Famed magician Chung Ling Soo died on March 24, 1918. Not for him a gentle passing in his dotage. He was mortally wounded during a performance onstage at the Wood Green Empire, London, undertaking his bullet catch trick.

Billed as ‘the marvellous Chinese conjuror’, he was actually born in New York, with the rather more prosaic name of William Ellsworth Robinson.

Quite successful as a magician under his original name, Robinson reinvented himself as the mysterious Chung Ling Soo, copying much of his act (and name) from the genuinely Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo.  As Chung Ling Soo he moved from supporting act to top of the bill, one of the world’s most successful and well known magicians during those great early 20th century days of vaudeville.

Chung Ling Soo the Marvellous Chinese Conjurer

Chung Ling Soo, the Marvellous Chinese Conjurer ALMA 93.2/34 

 

In 1909 he embarked on a long tour of Australia and New Zealand. He arrived in Melbourne on 22 February and performed with enormous success at the Opera House from 27 February to 8 April 1909. He then moved his show to the Tivoli in Sydney from 10 April to 21 May.

Advertisements for Chung Ling Soo in Melbourne and Sydney

His promoter gives full rein to hyperbole in these advertisements from the Age 23 February 1909 p. 12 and the Daily Telegraph 14 April 1909 p. 2 .

 

After touring New Zealand, he returned to the Tivoli, Sydney, performing from 17 July to 5 August, and then again to the Melbourne Opera House from 7 August until 26 August.  He completed his tour at the Tivoli, Adelaide from 28 August to 15 September, sailing for England the following day. Table Talk summed up the universal excitement at his performance:

The remarkable Chinese illusionist, Chung Ling Soo bids fair to prove one of the biggest sensations ever imported …. Words fail to adequately describe the many marvellous feats of this Chinese magician, and that the business requires to be seen to be appreciated by everybody is a certainty.[i]

Melbourne opera House WD/THE/13/1

Melbourne Opera House [Collection of architectural drawings…] WD/THE/13/1

 

He had a reputation of maintaining his adopted character in public to the level of conducting press conferences through an interpreter. However on his tour of Australia, while he didn’t indulge in onstage patter, he appears to have been quite comfortable talking to the press in English. In an interview with an Adelaide journalist he recounted, with a pronounced American accent, an utterly fictitious version of his life.

My father was a Scotch engineer named Campbell, who married a Cantonese lady, a member of the great Chung family. He died when I was only 7 years old. As is the custom in China, my widowed mother returned to her father’s home, taking me with her, and I was reared as a member of the Chung family. When I was only 12 years of age my mother died, and I was apprenticed to a Chinese juggler named Arr Hee[ii]

He was even more creative during a stopover in Perth, telling a reporter that he

… was known to the Chinese people as “He of the One Button,” …..his fame as a sorcerer penetrated to the late Chinese Empress Dowager who commanded him to Court, where, after years of service, he was promoted to many Celestial honours, and ultimately the rank of mandarin was bestowed upon him[iii]

Later Melbourne Punch happily confided that:

Chung Ling Soo, the conjuror who appeared at the Opera House, is a Scotch-American, and his name is William E. Robinson. He was originally first assistant and illusionist to Hermann the Great.[iv]

Chung Ling Soo performed his sensational bullet catch in Australia. A review of an Aberdeen (Scotland) show the previous year describes the illusion in detail.

Three soldiers have their muzzle loading guns specially marked by a committee selected from the audience. The bullets are placed in the guns by the members of the committe and rammed home. Descending from the stage, the soldiers take their stand outside the orchestra rail, and, at a given signal, they fire a volley at Chung Ling Soo, who, a second later, holds in a plate in his hand the identical bullets which were rammed into the guns a few minutes before. [v]

Chung Ling Soo next to Suee Seen (his wife Olive) and an assistant’s child, Bamboo Flower P.13/NO.51

Chung Ling Soo next to Suee Seen (his wife Olive) and an assistant’s child, Bamboo Flower P.13/NO.51 

 

A decade later, on 23 March 1918, the bullet catch was performed successfully in the early show at Wood Green Empire, London. However during his second performance, Chung Ling Soo was struck in the chest by a bullet fired during the trick. He died the following day.

The inquest ruled death by misadventure, with a gun expert testifying that to perform the trick Chung Ling Soo had converted the ramrod tube into a second barrel. Over time the modifications had become ‘leaky’ and that night the detonator ignited the live bullet, fatally wounding the magician.[vi]

Our Library holds the W.G.Alma collection, one of the world’s most extensive collections on the art and practise of conjuring. The collection includes a wide range of images of Chung Ling Soo (and William Robinson) and several excellent biographies

See also our Magic & Magicians research guide.

Will Alma’s father, also a magician and known by several stage names including Alma the Great, fashioned himself as the Australian Chung Ling Soo for a time.


[i]  Opera House Table Talk  4 March 1909: p.20

[ii]  Chung Ling Soo The Advertiser 30 August 1909: p.7

[iii] He of the one button The West Australian 17 February 1909: 9. In New Zealand his inventiveness was even more fanciful, see this account of his past An exciting adventure Wanganui Herald, 30 April 1908: p.7

[iv]  Greenroom Gossip Punch 12 May 1910: p.37 [col. 2 para. 8]

[v] Aberdeen Daily Journal 7 July 1908: p.4 See also a review describing the trick performed in Adelaide

[vi] In the papers The Argus 8 June 1918: p.4 . See also Late Chung Ling Soo The World’s News 15 June 1918: p.18

Tags:

This article has 2 comments

  1. A great story from a different age. I can’t help but laugh at the Chinese ‘dinner plates’ in the poster and the promoters description of the act.

    It was also interesting to learn that Melbourne once had an Opera House. That sent me in search of more information. I learned a little more of Melbourne’s history today.

    Thank you Andrew.

    • Andrew McConville

      Thanks Wayne – yes the Melbourne Opera House was certainly a grand building by the look of it

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Terms & Conditions