For those of you who don’t know me very well…I’ve got a confession to make. I’m a history geek. Well, not just any history – the history of Magic. Dammit! that probably sounds even geekier, and conjures up strange images of things that closely resemble Star Wars Conventions and similar oddities. The reason for this interest is simple though: No matter what your area of expertise is, or what your passion is, we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, and how can we know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve already been, right? Well now that my secret is out, I may as well share a little something with you that I discovered recently whilst trawling through old newspapers. It won’t mean much to you, but as with all good stories, hopefully something will grab your attention!
In the year 1903, one of the most famous magicians in history graced these Irish shores, and gave an astonishing performance in a venue that was, at the time, called ‘ The Empire Palace Theatre ‘ (now ‘The Olympia Theatre ‘). His name was Chung Ling Soo – an Oriental Gentleman supposedly from China, who had toured across the globe to magnificent success.
He couldn’t speak a word of English, but was known for letting his Magic do the talking for him. Those of you who have seen the fantastic film ‘ The Prestige ‘, might remember a scene in which a Chinese Magician makes a large Fish-Bowl appear from beneath a silk sheet, supposedly conjured from thin air. That’s a depiction of the great Chinese Master ‘Chung Ling Soo’. Another one of my favorite illusions for which he was known for involved him slinging a baited fishing line out into the auditorium, over the heads of the audience, only to catch gold-fish out of thin air, over and over again! To think that one of History’s finest illusionists gave a performance here in Dublin so many years ago in 1903 makes me wish I was there to see it!
Reviews of his 1903 performance state that:
“The Prinicipal Turn was that of Chung Ling Soo, a really clever Chinese conjurer, whose amazingly clever tricks, performed with apparent ease, mystified his audience. In all that he does he proves himself a master of the art of conjuring, and during the remainder of his engagement he will prove a big attraction at the Empire”
However, in keeping with the nature of magic, we illusionists tend to keep our secrets closely guarded – but Chung Ling Soo had the biggest secret of them all. In March of 1918, Chung Ling Soo unknowingly stepped onto the stage for the last time in his life at the Wood Green Empire, London. One of his most famous illusions was called ‘Condemned to Death by Boxers‘ (or ‘Defying the Bullets’) – this involved a member of the audience signing his or her name on a bullet, which was then loaded into one of two guns, which were both fired towards the Magician. Chung would stand a distance away, and catch the bullets with his hand before quickly dropping them onto a plate (he also sometimes caught the bullets with his mouth and spat them onto the plate!). However,on this fatal night in London it all went wrong when a build-up of unburnt residue caused an explosive bullet to be fired directly into his Chest. The last words he ever spoke on stage, in a perfect english accent were
“Oh My God. Something’s Happened. Lower the Curtain.”
This was the first time that Chung Ling Soo had ever spoken English in Public.
Here’s the twist: Chung Ling Soo was actually a New York man named William Ellsworth Robinson. He had originally performed a live show called ‘Robinson, The Man of Mystery‘, but failed in making it a huge success. Following this, he changed his name to Chung Ling Soo (a variation of a rival conjurer’s name ‘Ching Ling Foo’), and adopted the role of an Oriental Man – a deception which he devoted his life to, by never breaking character or ever speaking English in public. For decades, he managed to deceive the world, and nobody batted an eyelid. He even conducted his interviews with the help of an interpreter! I find it hilarious to think that he sat through 100s of interviews speaking fake chinese, and making up ‘Oriental -sounding’ words and phrases whilst keeping a straight face. It’s like something out of Family Guy!
Stories like this make me love this incredible art form that I’m fortunate enough to be involved with, and the idea of one man devoting his entire life to being somebody else really highlights how far we’ll go as Magicians to create a convincing illusion. Ultimate Devotion. You can see side-by-side images of him HERE to see the changes he made to create his new identity, and amazingly, there is 14 seconds of footage available to watch on YouTube HERE, so you can decide for yourself whether or not you would have believed William Robinson as the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer, Chung Ling Soo.
Hopefully after reading this, the history of Magic will sound a little bit more interesting!
Image: Wiki Commons