The mysterious final performance of Chung Ling Soo
May 20, 2017
He will do many amazing illusions, but what people come to see is his climactic Death-Defying Bullet Catch.
Louisa and Charlotte had spent hours in their room trying to make themselves look stylish and elegant. Their Uncle Rupert had promised to come along soon, in a carriage, and take them out for a magical evening at a London theater. By the time Uncle Rupert arrived at the front door, they decided they had accomplished their goal and they flittered down the staircase.
They did not know that when their uncle said, “magical evening,” he meant exactly that. When they entered the theater lobby on that March 23rd of 1918, they realized that they had arrived at one of the hottest shows in London. The vibrant signs and posters informed them that they had come to see famous Chinese magician and conjurer, Chung Ling Soo.
“I wonder if we will see some vanishings, Charlotte.” Louisa whispered behind her decorative fan. Uncle Rupert knew the answer but remained silent.
Vanishings were popular fare. Magicians had become famous for vanishing women dressed as moths—the Mascot Moth effect. There were rumors someone could vanish elephants, or other large animals. Most of the vanishings were accomplished with the aid of a puff of smoke to disguise the trick. What would Chung Ling Soo have to offer?” They whispered their speculations to each other back and forth.
A lady nearby who had seen the show before could not control herself and blurted out in hushed tones what they would see. “The Death-Defying Bullet Catch.” He will do many amazing illusions, but what people come to see is his climactic Death-Defying Bullet Catch—he plucks bullets shot from a gun, in midair. He catches them with the aid of a porcelain plate.”
Charlotte and Louisa gasped. Embarrassed by their own lack of decorum, they turned their eyes to the stage where colorful displays were being set up by Chung Ling Soo’s female assistant, Suee Seen. Could that be Chung Ling Soo coming in now from the wings? They were startled by his exotic appearance. He wore glimmering silken robes that were highlighted with bands of color. He had on a cylindrical black cap with a vermilion crown. His head appeared bald, except for one fabulously long pig-tail emerging in the back from under the cap. He could move about with marvelous energy. The sisters almost forgot about the illusions because Chung Ling Soo was a show, himself.
Chung Ling Soo was not a Chinaman at all. He was, William Ellsworth Robinson, who had vanished on purpose from his former life. He once had a full head of thick short hair and a walrus mustache. Born in New York in 1861, he had had a bit of success as a magician. Because he did not have the charisma of most of his showman peers, he instead gained respect as a designer of magical effects for the likes of Hermann the Great and Harry Kellar.
The most popular magician of the time was one Ching Ling Foo. A savvy agent talked Robinson into studying and duplicating Foo’s act and booked him at the Folies-Bergere in Paris for a long run. He shaved his head, face, and adopted the name Chung Ling Soo, which some say translates to very good luck. It worked. Charisma had arrived.
He was a success and left his former life completely behind, even refusing to speak English and requiring a fake interpreter for all dealings. His one-time wife, Olive, became Suee Seen, his trusted assistant, and they worked out a dramatic routine where the audience was told he was re-enacting his escape from execution during The Boxer Rebellion. This was not true, of course, but it was the perfect intro for a bullet-catching illusion.
His popularity surpassed that of the real Chinese magician he had sought to imitate, and one with which Robinson had a standing feud. The bad feelings were over an early challenge Foo had thrown out to imitators, but had not honored with the promised reward payment.
Louisa, Charlotte, and Uncle Rupert did not know it but they had come to see the showy Chinaman’s final performance. When the marksmen assistants fired their rounds for the bullet-catch event, Chung Ling Soo stumbled around, then, collapsed. “My God, I’ve been shot. Lower the curtain.” In his crisis, he reverted to English-speaking. Olive had run to his side and cradled him in her arms. He died the next morning.
Despite rumors of an orchestrated suicide due to heavy debts, or possible murder by jealous rivals or wronged women, the coroner’s inquest deduced that it was death by misadventure. The fatal shot had been fired from a weapon badly maintained by Robinson, himself—a weapon that had a special chamber that was supposed to retain the live round, while the Chinaman displayed a duplicate bullet that he had pulled from the air.
The live round went down the barrel on the fated night. There were vanishings, to be sure. Robinson had vanished from his former life, and then he vanished forever.
Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Curious Indeed, a collection of tales about the unknown and unexplained. Please click HERE to purchase your copy.