Stranger than Fiction: The Mysterious Chung Ling Soo

Chung_Ling_SooIn the world of magic perhaps few magicians are as mired in mystery and intrigue as Chung Ling Soo. His life was one of mystery and his accidental death revealed one of his best kept secrets.

Born in 1861, Chung began performing in Europe in the early 1900s where Asian magicians were in high demand due to the public fascination with far Eastern exotic cultures. He spoke to journalists through a translator and never spoke on stage. While his sleight of hand illusions won him public adulation, it was the secret he cleverly concealed that later stunned the world after his tragic death. It was a secret only his friends and closest associates were aware of.

Chung’s most famous illusion, partly because of his death while performing it, was called “Condemned to Death by the Boxers.” In this illusion Chung’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. The attendants fired the gun at Chung, and he seemed to catch the bullets from the air and drop them on a plate he held up in front of him. In some variations he pretended to be hit and spit the bullet onto the plate. This nail biting illusion resulted in sold out performances and made the Chinese conjuror the toast of London.

The trick was rather simple. Chung palmed the marked bullets, hiding them in his hand during their examination and marking. The guns were loaded with substitute bullets but no gun powder was loaded behind these bullets. The ramrods were never replaced into the ramrod tubes after the bullets were loaded. Instead, the ramrod tubes were loaded with gun powder that produced a flash. The guns were aimed at Chung, the assistants pulled the triggers. There was a loud bang and a flash followed by a cloud of smoke that filled the stage. Chung pretended to catch the bullets in his hand before they hit him. Sometimes he pretended to catch them in his mouth.

The trick went tragically wrong when Chung was performing in the Wood Green Empire, London, on March 23, 1918. In his previous performance he never unloaded the gun properly. Through repeated use, the guns had begun to show wear and the powder began to leak into the barrel holding the bullets. Over time the channel that allowed the flash to bypass the barrel and ignite the charge in the ramrod tube slowly built up a residue of unburned gunpowder.

On the fateful night of the accident, the flash from the pan ignited the charge behind the bullet in the barrel of one of the guns. The bullet was discharged and ripped into Chung’s chest. His last words were spoken on stage at that moment. “Oh my God,” Chung gasped. “Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” It was the first and last time Chung had spoken English in public.

Chung was taken to a nearby hospital, but he died the next day. His wife explained the nature of the trick, and the inquest judged the case “accidental death.” The circumstances of the accident were verified by the gun expert Robert Churchill.

It was then that his well-kept secret was finally revealed to the public. The famed conjuror was not Chinese at all. His real name was William Ellsworth Robinson, an American.

Michael Williams is the author of “Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse.” The book is a collection of 50 strange and unusual but true stories. The stories will leave the reader convinced that perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said “truth is stranger than fiction.”

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Source: Michael Williams, Jefferson County Post Staff Writer

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