Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chung Ling Soo

Chung Ling Soo was a Chinese magician that became famous in the early 20th century for his act that included the infamous "Bullet Catch" trick. The problem? Chung Ling Soo was not the man's real name, nor was he actually Chinese. Soo's real name was William Ellsworth Robinson and he had actually grown up in New York City. Why did he make people think he was Chinese? He reasoned that it would attract a larger audience to have a more exotic act. Somehow he pulled it off, even though I think he doesn't look that much like an Asian man. Robinson's stage name in his early career was Robinson, Man of Mystery! Pretty original, right? Things must not of been going too well for him though, as he soon decided to change his name and appearance to gain a larger audience. Robinson was dedicated to his act. In his 19 years as the character, he never spoke on stage and always spoke through an interpreter to journalists. Only his close friends and other stage magicians knew his secret.

Robinson took his show on the road and traveled all across the world becoming quite the famous magician. Robinson chose the name Chung Lingo Soo as a variation on the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo (left), who was also performing around the world at the time. Robinson even copied many of Foo's tricks, using it in his own act. Things came to a head when Robinson and Foo were both performing in England. While performing at different theaters, they both declared themselves the "Original Chinese Conjurer" and the other as a fake. Ching challenged Robinson to show off his skills but Robinson didn't show up at the appointed time. Many have speculated that the feud was in fact a publicity stunt. Robinson's most famous illusion was the "Condemned to Death by Boxers" trick. In it, his assistants would dress up like Boxers (not boxers like the sport, but like The Boxer Rebellion in China) and take two guns up onto the stage. Members of the audience would mark the bullets, which were then loaded into the guns. Attendants would fire the guns at Robinson, who would catch them with his hand and put them on a plate, or sometimes catch it with his teeth and spit it out. What the audience didn't know was that Robinson palmed the marked bullets during the marking and examination. The guns wouldn't actually shoot, but were loaded with fake bullets. The audience always loved the trick, so he kept doing it.

Then things went terribly wrong for Robinson. He was at Wood Green Empire, London in 1918 about to perform his famous trick. "Robinson never unloaded the gun properly. To avoid expending powder and bullet
s, he had the breeches of the guns dismantled after each performance in order to remove the bullet, rather than firing them off or drawing the bullets with a screw-rod as was normal practice. 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 fired in the normal way, hitting Robinson in the chest. His last words were spoken on stage that moment, "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain." It was the first and last time since adopting the persona that William "Chung Ling Soo" Robinson had spoken English in public." He was taken to the hospital but died the next day. The police deemed it an accidental death, but only after the wife had to explain the trick.

You may remember hearing about the bullet catch trick in the movie The Prestige with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. In it, the bullet catch trick is demonstrated and executed, though it has a much more sinister end in the movie. Chung Ling Soo is actually in the movie, though they changed the character around. In the movie, the man is actually Chinese, but Bale's character believes the man pretends to be a cripple to impress the audience with his illusions. Soo's character demonstrates the lengths a person would go through to devote themselves to an art. This theme plays throughout the movie as we see what Jackman's and Bale's characters will do to perfect their art.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Lost Roanoke Colony

If you are like me, then you like a good mystery. Mysteries are harder to come by in this day in age, with all the technology and new investigative enhancements, so most mysteries have been far before the times of our fancy gadgets. One mystery that seems to have alluded scientists and historians alike is the fate of the Roanoke Colony. There are some theories, but nothing concrete on what happened to this colony. It is still one of the great mysteries of our colonial history.

For a colony to become lost, it had to have been established, so let me take you back to the late 16th century. It was March in 1584 when Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter to colonize the area of America known today as Virginia. There was a stipulation however; if he didn't establish a successful colony within seven years, he would lose his right to colonize altogether. This was still in the time where the British, Spanish, and French assumed that the Native Americans had great amounts of gold and treasure somewhere in the New World, and Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I basically intended the venture to bring them riches. That, and they also wanted to set up a base so the English could terrorize the Spanish ships which had a colonies in Florida and the Caribbean. Remember, when a country decides that looting and pillaging a ship is good for it's people, they don't call it piracy, they call it privateering. It's different. Trust me. Raleigh had actually never been to North America, but instead had been a part of the frustrating expeditions in South America near the Orinoco River to find the golden city of El Dorado.

In April of that year, Raleigh (left) sent an expedition force led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to explore the east coast of the New World. The expeditionary force landed on Roanoke Island and quickly established relations with the local tribes, the Secotans and the Croatans. Amadas and Barlowe took two Croatans with them back to England and once there the natives described the local politics and geography to Raleigh. With this information, Raleigh set up a second expeditionary force led by Sir Richard Grenville. Grenville set sail with five ships from Plymouth, England and quickly ran into a big storm. The storm separated the Tiger from the other ships and it did what it was supposed to do when they got separated; it went to Puerto Rico to meet back up with the other ships. This was a funny plan since the Spanish were crawling all over the area and the English didn't exactly get along with the Spanish. The crew of the Tiger got bored and decided to build a fort where they landed. While building the fort, they established a relationship with the Spanish there, while also sometimes engaging in privateering against them. The English were weird back then. Anyway, one of the other ships finally showed up, of course right when the fort was done being constructed, and the two ships left, tired of waiting for the remaining ones. Today, no one is quite sure where the fort they built is located.

The Tiger wasn't nearly done with having bad luck and ran into a shoal in the Ocracoke Inlet, located off the coast of North Carolina. Hitting the shoal ended up destroying almost all of their food. Bad day. They finally ran into the other ships, minus the Red Lion who was all "forget this noise" and dropped it's people off and went to Newfoundland to be The expeditionary force started exploring the area and quickly got off to a bad start with the local natives. They blamed a local Aquasogoc native for stealing a single silver cup and in retaliation, burned the native's village down. Overreact much? Despite making enemies and not having a lot of food, Grenville decided to leave Ralph Lane and 107 men to establish a colony on the northern end of Roanoke Island, promising to return in less than one year. Lane and the colonist built a fort, possibly looking like the fort that was built in Puerto Rico and waited til April of 1586. That month came and went and there was still no sign of Grenville or any English ships. To make matters worse, due to the little misunderstanding with the silver cup, local natives attacked the fort and forced the settler's to fight them off. Sir Francis Drake happened to be sailing by on his way back from the Caribbean and offered them a ride home. They accepted and were taken back to England. Because it just figured, Grenville and his relief force came back right after the settlers left and found a deserted fort. Grenville shrugged, figuring that someone else had saved the group and left for England, leaving a small group of people to maintain England's claim on Virginia.

Raleigh wasn't satisfied with the voyage, so he sent another group of people to set up a colony in 1587. With a total of 150 men, the group set out, led by Raleigh's friend John White, to establish a colony on the Chesapeake Bay. The first thing they had to do though was go back to Roanoke and pick up Grenville's men that he had left behind. When they arrived, all they found was a lone skeleton. They figured it was a man from the garrison and assumed the rest were also dead, being killed in the short amount of time they were gone from the area. The men were all set to leave the area, but the fleet's commander, Simon Fernandez refused to let the men back on the boats, declaring that they must establish a colony on Roanoke. His motives for doing so remain unclear. The men had to make due and quickly tried to make friends with the local natives, including the Croatans and the ones that the earlier settlers had been fighting with. White and his men wanted to avoid the same fate as the small garrison. The aggrieved natives refused to meet the new colonists and things went from uneasy to hostile really quick. Shortly after they had established the colony, a colonist named George Howe was killed by some of the natives while he was alone catching crabs in Albemarle Sound. The settlers had remembered well what had happened to Ralph Lane and his troubles with the local Aquascogoc. They pleaded with White, who was named Governor by Raleigh, to go back to England and ask for help. White agreed and left the remaining 115 colonist, as the other 35 had perished since the expedition left. 114 original colonists and one new one. White's daughter had had a baby, Virginia Dare, making Virginia the first English child born in the Americas(her baptism pictured above).

Now things start getting interesting. According to Fernandez, the jerk who wouldn't let them leave Roanoke, White's ship barely made it back to England, since it was so late in the year. Fall and early winter is not a good time to sail. White wanted to sail back as soon as possible but Fernandez was still a jerk and wouldn't sail back during winter. He probably had a point though. Then the Anglo-Spanish War broke out. Every able ship had to be used against the formidable Spanish Armada. White did eventually get two small war-unworthy vessels out to send supplies to the settlers, but alas, the captains of the ships were greedy idiots. They tried to privateer Spanish ships and ended up getting all their supplies stolen. With nothing left to give the settlers, they went back to England. In all, with the war and unfortunate luck, it took White three whole years to get back to the settlement. White landed on August 18th 1590, his granddaughter's third birthday, but found the settlement deserted. They had seen fires from the area the night before and thought this was sure sign of the colonists, so they had a long songfest to show the colonists that they were a friendly party here to help them. When they found the area deserted, they discovered that the fires they had seen were naturally made. There was no sign of man, women, or children. No sign of struggle or battle either. The only clue they had was the word "Croatoan" carved into one of the fort's posts and the word "Cro" on a nearby tree. All the houses and fortifications had been disassembled which meant they weren't in a hurry when they left. The colonists had the orders to carve a Maltese Cross on a tree if they were forced to leave, but no Cross was found. White surmised that they had moved to "Croatoan Island" (now Hatteras Island), but was unable to perform a search of the island for a massive storm was brewing and his men would go no farther. They incidentally left the next morning without searching the island and went back to England. I assume they wanted to not get stranded there and assumed the colony was alright.

It wasn't until twelve years later that Raleigh decided to find out what happened to his colony. He set out to find the colony, but got distracted by privateering and by the time they really set out for the island area, the weather was too fierce and they turned back to England. Raleigh was later arrested for treason by King James I, so Raleigh wouldn't be making any more trips to the New World. The Spanish also set out to find the lost colony, but for different reasons. They didn't want the English to have a base in which they could easily prey on Spanish ships, so they set out to find it and destroy it. They accidentally found the remains of the settlement and apparently couldn't find where the people had gone. They assumed there was a more inland colony and this was just a small outpost, but the Spanish couldn't muster a force to check it out, since they couldn't get support from the homeland.

There are many theories on what happened to the Lost Colony. Most historians believe that the colony assimilated with the Croatan natives on Hatteras Island, or another Algonquin tribe. From there, they either were fully assimilated, or were wiped out by a rival tribe. In 1880, a legislator from North Carolina discovered that his native neighbors claimed to have been descendants of the Roanoke Colony, as they used obsolete English words in their language and some of their last names fit the same of those of the colony. This is pure speculation and there have been other claims by other native groups that they are descendant from the Roanoke Colony.

While that is the most viable answer for what happened to the colony, others speculate that they got tired of waiting and tried to sail out to sea. White had left them with a few small boats and they could of very well used them to escape the island. It is assumed that they were then lost at sea. Another theory floating around is that the colony resorted to cannibalism. This is probably unlikely, but it's not out of the question. Archeological digs still go on so we can find out what we can about this mysterious colony. Unfortunately there is a lack of findings due to shoreline erosion. Lousy ocean! They have found a lion ring that can be traced back to one of the settlers along with a few other trinkets found around Roanoke. There is a DNA project now underway that will attempt to find out once and for all if the colony assimilated into the native tribes or not. Good luck! Maybe someday we will find out for certain what happened to the colony. For now, it's just an interesting story!