In the early part of the 20th century, Australians were enamoured with magicians. Many of the well known prestidigitators of the time visited our shores and charmed their audiences.
Chung Ling Soo dressed in long robes and wore his hair in a pigtail. His act was one of illusion and magic, and his stage image was one of oriental stoicism. Chung Ling Soo rarely spoke on stage. His performances were occasionally punctuated by the words, “much glad’ in broken English. Privately, his command of English was quite colourful, especially when something went wrong with the stage mechanics
Chung Ling Soo took coffee beans, rice and sawdust, mixed them together and produced cups of coffee. They were served to audience members. Flowers were produced from pots of sawdust, and dolls, flowers and brightly coloured paper magically appeared from an empty cauldron.
The illusionist used a gigantic witch’s cauldron. Into it, he threw dead chickens, rabbits, geese and pigeons. Then a fire appeared burning under the pot. The cauldron steamed in the heat and its contents boiled. Suddenly from the midst of the inferno, in the heart of the steam, chickens, rabbits, geese and pigeons, leapt from the pot.
Chung maintained that his father was a descendant of the Campbell and Robertson clans. In an interview, he added that his father was a Scottish engineer who had married a Cantonese woman. According to the conjurer his father died when he was seven and his mother when he was twelve. As an orphan he was apprenticed to a Chinese magician named Arr Hee.
Chung Ling Soo was in fact an American born William Ellsworth Robinson in New York on April 2nd 1861. His parents were Scottish. In 1900 he was offered a European engagement if he could imitate a real Chinese magician called Ching Ling Foo. Robinson shaved his head and his moustache, put on a false pigtail and on May 17 that year appeared as Chung Ling Soo. His wife, the very Anglo Olive Path became his assistant and was the slim lady who appeared in the glass cage and boiling cauldron.
On March 23rd 1918 he was performing in front of the usual packed house when a tragic accident ended his career.
image found at State Library of Victoria
He was performing the bullet catching feat. Two assistants would load marked bullets into a gun. They would fire the gun at the unprotected magician. He would then catch the bullets in his teeth and they would rattle into a plate that he held in his hands. When inspected, the bullets had marks identical to those that were placed in the muzzle of the revolver.
Chung Ling Soo had performed this trick routinely for many years. That night something went wrong. The assistants fired as usual, but the magician fell to the ground. With a gasp he exclaimed, “My God, I’ve been shot, lower the curtain.”
One of the pistols had malfunctioned and a bullet had pierced his right lung. He died in London the following day.
You can also read an interesting article here which includes a photo of Ben Robinson’s mouth after his version of the bullet catching trick went wrong