Ann Arbor Magic Club

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Our Rich Magical History

William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo – Part 3

Last month we looked at a couple of Robinson's stage illusions. This month I will wrap up Robinson with Soo’s Bullet Catch, the effect he died doing; however, there are a couple of other things to consider to fill out a fuller character of Robinson.

Robinson had been an assistant for two famous magicians, Harry Kellar, and Alexander Hermann. Hermann, who immensely enjoyed horses and horse races, would teach Robinson the complex art of makeup, then leave Robinson to take on Hermann's Mephistophelian appearance and perform Hermann's act for the evening without the audience suspecting the switch. From this, Hermann developed a reputation for being able to be at two places at one time, a trick that both Herman and Robinson relished pulling off on the public.

While Robinson had excellent skills in magic, he was not as accomplished at the presentation of magic. Part of his problem was that he had some yellowed teeth, so he did not like to smile much. He was not a gifted speaker either, so his personality on stage was not something to draw repeat audiences. These flaws are where becoming Ching Ling Soo saved him from those problems. His character Soo rarely spoke when performing, solving the problem with the yellowed teeth and being a bad public speaker.


There is a legend that a dozen magicians have died from performing the bullet catch trick. While that number is unsubstantiated, William Robinson as Soo joined that list on March 24, 1918. Soo titled his illusion: “Condemned to Death by the Boxers.” Last month we talked about the Boxers of China and the uprising they started called The Boxers' Rebellion. While Western forces put down the rebellion, there were still anti-Chinese sentiments to deal with in the West, which Soo confronted earlier in his career with his desecration of the Chinese flag in favor of the Union Jack (see July's article.)

Dressed as Boxers, his assistants would play the role of firing their rifles toward Soo in what resembled a firing squad. Then, during a performance in London on March 23, 1918, the fateful day arrived when a gun misfired, discharging a bullet out of the chamber that was not supposed to be able to fire. When Soo was hit, he spoke, "Oh my god. Somethings happened. Lower the curtain." These were the first and only English words he spoke in public since adopting the role of Chung Ling Soo.

A gun expert attributed the accidental discharge as the result of improper cleaning and maintenance of the gun, and the death was ruled "accidental." The secret of Soo's identity would shock the public when they learned that he was not Chinese, but an American named William Ellsworth Robinson. During the inquest, Robinson's complicated personal life unraveled, having had one legal wife and two other families at the same time, demonstrating his skills as a juggler 🙂

While these last two things are what Robinson is most remembered for, his dedication and innovation to magic were a gift to the magic fraternity that lives on to this day.

Recommended Reading: The Glorious Deception - The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer" by Jim Steinmeyer.

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