On the evening of March 23, 1918, the famous Chinese illusionist Chung Ling Soo shocked his audience when he suddenly called out in perfect English “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” Chung Ling Soo also known as William Ellsworth Robinson died the following day from the bullet wound he received on stage during a trick gone horribly wrong.
The trick in question, named “Condemned to Death by the Boxers*” was notoriously dangerous. In it, two assistants fired a gun at the magician point blank, which he then appeared to pluck right out of the air, sometimes with his teeth. What could possibly go wrong?
Lots of things, obviously.
The trick itself dates back all the way to the early 1600s, and has a history of performers being shot if not actually killed during the trick. The illusion relies on a combination of a trick gun designed to fire only blanks and a slight of hand “catch” by the magician.
On the fateful night, it was Robinson’s own fault. He had failed to properly clean and maintain the trick gun, resulting in a deadly accidental firing of an actual bullet, which hit him in the chest. The request to lower the curtain was the first time he had spoken on stage. He had so carefully maintained his act as the mysterious Chung Ling Soo that few, if anyone, in the audience knew that he was in fact an American vaudeville performer. He had modeled himself on a real Chinese magician called Ching Ling Foo, and in this form he found the success found the success that had eluded him as “Robinson, the Man of Mystery”, however short lived it turned out to be.
*The Boxers in question were his assistants, dressed as members of the “Righteous Fists of Harmony”, the Chinese opposition to the British in the Boxer Rebellion
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