William Ellsworth Robinson was an American magician born on April 2, 1861, in Westchester County, New York. As is with the case of other famous magicians, Robinson was called Chung Ling Soo and he became one of the most famous magicians in the United States not only for his magic tricks but because of the nature of his death. Although not a great way for a magician to end his career, Robinson died during bullet catch trick of his that went warily wrong.
Regarding the family background of the magician, Robinson was born to parents James Campbell and Sarah Robinson of Scottish descent and was the first of the three children. Robinson’s magic career started at quite an early age. He was just 14 years old when he performed his first magic show. Following that he started performing as a professional on the vaudeville circuit. Although his earnings were quite decent, Robinson had bigger dreams for himself. He wanted to become the start of the show at vaudeville. Under the name of “Achmed Ben Ali,” Robinson started stage shows of “black art illusions” which was quite reminiscent to that of “Ben Ali Bey” the German magician whose real name was Max Auzinger. Fortunately, as Auzinger never made a tour in the United States, there were no issues with the resemblance between the two magicians.
Robinson even performed during shows of the famous magicians of the time namely Harry Kellar and Alexander Herrmann. After Herrmann’s death in 1896, Robinson decided to go solo. The story behind Robinson getting the name Ching Ling Foo was because of that fact that he was able to gimmick all of the magic tricks of the famous magician in China of that name who had toured the United States. Foo had declared that he would give a prize of a $1,000 to any person who could successfully duplicate his illusions and there was probably no better candidate for this than Robinson, who had closely observed all of Foo’s tricks. Although Robinson accepted the challenge, Foo refused to his proposal, which was due to the fact that Robinson had lost while attempting to meet a challenge that Foo had proposed prior to that. This left Robinson in despair.
The refusal by Foo was probably what gave Robinson the motivation to pursue this line even further. Robinson began impersonating Foo by wearing a traditional Chinese attire, shaved his facial hair, began wearing his hair in a queue, darkened his skin complexion by painting his face with greasepaint and even gave himself the name “Hop Sing Soo”.
Later on, after his new act became a super hit, he began his performances in London and changed his name again to “Chung Ling Soo,” to make it even more close to “Ching Ling Foo.” Robinson then started fabricating stories about his background saying that he was an American-born son of a Scottish missionary who married a Cantonese woman.
He even went as far as to claim that his father was a descendant of the Campbell and that he lost both of his parents before he was even 13 years old. Extending upon those facts he said that, as an orphan, he was adopted by a Chinese magician named “Arr Hee”, who trained him to perform ancient Chinese magic tricks mixed with more modern European magic. Soo claimed that he started performing the magic his mentor had taught him, soon after his death.
After going to such great lengths, Robinson had to religiously devote himself in maintaining his role as a Chinese man. To claim that he didn’t speak any English, he never spoke onstage except for on some occasions saying phrases in broken English and always used an interpreter while speaking to journalists. He also portrayed his American wife as Chinese woman of the name “Suee Seen,” real name Olive Path, who used to be his assistant. Robinson soon turned out to be one of the most famous stage magician in Europe and ended up becoming one of the highest-paid performers on the vaudeville circuit.
There eventually would be a night where the secret of Chung Ling Soo would eventually get revealed and it would be during his last performance at the Wood Green Empire in London on March 23, 1918, a day before his death. Everything was working well until he was to perform his “Condemned to Death by Boxers” illusion. As one of his assistants fired at him, the gun malfunctioned and fired a bullet into his lung. After falling to the ground Soo, for the first time, was to speak in his pure American English on stage in front of the crowd that would be the last statement he would make in front of the public saying “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” Although he immediately was taken to the Passsmore Edwards Cottage Hospital, he passed away the following morning and East Sheen cemetery would be his resting place.
An explanation was given in court for Soo’s death was given by his wife. As according to what she said, Soo never properly unloaded the gun using conventional techniques after each performance. To save the gun powder and bullets, instead of firing the bullet off the gun or taking out the bullet with a screw-rod, he used to dismantle the backside of the gun. The was a poor mistake that he made that led to an accident that he never predicted. As a consequence of using such a technique, a residue of unburned gunpowder formed in the ramrod tube over a period of time that was later on ignited by a flash from the pan that passed through the barrel of the gun. As the charge behind the bullet was ignited, the bullet was fired from the nozzle and hit Soo in the chest. All of these technicalities were proven by a gun expert named Robert Churchill.
Although Soo’s true identity was already known to famous magicians of his time, his real identity was revealed to the public only after his death.