The Bullet Catch that went Wrong – Chung Ling Soo
(2nd April 1861 – 24th March 1918)
This article is chronologically out of sequence in my series on magical history however, as you may have noted from the dates above, it is 100 years ago today, that this, perhaps infamous Magician died, so to mark the date, I have published this today.
Born in Winchester County New York, William Ellsworth Robinson became an established magician in the USA, however, at about the turn of the century an agent was looking for a Chinese magician to perform at the Folles Bergere in Paris, so Robinson rebranded himself as Chung Ling Soo, probably basing both his new character and act on a fellow performer of the time called Chung Ling Foo. In the photo below, of Soo’s display case in The Magic Circle museum, you can see photos of Robinson as he was in real life and also in the character of Chung Ling Soo, together with one of his performance costumes
He completely took on this new persona, both in appearance and he never spoke English in public again, speaking only through interpreters. So why do I refer to this performer as infamous?
Soo was well known for performing the famous Bullet Catching trick, with a solid ball of lead being fired from a handgun (which can be seen in The Magic Circle Museum), and the projectile would be caught by Soo in a china plate and handed to the spectators, this plate would often be signed as a souvenir). In the Magic Circle Museum there are two such signed plates together with the lead shot and handgun, shown below
On 23rd March 1918, Soo was performing at the Wood Green Empire theatre in North London, approximately 6 miles to the north of The Magic Circle, and included in the show was his famous ‘Defying the Bullets’ routine, this time using rifles, rather than handguns, in a scene based on the Boxer Rebellion, the climax of which was a firing squad where Soo was to be the victim.
Although the above poster shows five people in the firing squad, Soo employed just two, Dan Crowley and Jack Grossman, who later reconstructed the effect on The Paul Daniels Show in 1982.
Two members of the audience, usually soldiers, were asked to select and mark a bullet; the bullets were loaded into two rifles. Soo stood on the far right of the stage and was handed a porcelain plate, in which he was to catch the bullet(s)
The two Chinese riflemen crouched and raised their rifles, and Soo dramatically drawing in a large breath, held the plate over his chest
At 10.45pm the shots rang out throughout the theatre……
Soo reeling, twisted slightly to his right, his shoulders arched, dropped the plate, which smashed against the wooden stage floor
A stage technician, rushed on from the wings, responding to Soo’s knees buckling and eased him to the ground
His wife Suee Seen ran on and noticed the blood stains on his costume
The curtain was lowered and the audience ushered out of the theatre which was a Bioscope Screen and the projectionist took his cue.
The following day, the papers informed the the world that Chung Ling Soo had died in Wood Green Cottage Hospital at 5 am, as a result of the injuries sustained the previous night,
Weapons expert Robert Churchill who examined the guns stated that the bullet firing was due to a malfunction of the rifle due to poor maintenance and subsequently the East Middlesex Coroner Mr Forbes announced a verdict of ‘Misadventure’ which was widely accepted at the time, however, over the following years various conspiracy theories came to light:
Was he murdered by a jealous rival?
Was it suicide bought on by depression? This was fuelled by the fact that Soo alone was responsible for the custody and maintenance of the weapons and there were rumours he wasn’t wearing his ‘Flak Jacket’ underneath his costume, on the night in question, as per his contract, or did he ever wear it?
Chung Ling Soo posters are now very valuable and The Magic Circle has a large collection of them on display throughout the whole building
The photo below shows myself with Magic Circle President Scott Penrose at the house of the famous American Magician and Poster Collector Norm Neilson, in the background are some of Norms collection of Chung Ling Soo posters. His full collection was recently sold in the United States as separate lots and had a estimated value of approx $7 Million. I was lucky enough to have been shown the whole collection by Norn, on a visit to his Las Vegas home.
Next Article – ‘Where it all began…….”