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Chung Ling See, the great Chinese conjuror (born in Rishton, incidentally). Played the Palace Theatre while it was open (Opened Monday, December 11, 1899. Closed after last performance on Saturday, June 23rd, 1932).1

Chinese Conjuring Trick.

Was the name wrongly printed in the paper? was it meant to be Chung Lee Soo, who was a famous Chinese conjurer, Chung Ling Soo: William Ellsworth Campbell [a. k. a. William E. Robinson] (American magician, born 1861, died 1918) {modelled his career after Ching Ling Foo, a real Chinese conjuror}.

Starting his career working with both Harry Kellar's troupe and with Alexander Herrmann's show, Robinson wanted to launch a career of his own.

In the late 1800s, he responded to a $1,000 challenge by popular Oriental vaudeville magician Ching Ling Foo daring any magician to duplicate a particular trick. Robinson presented the solution to Ching Ling Foo, but the challenge turned out to be a publicity stunt. Angry, Robinson decided to create his own major stage illusion show, complete with his own Oriental performer.

Chung Ling Soo soon became an incredibly famous performer, both in America and abroad, with exceptional and beautiful publicity posters that fetch thousands of dollars today. Chung Ling Soo appeared in full costume onstage and offstage, and always had an interpreter with him.

MANY of our most noted magicians have considered it not beneath their dignity to introduce fire-eating into their programmes, either in their own work or by the employment of a "Fire Artist." Although seldom presenting it in his recent performances, Ching Ling Foo is a fire-eater of the highest type, refining the effect with the same subtle artistry that marks all the work of this super-magician.

Of Foo's thousand imitators the only positively successful one was William E. Robinson, whose tragic death while in the performance of the bullet-catching trick is the latest addition to the long list of casualties chargeable to that ill-omened juggle. He carried the imitation even as far as the name, calling himself Chung Ling Soo. Robinson was very successful in the classic trick of apparently eating large quantities of cotton and blowing smoke and sparks from the mouth. His teeth were finally quite destroyed by the continued performance of this trick.

Chung Lee Soo Promotional Poster

His most famous effect was the dangerous Bullet Catching Trick, in which several volunteers lined up onstage and fired guns directly at him; the bullet would break a plate he held in front of his chest, and he would catch the bullet in his teeth. The effect known as the Bullet Catch has claimed the lives of at least 15 magicians who were killed in connection with this potentially lethal trick. In the effect, a bullet is fired directly at the performer, and he (or she) catches the bullet in the teeth, hopefully without any ill effects. There are a number of ways to perform this trick, and those that perform it as a stunt invite disaster. Sometimes things go wrong- equipment fails or worse. The most famous bullet-catching death was that of Chung Ling Soo (William Robinson), shot on stage in 1918. Rumours persisted that his death was not an accident caused by equipment malfunction, but was a murder motivated by jealousy.

On March 23, 1918, the unthinkable happened- Chung Ling Soo was fatally shot onstage in London. Though a mystery still remains about how the accident happened (was it really an accident, or was it intentional murder), Chung Ling Soo's secret was revealed by the doctors who ripped away his tunic in a bid to save his life: Chung Ling Soo was not an Oriental, but was William Ellsworth Robinson, for years living in full makeup as a part of the most elaborate illusion of all time.

Chung Lee Soo killed himself in his act while attempting to catch the bullet.

2An intriguing echo to a bang that shook showbiz all those years ago - when top conjuror Chung Ling Soo died after being shot on stage as his bullet-defying trick misfired - comes to Looking Back today via a Darwen bookshop.

It's a claim that the 'Chinaman'- still so famous that he remains among the top 10 all-time-great magicians in an international poll on the Internet - was from not from Orient, but actually hailed from the East . . . of Lancashire.

An article recalling some of the old time variety's most memorable turns, unearthed by Tony Burke, proprietor of Tony's Books in Darwen's Bridge Street in an eight year old magazine, categorically states that the ill-fated magician's greatest illusion was to pass himself off as Chinese when he was really one William Ellsworth Robinson whose father was a coal-miner from Blackburn. "All his knowledge about China and the Chinese language had been acquired through frequent visits to the Chinatown area of Liverpool! And not only that - his wife Suee Seen's real name was Dot!" it states.

Alas, Looking Back, seeking substantiation from John Livingstone, the author of this claim, finds that he has done a vanishing act - possibly joining Chung Ling Soo on ' the other side,' the magazine publishers believe.

But if the fascinating Mr Robinson was from hereabouts, the Northern Daily Telegraph certainly did not mention it when it carried the story of his death in March, 1918, after he was fatally plugged on stage before 3,000 people packing the Wood Green Empire, one of London's most popular music halls.

Later, when it carried reports of the inquest into his death - which a Metropolitan Police gun expert revealed was caused by the 'faked mechanism' in the gun his assistant fired at him having become defective after years of wear, causing it to fire both the live and blank charges in it - it still gave no clue as to Robinson's roots.

But most biographies say that he was an American, so how might the curious connection with our region have come about?

One explanation, according to Blackburn magician and school teacher Brian Lead, of the town's long-established Modern Mystic League conjurors' society, is that Chung had a workshop at Bolton where he built stored and manufactured his props while on the northern music hall circuit.


111th January, 1936, Blackburn Times

Nom De Guerre Website (http://www.irregardless.net/realname/real_s.htm) Website no longer holding relevant file.

Magic Tricks and Illusions Website

Magic tricks Web site (No longer available - http://www.magictricks.com/bios/whoswhocd.htm)

Miracle Mongers and their Methods.

2Lancashire Evening Telegraph, Monday 5th July 1999.