Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of American stage magician William Ellsworth Robinson (1861-1918). He is famous for dying when his bullet catch trick went wrong.
During his early career, William Ellsworth Robinson called himself Robinson, the Man of Mystery. To increase his allure with a touch of exoticism, he changed his name to Chung Ling Soo and took his show to Europe. He took the name as a variation of a real Chinese stage magician - Ching Ling Foo - and performed many of the tricks that Foo had made famous.
Chung Ling Soo maintained his role as a Chinese man scrupulously. He never spoke onstage and always used an interpreter when he spoke to journalists. Only his friends and other stage magicians knew the truth.
Feud and death
In 1905 in London, when both Soo and Foo were performing in different theatres, they developed a public feud - possibly a publicity stunt - referring to themselves as the only "Original Chinese Conjurer" and the other as an impostor. Foo challenged Soo to perform his tricks but did not show up at the appointed time. Whether this was by design is unknown.
Soo's most famous trick partly because of his death while performing it was the "Condemned to Death by the Boxers" trick. In this trick Soo'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. Attendants fired the gun at Soo, 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.
Actually, Soo palmed the bullets, hiding them in his hand during their examination and marking. The muzzle-loaded guns were rigged such that the gunpowder charge fired in the chamber and the bullet would drop into a chamber below the barrel. The bullet in fact never left the gun.
The trick went tragically wrong when Soo was performing in the Wood Green Empire, London, on March 23, 1918. Soo never cleaned the gun properly. Over time, the gap that allowed the bullet to drop out of the barrel into the chamber slowly built up a residue from the continued burning of gunpowder. On the fateful night of the accident, the bullet remained in the barrel and was fired in the normal way, hitting Soo 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 in 19 years that William "Chung Ling Soo" Robinson had spoken English in public.
Soo was taken to a nearby hospital, but he died the next day. Soo's wife explained the nature of the trick, and the inquest judged the case "accidental death".
Some conspiracy-minded theorists suggest that the death was not accidental. In 1955 US stage magician Jack Clarkson claimed that Soo was in debt, that his wife was having an affair with his agent, and that the incident was an elaborate form of suicide. Others have suggested instead that the agent manipulated the gun so that Soo would be killed. Neither theory is supported by solid evidence.
His life inspired the opera 'The Original Chinese Conjuror' in 2006, by Hong Kong born British composer, Raymond Yiu.
Born William Thomas Pritchard
September 13, 1906
St. Annes-on-Sea, England
Died November 05, 1985 (age 79)
St. Annes-on-Sea, England
Will Dexter (1906 - 1985) was a close-up worker, mentalist and writer.
Born William Thomas Pritchard in England, Dexter was a professional journalist who started in 1928. His duties were interrupted by World War II, in which he was later discharged as a Captain in 1945. He served as an editor for number of newspapers, and later as Editor and Publisher with Public Relations Industrial, London until his retirement in 1969.
In retirement, he became a Daily Telegraph crossword compiler.
He ghosted several books for Robert Harbin.
Dexter was a member of the Magic Circle, the British Ring, East Kent Magical Society, Nottingham Guild of Magicians and an Honorary Life Member of the Blackpool Magicians' Club.
Challenge Memory Test (1953)
Identity Parade (1954)
Famous Magic Secrets (1955)
The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo (1955)
101 Magic Secrets (1955)
Sealed Vision (1956)
This is Magic (1956)
Everybody's Book of Magic (1956)
Feature Magic for Mentalists (1975)
Original Routines for a Forcing Pad (1975)
A Little Magic Among Friends (1981)
The Uncanny Power (1981)
The Tarot Reader (1981)
The Astro Reader (1981)
How to be a Wizard (1957)
Genii Magazine, Vol. 49, N0. 7, January 1986, Will Dexter, by Eddie Dawes, page 471
Obit Magicol No. 78 (February 1986)
The Magic Circular, Vol. 79, No. 861, December 1985, WILL DEXTER, by Eddie Dawes, page 494
The Linking Ring, Vol. 66, No. 3, March 1986, Broken Wand, WILL DEXTER, page 111
The Magic Circular, Vol. 102, No. 1105, August 2008, A rich cabinet of magical curiosities, by Edwin A. Dawes - 358. Will Dexter: The Busy Nineteen-Fifties and Sixties, page 236
The Magic Circular, Vol. 102, No. 1106, September 2008, A rich cabinet of magical curiosities, by Edwin A. Dawes - 359. Will Dexter: The Final Years and Return to St Anne's, page 276