do magic and die

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

no opium

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.

mah jong

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.

seen with chung ling soo

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.

state library of victoria

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

Published in: on November 22, 2009 at 7:56 am  Comments (36)  
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36 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. i think i have had some of that
    rice, beans and sawdust coffee.
    those crazy americans!

  2. I’ve spent some very interristing minutes here!
    Nice blog!

    • Thanks Tagazou and welcome to the Gimcrack. Are you based in Amsterdam?

  3. Confucious say: better to die on feet than live on knees.
    OK, maybe it wasn’t Confucious.

  4. Something went right I suspect for the murderer – I mean the pistol would have been loaded with blanks and the bullets safely in the magician’s mouth.

    The only bullet a magician catches is a train!

    The magic is that someone got away with it!

    Good stuff.

    The King

    • Did you like the mah jongg image? I included it especially for you and queenwilly

      • Yes it’s lovely and all too familiar. I don’t think the artist quite caught the look of daisy though!

        The King

  5. Seems to be a very dangerous profession.

    Sunny Sunday #7 – Say a Sunny Thank-You

    It’s Sunday – Do You Know Where You Are?

  6. Somehow the last photograph intrigues me a lot. The true magic lies there! 😀

  7. His lungs apparently weren’t trained to catch like his teeth were.

  8. Hey, we had Houdini and friend here, we are all alike

  9. “Suddenly from the midst of the inferno, in the heart of the steam, chickens, rabbits, geese and pigeons, leapt from the pot.”

    just sounds like another day in the kitchen for me…

    • hahahaha….. daisyfae, you won’t be doing any of the cooking when we get to Greece

  10. I was fascinated by magic as a child, and I still enjoy a good Vegas show. But David Blaine has turned me off just about all of it. I almost hope for some type of ‘accident’ with him.

    I loved all of your images!

    • David Copperfield ruined it for me 😦

  11. I love how all the magicians got upset at the “Masked Magician” for telling all thier secrets. He was right though…much of the magic that goes on these days is all the same so its time to shake things up.

    • I use to love that show….

      • I have to laugh when I see how many people fell for the Masked Magician’s PR and advertising campaign. He really wanted people to believe that magicians were hunting him down with dangerous intentions.

        In fact, although they did investigate in order to find out who he was, his explanations of many illusions were either dated or incomplete. He was no threat.

        Very few magicians were adversely affected by the supposed revelations. And aside from wanting him expelled from the IBM and SAM for breaking the rules, there were no recriminations. He was a poorly skilled magician (according to the Las Vegas newspapers’ entertainment columnists) who just wanted to make some extra money.

        The only harm he did was implying by his explanations that there was no skill in the performance of magic and that all you needed to do was buy a few props.

      • Thanks Mike

  12. I’m having an urge to saddle up and ride.

    Boyd Cowdini

  13. Howdy cowgirl!

  14. I recently finished reading ‘Adventures of Kevalier and Clay’, all about magic tricks and escape artistry. Risky business, showbiz. Loved the mah jong painting with puppy, and the pussinboots beauties, three hot cupcake! Speaking of cupcakes, let’s try a desert meetup before you go to Greece.

    • Oh I’m not going to Greece until next June. Plenty of time for desserts… or did you really mean to meet up in the desert?

  15. I find that time period fascinating. Where orphans would simply be apprenticed to a stranger to learn a trade.

  16. I think I may have recommended Jim Steinmeyer’s excellent biography of Chung Ling Soo The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson to you a little while back if memory serves. Steinmeyer is an accomplished maker of magical illusions, so his perspective on Robinson’s life is full of illumination.

    • You may have done but I can’t recall…. I’m destined to live out my senior years on “level 3”

  17. I’ve got a magic trick, but I’ll need a hot, Australian female volunteer from the audience. And then I’ll make my wand disappear.

  18. well, he certainly was good at making his career and life disappear. the final mark of a great thaumaturge.

  19. i like magicians. these days the ones that are really becoming popular are the street ones right? also i just saw an ad on tv where there is a magic show and the girl that they sawed in half died. the ad was asking if it was an accident or murder. it can be hard to tell. like your story, what if the assistant killed him? LOL

    • hi prinsesamusang – is this your first visit to the gimcrack?

  20. Excellent selection of pictures! Again.

  21. So little mystery and magic left for us to wonder over. And yeah, I think it was murder. Who was he messing around with, I wonder.

  22. Mitzi: I LOVED Kavalier and Clay. What a wonderful, joyful, tragic book.

    I want to see the bullet catching trick! I wonder if anyone does it nowadays?

    • anaglyph……

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