Thursday, December 10, 2009


Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of American stage magician William Ellsworth Robinson (1861–1918). He is famous for dying when his bullet catch trick went wrong

During his early career, William Ellsworth Robinson called himself Robinson, the Man of Mystery. To increase his allure with a touch of exoticism, he changed his name to Chung Ling Soo and took his show to Europe. He took the name as a variation of a real Chinese stage magician - Ching Ling Foo - and performed many of the tricks that Foo had made famous. Chung Ling Soo maintained his role as a Chinese man scrupulously. He never spoke onstage and always used an interpreter when he spoke to journalists. Only his friends and other stage magicians knew the truth.

In 1905 in London, when both Chung and Ching were performing in different theatres, they developed a public feud — possibly a publicity stunt — referring to themselves as the only "Original Chinese Conjurer" and the other as an impostor. Ching challenged Chung to perform his tricks but did not show up at the appointed time. Whether this was by design is unknown.

Chung's most famous illusion—partly because of his death while performing it—was called "Condemned to Death by the Boxers". In this trick Chung's assistants, sometimes dressed as Boxers, took two guns to the stage. Several members of the audience were called on the stage to mark a bullet that was loaded into one of the guns. Attendants fired the gun at Chung, and he seemed to catch the bullets from the air and drop them on a plate he held up in front of him. In some variations he pretended to be hit and spit the bullet onto the plate.

Actually, Chung palmed the marked bullets, hiding them in his hand during their examination and marking. The muzzle-loaded guns were rigged so that the bullet in fact never left the gun. The guns were loaded with substitute bullets, but the flash from the pan was channelled to a second blank charge in the ramrod tube below the actual barrel of the gun. The ramrods were never replaced after loading. The guns were aimed at Chung, the assistants pulled the triggers, there was a loud bang and a cloud of gunpowder smoke filled the stage. Chung pretended to catch the bullets in his hand before they hit him. Sometimes he pretended to catch them in his mouth.

The trick went tragically wrong when Chung was performing in the Wood Green Empire, London, on March 23, 1918. Chung never unloaded the gun properly. To avoid expending powder and bullets, he had the breeches of the guns dismantled after each performance in order to remove the bullet, rather than firing them off or drawing the bullets with a screw-rod as was normal practice. Over time, the channel that allowed the flash to bypass the barrel and ignite the charge in the ramrod tube slowly built up a residue of unburned gunpowder. On the fateful night of the accident, the flash from the pan ignited the charge behind the bullet in the barrel of one of the guns. The bullet was fired in the normal way, hitting Chung in the chest. His last words were spoken on stage that moment, "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain." It was the first and last time since adopting the persona that William "Chung Ling Soo" Robinson had spoken English in public.

Chung was taken to a nearby hospital, but he died the next day. His wife explained the nature of the trick, and the inquest judged the case "accidental death".

The circumstances of the accident were verified by the gun expert Robert Churchill.

Some conspiracy-minded theorists suggest that the death was not accidental. In 1955 US stage magician Jack Clarkson claimed that Chung was in debt, that his wife was having an affair with his agent, and that the incident was an elaborate form of suicide. Others have suggested instead that the agent manipulated the gun so that Chung would be killed. Neither theory is supported by solid evidence.

His life inspired the opera 'The Original Chinese Conjuror' in 2006, by Hong Kong born British composer, Raymond Yiu.

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