Chung Ling Soo
Name at birth: William Ellsworth RobinsonMagician Chung Ling Soo was a top European attraction in the early part of the 20th century, packing theaters and making thousands of dollars a week performing illusions on stage. He was shot to death during a performance when one of those illusions went wrong. Upon his death, the world discovered that Chung Ling Soo was no Chinese magician at all. He was William Ellsworth Robinson, originally from Westchester County in New York (and of Scottish heritage). For 18 years Robinson had successfully masqueraded as a non-English-speaking Chinese magician. Robinson grew up learning magic and performing from his father, and worked as a magician’s assistant and performer for nearly twenty years without making it big as a headliner. Then he went to Europe, having swiped the act of real Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo (real name Zhu Liankui), and found success — first as Hop Sing Soo, then as Chung Ling Soo in London. For the rest of his career, Robinson pretended to be Chinese both on stage and off, using a “Chinese interpreter” (who was, in fact, Japanese) to talk with the press. Ching Ling Foo is said to have confronted Robinson in 1905, when both had shows in London. But Foo did not go through with his challenge to make Robinson prove he was Chinese, possibly because nobody seemed to care. Robinson’s “Chinese” magician emerged as more popular than the real thing. In 1918 Robinson was performing a trick called “Condemned to Death by the Boxers,” a trick he’d successfully performed for years. In the trick, two assistants fire rifles at Robinson, who stands a short distance away and “catches” the bullets with a plate (or with his mouth or hand). The rifles were rigged so as to only fire powder, but one gun malfunctioned and a bullet pierced Robinson’s torso. He died the next day. It’s said his last words were, “Oh, my god. Something has happened.” And maybe he added, “Lower the curtain.” Audience member nearby were stunned to hear him speaking English.
William Robinson’s personal life was as complicated as his stage life. He married Bessie Smith in the U.S. in 1883; he fathered a child with another woman before he had a son with Bessie; he never divorced his wife, but he “married” another woman, his stage assistant Suan See (really Olive “Dot” Path), and they were partners for two decades; while sort-of married to those two women, Robinson fathered three children and lived with another woman, Janet Blatchford.
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