die, Martin’s memoir/spiritual self-help book, was published in 2013. He brings it to most of his performances, and in it, he lays out a few simple concepts: People are inextricably linked to sin. In the same way that a clear-headed Martin must recognize the nature of his physical shackles while plummeting to the earth, people must acknowledge the danger of their own chains. From there, the word of God can act as a parachute to eternal salvation.
“Although we’re bound by sin and justly deserve the consequence of death and Hell, God’s mercy, love and grace are as great as His justice. That is why He provided a means of our escape. But like my aerial box escape, there is no backup plan, and no second chance – there is only one way out: the way He provided,” Martin wrote in a chapter entitled ONE WAY OUT under the Hebrews 2:3 chapter quote “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?”
Martin timed the release of the book to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of his aerial box escape helmed by his dear friend Roger Nelson. It would be one of Martin’s first major skydiving stunts without Nelson by his side.
As he prepared to land, Martin saw television vans dotting the northern Illinois countryside. He was swarmed: Martin had finally reached more people than Houdini.
But during his time as one of the most talked-about news items that August day two years ago, Martin was barely able to fit in his words about the book. On his ninety-second exclusive “Good Morning America” segment, the interviewer twice cut off Martin as he tried to explain the evangelical motivation behind the jump.
“It’s too bad, you know, sometimes,” Martin says, trailing off as though he’s in free-fall and his words are left hanging hundreds of feet above him. “The most important things in life people sometimes just don’t want to talk about.”
* * *
In his younger days, Anthony Martin the daredevil used to hope for a big break – a singular event that would define his career like a call from Hollywood or a visit from a big-shot producer. Now he concentrates on his service to the Lord and sees opportunities as ebbing and flowing like the waves on nearby Lake Michigan.
Still based full-time in Sheboygan and living with his wife, Lynn, of twenty-two years, today, he hangs around northeast Wisconsin churches a lot more than he did as a kid, both teaching adult Sunday school and performing for youth groups and other organizations.
“The performances are part of my ministry and Roger’s legacy – we always wanted to bring in people to church who wouldn’t normally come,” Martin explains proudly. “So even after my performance is over, I leave, but the church is still a resource for people.”
He also tends to his antique shackle collection and gets calls from local locksmiths to open antique safes that even they can’t crack. “I don’t even know how the safe thing started happening. Friends of friends, I guess. Anyway, it keeps my mind sharp,” Martin laughs.
Every so often, Martin still gets contacted for big TV specials and other high-profile events. He won’t necessarily turn them down, but he’s not going to count on them either. He sees the proliferation of reality TV shows and other tawdry one-off events and doesn’t know if he would want to break into that market anyway. “Those shows are the same kind of real that magic and illusions are,” Martin says, soon to head out the door to deliver a sermon. “We need to spend our energy on what is real, on confronting our own mortality.”
He pauses for a moment in the way that he does while searching for the precise words to offer a potential believer. “And then we need to reckon with what comes after that.”
* * *
Gaar Adams is a Wisconsin-born journalist and photographer based in the Arabian Peninsula. His work from the region has appeared in The Atlantic, VICE, Foreign Policy, NPR, Slate, Al Jazeera, and Roads & Kingdoms among others. See more at gaaradams.com and follow him on Twitter @gaaradams.
Marco Gallo is a New York City based Art & Advertising student, an illustrator, and a design intern with Narratively.