Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of the American magician William Ellsworth Robinson (1861–1918). I did try to find details of his early life, but the magician seemed to have secreted his privacy in a smoke screen. Nothing was known of his life until after he died, and even then the stories were vague. So I recommend readers find the book The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, written by Jim Steinmeyer and published by Carroll & Graf in 2005. The author discovered the New York origins of his protagonist. But Steinmeyer struggled to find the accurate details about Robinson’s wife Olive, his family life and his girlfriend. Apparently William Robinson kept a second family with a mistress in a classy outer suburb of London.
Father James Robinson had himself been a versatile performer, known for magic, ventriloquism and music. When he was old enough, William Robinson worked on-stage in New York and built props for other magicians like Harry Kellar, Alexander Herrmann and Adelaide Herrmann.
Slowly William developed his own programme of magic tricks, styling himself the Man of Mystery. Only later, to increase his exoticism and Orientalist mystique, did he become a new persona, Chung Ling Soo. The timing was right - the West’s interest in discovering Oriental culture was at its peak.
Poster for Chung's theatrical programme
Chung's most famous stage trick occurred when his sidekicks, dressed as Boxers, took a gun on stage and fired it at Chung. The real Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 had taken place in China just a few years earlier; perhaps European theatre-goers knew that the Boxers were a secret society of Chinese who had suffered under colonial oppression, and who opposed both imperialism and Christianity. Appropriately for Chung, the real Boxers were very skilled in the martial arts.
I was delighted to read that Chung Ling Soo made his first appearance in Sydney in April 1909. He travelled to Australia accompanied by a multitude of assistants, including his wife and seventy-five tons of luggage. He was paid four hundred pounds a week for his tour of Australia - a larger salary than the Governor General received at the time. And there was no problem with audience numbers. Chung Ling Soo strolled around the streets of Sydney, casually performing miracles as he went by. It astounded the on-lookers and was so successful in advertising his show that the Tivoli was packed out each night.
Anyhow Chung’s magic involved the star catching the bullets from the air and dropping them on a plate he held up in front of his face. In fact fake bullets were loaded into the gun, then there was a loud gun shot sound and a cloud of gunpowder smoke filled the stage. Largely the trick was successful; only once did it fail!
The theatre called Wood Green Empire in North London was built for Oswald Stoll and designed by the well known theatre architect, Frank Matcham. The spacious theatre had opened just before WW1 (1912) with stalls, dress circle and upper circle. Vaudeville, music hall, music, dancing and magic were all exciting entertainments where people immersed themselves in the exotic and the strange. Harry Houdini (1874–1926) comes immediately to mind.
Wood Green Empire theatre, 1918
Chung was taken to a nearby hospital, but he died the next day, aged 57. Noone could understand how a skilful, experienced magician could have made such an appalling mistake. In the event, the circumstances of the accident were verified by a noted gun expert and despite conspiracy theories, the coroner was confident in his ruling that Chung had met Accidental Death. The magician was buried in the East Sheen Cemetery in Richmond (London).
Jim Steinmeyer’s book showed how real history and William Robinson’s stage-version of history intersected time and time again.
A musical drama called The Original Chinese Conjuror opened at Southwold Pier in 2006 then went on to the Almeida in London. Created by Raymond Yiu with a libretto by Lee Warren, the story followed Chung Ling Soo from his early career in New York to his tragic death in London.
Chung Ling Soo memorabilia, Magic Circle Museum, London