Chung Ling Soo
|Chung Ling Soo|
The Old and New Magic pub. 1906
|Born||William Ellsworth Robinson
April 2, 1861
Westchester County, New York, U.S.
|Died||March 24, 1918
London, England, U.K.
|Cause of death||Accidental shooting|
|Resting place||East Sheen Cemetery|
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.
Robinson was born in Westchester County, New York, the first of three children born to James Campbell and Sarah Robinson (née Titus). Both of his parents were of Scottish descent. The family settled in Manhattan while James Robinson toured in Charley White's minstrel shows. James Robinson, who variously performed under the names "James Campbell", "H.J. Campbell" and "Professor Campbell", specialties included impersonations, "dialect singing", hypnotism, ventriloquism and magic tricks. He later taught his son how to perform magic tricks.
Robinson performed his first magic show at the age of 14 and began performing professionally on the vaudeville circuit shortly thereafter. He initially performed under the name "Robinson, the Man of Mystery". Robinson earned a decent living performing his act but was eager to become a headliner on vaudeville. In 1887, he began performing "black art illusions" under the name "Achmed Ben Ali". The act and Robinson's new stage closely resembled that of German magician Max Auzinger who performed under the name "Ben Ali Bey" (As Auzinger never toured the United States, the resemblance went largely unnoticed at the time).
By 1896, Robinson had performed his acts in shows for Harry Kellar and Alexander Herrmann. After Herrmann's death in 1896, Robinson decided to strike out on his own. Around this time, Robinson learned of a challenge issued by Chinese stage magician Ching Ling Foo. In a gimmick that was standard of magicians of that era, Foo offered a prize of $1,000 to any person who could successfully duplicate his illusions. Robinson, who had watched Foo's act when he toured the United States and figured out how his illusions worked, accepted the challenge. However, Foo refused to meet with him as Robinson had accepted a previous challenge issued by Foo and lost. The snub left Robinson upset. In 1898, he authored the book Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena. The book exposed the tricks of slate writing and a number of devices that fraudulent mediums would use to pretend to contact the dead.
In 1900, Robinson learned that an agent was looking for a Chinese magician to perform at the Folies Bergère in Paris. He accepted the job and quickly created a new act based on Ching Ling Foo's act. Robinson then began dressing in traditional Chinese attire, shaved his facial hair and began wearing his hair in a queue. To darken his complexion, he painted his face with greasepaint. To complete his new act, Robinson chose the stage name "Hop Sing Soo". Robinson's new act was a hit and by the time he began performing in London, he had perfected his act and changed his name to "Chung Ling Soo" (a variation of Ching Ling Foo's name). Robinson then set about creating a fanciful back story for himself. As "Chung Ling Soo", Robinson claimed he was the American born son of a Scottish missonary who married a Cantonese woman. He claimed his father was a descendant of the Campbell and Robinson Clans and both his parents died before he was 13 years old. As an orphan, Soo said he was taken in by a Chinese magician named "Arr Hee" who trained him to perform ancient Chinese magic tricks mixed with more modern European magic. When Hee died, Soo began performing the magic his mentor had taught him.
As Chung Ling Soo, Robinson maintained his role as a Chinese man scrupulously. He never spoke onstage claiming that he spoke no English (though he did occasionally say phrases in broken English) and always used an interpreter when he spoke to journalists. Soo's Chinese wife, "Suee Seen", acted as his assistant. "Suee Seen" was also one of Robinson's invention; in reality, she was Olive "Dot" Path, an American woman whom Robinson claimed was his wife (the two never married as Robinson never divorced his first wife, Bessie Smith).
Feud with Ching Ling Foo
In January 1905, Soo was in London for an engagement at the Hippodrome. His rival, magician Ching Ling Foo was performing at the nearby Empire Theatre. By this time, Foo was aware that Chung Ling Soo was actually William Robinson and that he had copied virtually his entire act. He publicly called Chung Ling Soo an imposter and became intent on publicly exposing him as an imposter. In order to garner publicity, Foo's promoter publicly announced that he would duplicate at least half of Chung Ling Soo's illusions to prove that he was the real "Original Chinese Conjurer". Soo accepted the challenge and agreed to meet Foo at the offices of The Weekly Dispatch for a press conference. When Ching Ling Foo realized that the press was not interested in Chung Ling Soo's real identity, he refused to attend the press conference and backed out of the challenge. The episode was a public embarrassment for Ching Ling Foo who only played at the Empire Theatre for four weeks (Chung Ling Soo's engagement at the Hippodrome lasted three months).
