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William Ellsworth Robinson (Chung Ling Soo) 1916 | by puzzlemaster
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William Ellsworth Robinson (Chung Ling Soo) 1916

Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of U.S. stage magician William Robinson (1861-1918). He is famous for dying when his bullet catch trick went wrong.


During his early career William Ellsworth Robinson called himself Robinson, the Man of Mystery. 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 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 Soo and Foo were performing in different theatres, they developed a public feud - possibly a publicity stunt - referring to themselves as the only "Original Chinese Conjurer" and the other as an impostor. Foo challenged Soo to perform his tricks but did not show up in the appointed time. Whether this was by design is unknown.


Soo's most famous trick -- partly because of his death while performing it -- was the "live target" (or "condemned to death") trick. In this trick Soo'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 Soo and he seemed to catch the bullets from the air and drop them on an plate he held up in front of him. In some variations he pretended to be hit and spit the bullet onto the plate. Actually, Soo palmed the bullets, hiding them in his hand during their examination and marking. The muzzle-loaded guns were rigged such that the gunpowder charge fired in a chamber below the barrel so that the bullet never left the gun. The trick went badly wrong when Soo was performing in the Wood Green Empire, London, on March 23, 1918. The trick gun was worn out and some of the gunpowder exploded in the live chamber, setting off the loaded bullet which hit Soo in the chest.


Soo was taken to a nearby hospital but he died the next day. Soo's wife explained the nature of the trick and the inquest judged the case "accidental death".


Some conspiracy-minded theorists suggest that the death was not accidental. In 1955 US stage magician Jack Clarkson claimed that Soo was in debt, that his wife was having an affair with his agent, and that the incident was an elaborate form of suicide. Others have suggested instead that the agent manipulated the gun so that Soo would be killed. Neither theory is supported by solid evidence. -

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Taken on February 13, 2011