Chung Ling Soo

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Chung Ling Soo
Chung Ling Soo.jpg
The Old and New Magic pub. 1906
Born William Ellsworth Robinson
(1861-04-02)April 2, 1861
New York City, New York, U.S.A.
Died March 24, 1918(1918-03-24) (age 56)
London, England, U.K.
Occupation Stage magician

Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of the American magician William Ellsworth Robinson (April 2, 1861– March 24, 1918) who is mostly remembered today for his death after a bullet catch trick went wrong.[1][2]


During his early career, William Ellsworth Robinson called himself Robinson, the Man of Mystery.[3] 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.[4]

Chung was the author of the book Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena (1898). The book exposed the tricks of slate writing and a number of devices that fraudulent mediums would use to pretend to contact the dead.[5]

The feud with Ching Ling Foo and his death[edit]

The Cosmopolitan, pub. 1903.

In 1905 in London, when both Chung and Ching were performing in different theatres, they developed a public feud — possibly a publicity stunt — each referring to himself as the only "Original Chinese Conjurer" and the other as an impostor.[6] 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".[7] In this trick Chung's assistants, sometimes dressed as Boxers, took two guns on to the stage. Several members of the audience were called up to the stage to mark a bullet that was then 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 then spat the bullet onto the plate.

The trick went wrong when Chung was performing at the Wood Green Empire, London, on March 23, 1918. After each performance, to avoid expending powder and bullets, he had never unloaded his guns properly. Rather than firing them off or drawing the bullets with a screw-rod, as was normal practice, he removed the bullet and powder by dismantling the breeches of the guns. Over time, a residue of unburned gunpowder was able to form in the channel he had made which allowed the flash to bypass the barrel and only ignite a blank charge in the ramrod tube. On the fateful night, the flash from the pan also ignited the charge behind the marked bullet in the barrel of the gun being used. Consequently, 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 his persona that William "Chung Ling Soo" Robinson had spoken English in public.

The Old and New Magic pub. 1906

Chung was taken to a nearby hospital, but died the next day. His wife explained the nature of the trick, and the inquest judged it a case of "accidental death,"[8] and gave a final verdict of "misadventure."[9]

The circumstances of the accident were verified by the gun expert Robert Churchill.[10]

In literature[edit]

In Ray Bradbury's novel Dandelion Wine, the story of his death is 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.[11]

On Stage[edit]

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

The story of his death was dramatized by the Flying Carpet Theatre Company in The Mystery of Chung Ling Soo.[12]

In film[edit]

The only film record of Chung Ling Soo that exists today shows him greeting World War I veterans at a 1915 benefit performance.[13]

A magician inspired by Chung Ling Soo, played by Chinese American actor Chao-Li Chi, appears briefly in The Prestige. In an early scene, John Cutter (Michael Caine) challenges his assistants to figure out how Soo does his trick where he appears to magically summon a fishbowl. After watching him, Borden (Christian Bale) deduces that Soo carries the fishbowl between his legs where it is hidden by his skirt. According to him, the real trick is how Soo pretends to be crippled even in his everyday life so his audience never suspects the obvious. This alludes to Borden carrying out a similar deception throughout his daily life.

In television[edit]

Paul Daniels later recreated the fatal bullet catch trick, with one of Soo's original stage assistants. [1]


  • Gerald Kolpan - Magic Words: The Tale of a Jewish Boy-Interpreter, The World's Most Estimable Magician, a Murderous Harlot and America's Greatest Indian Chief. (May 1, 2012)
  • Val Andrews - A Gift from Gods: the Story of Chung Ling Soo (1981)
  • Steinmeyer, Jim (2005). The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer". Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 0-7867-1512-X. 
  • Will Dexter; The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo (1955)
  • Gary R. Frank - Chung Ling Soo - The Man of Mystery (1988) TXu 318 607 The Library of Congress
  • Todd Carr - The Silence of Chung Ling Soo (2001) ISBN 0-9710405-1-6
  • William Robinson - Spirit Slate Writing & Kindred Phenomenon (1898)
  • Macdonald Hastings - The Other Mr Churchill: A lifetime of shooting and murder (1963) 1965 1st US edition Dodd, Mead & Company., New York, (1 Jan 1965)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Randi, James. Conjuring.(St. Martin's Press, 1992) ISBN 0-312-09771-9 page 78
  2. ^ US Passport Application 1916
  3. ^ Randi, James. Conjuring.(St. Martin's Press, 1992) ISBN 0-312-09771-9 page 81
  4. ^ Milbourne Christopher. (1962). Panorama of Magic. Dover Publications. p. 169. ISBN 978-0486207742
  5. ^ William Kalush, Larry Sloman. (2006). The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. Atria Books. pp. 203-204. ISBN 978-0743272070
  6. ^ Randi, James. Conjuring. (St. Martin's Press, 1992.) ISBN 0-312-09771-9. Page 84.
  7. ^ Jim Steinmeyer - Newsletter - Spring 2005 - Excerpt from Glorious Deception, "Chung Ling Soo had included Condemned to Death by the Boxers in his shows" ... "The Mystic Bottle was the illusion in which little bottles became the giant bottle, The Living Target was the rope and arrow trick—they found no mention of the gun illusion." Accessed 2008-04-13.
  8. ^ William Lindsay Gresham. (1953). Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny. Rinehart. p. 289
  9. ^ Christopher, Milbourne, and Brooks-Christopher, Maurine. The Illustrated History Of Magic. (Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973.) ISBN 0-435-07016-9. OCLC 668533. Page 258.
  10. ^ "The Trick that Failed - 1918". Retrieved 2014-04-24. 
  11. ^ Ray Bradbury. (1957). Dandelion Wine. Bantam. p. 60
  12. ^ "The Mystery of Chung Ling Soo". The Flying Carpet Theatre Company. Retrieved 2014-10-14. 
  13. ^ Chung Ling Soo on film on YouTube

External links[edit]