Soo's most famous illusion, partly because of his death while performing it, was called "Condemned to Death by the Boxers". In this trick, Soo'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 Soo, 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.
Robinson married his assistant Bessie Smith on February 23, 1883. Shortly after the couple married, in December 1883, a woman with whom Robinson had been having an affair (possibly a young servant girl who worked for Robinson's parents) gave birth to his child, a girl named Annie. Robinson's parents took the child in and raised her. Robinson and Smith would later have a son, Elmore (born February 1885). After the birth of their son, Smith could no longer rehearse long hours and travel with Robinson as his assistant. He soon lost interest in his wife after meeting Olive "Dot" Path (born Augusta Pfaff) who would also became his assistant. As divorce was considered socially unacceptable at the time and Robinson was a Roman Catholic, he and Smith never formally divorced and simply decided to "cancel" their marriage.
Robinson and Path presented themselves as husband and wife for the next twenty years. They eventually married in a civil ceremony in March 1906. The marriage was not legally recognized as Robinson was still married to Bessie Smith. Shortly after Robinson married Path, he met Janet Louise Mary "Lou" Blatchford, an English woman from Plymouth. They began a sexual relationship and Blatchford became pregnant in May 1907. Path was angry to learn that Robinson had been unfaithful but the two decided to continue to present themselves as husband and wife for the sake of the act. While "Chung Lee Soo" and "Suee Seen" continued to tour Europe, Blatchford lived in Barnes, London. In between engagements, Robinson would visit the home and the couple's children, of which there was eventually three: Ellsworth James (born February 1908), Hector (born December 1909) and Mary (born March 1911).
On March 23, 1918, Chung Ling Soo was performing at the Wood Green Empire in London. He performed his act without incident until he got to his famous "Condemned to Death by the Boxers" illusion. That night, as one of his assistants fired at him, the gun malfunctioned and fired a live bullet into Soo's lung. He fell to the ground and said in perfect English, "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. Soo was taken to Passmore Edwards Cottage Hospital, but died the following morning. He is buried in East Sheen Cemetery in East Sheen, a suburb of London.
During the inquest, Olive "Dot" Path explained the nature of the Chung Ling Soo's trick. The muskets Soo used in his act were brazed with extra steel barrels. After each performance, to avoid expending powder and bullets, Soo 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. When Soo performed the trick that 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 that was not supposed to fire was fired in the normal way, hitting Soo in the chest. The circumstances of the accident were verified by the gun expert Robert Churchill. Soo's death was ruled "accidental" with a final verdict of "misadventure."
After Chung Ling Soo's death, the public was shocked to learn that he was not Chinese. Soo's true identity was largely known among professional magicians. A year before Soo's death, English magician Will Goldston commented in an interview with Magician Monthly that the public did not question Soo's identity because "...he has always presented to the public that which they like and not which he might prefer."
In popular culture
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.
Films, television and theatre
Robinson's life inspired the 2006 opera The Original Chinese Conjuror, by Hong Kong born British composer, Raymond Yiu.
The story of Robinson's death was dramatized by the Flying Carpet Theatre Company in The Mystery of Chung Ling Soo.
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.
"Magic in the moonlight" a 2014 film, referred to Chung Ling Soo as 'Wei Ling Soo' and had Chung Ling seen as a protagonist in this film.
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- 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 April 13, 2008
- (Steinmeyer 2006, pp. 51-52)
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- Chung Ling Soo on film on YouTube
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- Soo, Chung Ling (1898). Spirit Slate Writing & Kindred Phenomenon. Munn.
- Wood Green Empire, Theatre of Varieties
- 1916 passport photos of William Ellsworth Robinson and his wife Dot
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- Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena