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 bullets, 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.