This is a post about the true story of Chung Ling Soo (April 2, 1861 – March 24, 1918). Soo (whose real name was William Ellsworth Robinson) was an American magician with his most popular trick being the “bullet catch.” The bullet catch was an extremely dangerous illusion performed to make one think the magician can safely catch a bullet that is fired directly at them. They would catch the flying bullet with a dinner plate, a handkerchief, in a bottle, in their hand, or even in their mouth.
The earliest known documentations of the bullet catch illusion goes all the way back to 1631. It first appeared in a book called Theatres of God’s Judgments. In the late 1600s (about 50 years later), a magician named Coullew of Lorraine actually performed the trick successfully. The man would catch the bullets in his hand. Of course, it is not hard to believe that the bullet catch is arguably the most dangerous illusion that anyone (even the most experienced magicians) can attempt. Although there are only a few documented cases of actual deaths that were caused from this dangerous trick, there are some claims that as many as twelve magicians have been killed throughout history.
The Early Years
William Ellsworth Robinson was born in Westchester County, New York. With the help of his father (who was also a professional magician), he began to learn how to perform magic tricks at an early age. Robinson performed in his very first magic show at 14. Not long after his first show, he began performing professionally. Little did he know that he was on his way to a fatal quest for fame.
Ching Ling Foo
Ching Ling Foo was the stage name for famous Chinese magician Zhu Liankui. He was the first modern East Asian magician to achieve world fame. Robinson recognized Foo’s worldwide fame and eventually went on to develop a Chinese-style show of his own. He even changed his name.
Instead of creating an original stage name, Robinson made a little bit of a jerk move. After he began performing in London, he changed his name to “Chung Ling Soo.” It was a variation of the famous Chinese magician Zhu Liankui. Apparently, he thought it would help bring him more fame.
William Ellsworth Robinson wasn’t the only one whose Chinese act was a total fake. His wife and assistant was given the fake name “Suee Seen.” Her real name was actually “Dot Robinson.”
The Two Things That Made Soo A Famous Magician
Although the majority of Robinson’s acts were tricks that were already performed by most magicians, after touring in Paris and England, he became an instant success (Chung Ling Soo, that is). There were a couple of reason to why he quickly became a successful magician. One is because he claimed to be from China, which back in those days, added mystery to his act. Of course, his phony name didn’t hurt him. However, the man wasn’t one bit Chinese. He was of Scottish descent.
How Soo Managed To Make Himself Look Chinese
To look Chinese, Soo had a queue hairstyle and would dress in traditional Chinese attire. He would never go out in public without shaving his facial hair off. He used greasepaint to darken his complexion. Of course, most people in London didn’t speak any Chinese. To make him look like he didn’t speak a word of English, Soo would bring a translator along with him to his performances.
Where Soo Said He Learned His Magic Tricks
Of course, the media would ask Soo exactly where he learned his all of his incredible magic tricks. Soo claimed to be adopted by the great Chinese magician named “Arr Hee.” When the magician passed away, Chung Ling Soo inherited his secret and began performing the tricks he was taught.
Of course, the second reason for Soo’s success is his most famous trick they call the “bullet catch.” This was a trick that was so dangerous, people could not believe it was even possible. The bullet catch involved Soo catching bullets that were fired at him from two rifles. This was an illusion that Soo wouldn’t perform very often. To prove to the crowd that the bullets were actually fired, he would have someone in the audience mark each bullet before it was loaded into the two rifles. After the shots were fired, the bullets were caught on a plate. Soo would then demonstrate that the bullets he caught, were the same bullets that were marked by the volunteers in the audience.
The Mistake Of That Took Soo’s Life
The “Condemned to Death by the Boxers” was a famous illusion performed by Soo. While performing in London, one of Soo’s assistants fired at him. The gun malfunctioned and fired a live bullet that hit Soo in his lung. What stunned the audience is not only the bullet that sent him to the ground, but his very last words. After Soo hit the ground, he said, “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” This was supposed to be a man who needed an interpreter to answer questions asked in the English language. At this point, it was quite obvious that Soo was not Chinese. This was the first and last time Robinson spoke English in public as “Chung Ling Soo.”
Although Soo was immediately rushed to the hospital after being shot by his assistant, sadly, he died the next morning. At least you can say that the man died doing what he loved most.
Of course, after Soo’s surprising death, the police were immediately on the scene.
So was the death of Mr. Robinson just an accident, or cold blooded murder? In addition to his wife, Robinson also had a mistress. He would leave his wife, spend some time with his mistress, and then go back and perform his acts as “Chung Ling Soo.” Was his infidelity a motive for murder? After all, his wife was cheated on for years and she may have decided she had enough of Robinson’s games. This was not the only reason one would believe his wife had something to do with his death. Robinson’s wife was the last person to handle the guns before they were used.
How The Rifle Malfunctioned
Since the no one knew how Soo’s bullet trick actually worked, the whole thing was suspicious. As the police reached the scene, they immediately questioned Robinson’s wife and staff. To get to the bottom of exactly why the rifle malfunctioned, the policed decided to bring in a ballistics expert.
It was later determined that the rifle was not tampered with. The death of Robinson was ruled an accident. Part of the mechanism of the rifle was blocked. Robinson altered the mechanism so that the real bullets that were loaded into the rife, would never fire (only blanks). However, what Robinson was unaware of, was that each time he unloaded the bullets from his secret chamber, he was also wearing away the screws that sealed it. This is what allowed a tiny trail of gun powder to work its way through, therefore allowing a spark to reach the real bullet, which fired at Robinson.
The Only Known Footage Of Soo
Above is the only known footage of the famous magician. Soo is shown greeting World War I veterans at a benefit performance back in 1915. The YouTube video is only about 13 seconds long.
This story definitely has a very sad ending. Mr. Robinson’s most famous illusion, would be his very last. Unfortunately for the man with the stage name “Chung Ling Soo,” the trick that was once without incident, eventually was the act that not only ended his successful career, but also his life.