Chung Ling Soo's Real Name
William Ellsworth Robinson
Robinson, the Man of Mystery,
Marvelous Chinese Conjurer
Stage Magician, Inventor
Place of Birth
New York City, New York, USA
Chung Ling Soo possessed the ability of superb conjuring and stage illusion skills. He was a master of disguise, who performed as an Chinese conjurer, complete with oriental garb and who always used an interpreter when he spoke to journalists.
The only film record of Chung Ling Soo that exists today shows him greeting World War I veterans at a 1915 benefit performance.
Chung Ling Soo was born William Ellsworth Robinson on April 2, 1861.
He worked for a time as assistant and back-room boy for Alexander Herrmann. At times, he would fill in for Herrmann, and so skillful was Robinson's makeup, that the substitution was never noticed.
During his early career, William Ellsworth Robinson called himself Robinson, the Man of Mystery.
He became interested in the tricks used by fraudulent spirit mediums, and in 1898, published a book still considered a classic on the subject - 'Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena.'
At the turn of the century, after being rebuffed by Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo over a money challenge made by the latter, Robinson created the character and show of Chung Ling Soo, and took his show to Europe.
He took the name as a variation of 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.
They each referred to himself 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.
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, on March 24, 1918. He was 56 years old. 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.
His life inspired the opera The Original Chinese Conjuror in 2006, by Hong Kong born British composer, Raymond Yiu.
In Ray Bradbury's novel Dandelion Wine, the story of his death told by an eyewitness who calls him "Ching Ling Soo" and remembers him as having been shot in the face at Boston's Variety Theater in 1910.
In 'Magic Words,' a 2012 novel by Gerald Kolpan (Pegasus Books), Chung is featured as young Billy Robinson, apprentice to the great magician, Alexander Herrmann, who is one of the two main characters in the book (the other is Alexander's cousin, Julius Meyer, Indian interpreter).
Information credit: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of Magic and Magicians.