Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of American magician William Robinson. He changed his name to Chung Ling Soo to add an air of foreign mysticism to his act. The name was a variation of a real Chinese magician’s name – Ching Ling Foo – and he performed many of the tricks that Foo had made famous.
Chung Ling Soo maintained his role as a Chinese man scrupulously, keeping in character even off-stage. He never spoke onstage and always used an interpreter when he spoke to journalists. Only his friends and a few other magicians knew the truth. (A similar character was briefly featured in the 2006 film “The Prestige”.)
Soo’s most famous trick was known as “Condemned to Death by the Boxers” (as in The Boxer Rebellion ). 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. When the gun was fired at Soo, he seemed to catch the bullets from the air and drop them on a plate he held before 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.
Soo was performing in London, on March 23, 1918. Soo had not 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 build-up of gunpowder. The bullet remained in the barrel and the gun was fired in the normal way. The bullet hit Soo in the chest. “Oh my God.”, he said, “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.