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Jono Blythe's Hocus Focus | Chung Ling Soo

Welcome back to another exciting edition of Hocus Focus! This week, we delve into the enigmatic world of Chung Ling Soo, a magician who astounded audiences with his mesmerising performances during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Join me as we unravel the fascinating life and career of this mysterious illusionist.

Born William Robinson on April 2nd, 1861, in New York, he was captivated by the world of magic at a young age. Growing up in a family with a theatrical background, his father, James Robinson, imparted his knowledge of magic tricks to him, igniting a lifelong passion for the art.

By Henry Ridgely Evans - The Old and the New Magic 1906, Public Domain,
Chung Ling Soo (William Robinson)

At the tender age of 14, he took his first steps into the magical realm, performing his inaugural magic show. Eager to showcase his skills, he embarked on a journey through the vaudeville circuit, mesmerising audiences with his tricks and illusions. During this time, he adopted the stage name "Robinson, the Man of Mystery."

In 1887, a significant turning point arrived in his career when he discovered a challenge issued by the renowned Chinese stage magician, Ching Ling Foo. Foo offered a reward of $1,000 to anyone who could successfully replicate his illusions. Intrigued, William accepted the challenge, only to be snubbed by Foo himself. Undeterred, he refined his craft, and in the late 1800s, he began performing "black art illusions" under the name "Achmed Ben Ali." However, it wasn't until he created a new act based on Ching Ling Foo's persona that he found his true calling.

Donning traditional Chinese attire, shaving his facial hair, and painting his face with greasepaint to darken his skin, he transformed into Chung Ling Soo. Perfecting his act and meticulously upholding the illusion, he presented himself as a Chinese man who spoke no English, employing an interpreter when conversing with the press.

Throughout his performances, he introduced a character named "Suee Seen," portrayed by the talented Olive Path, whom the world believed to be his Chinese wife. In reality, William was still married to his assistant, Bessie Smith, and they shared a son named Elmore.

As his fame grew, so did his rivalry with Ching Ling Foo. In a bold move, Foo publicly accused him of being an imposter and challenged him to duplicate some of his own illusions. However, Foo retreated from the challenge when the public and the press embraced the identity of Chung Ling Soo, effectively solidifying his place in the magical pantheon.

One of his most famous illusions was the "Condemned to Death by the Boxers," known today as the bullet catch. Members of the audience marked two bullets, which he would catch in his hands after they were fired. Later, this incredible feat was modified, with the bullets seemingly caught between the performer's teeth.

On March 23, 1918, tragedy struck during a performance at the Wood Green Empire in London. As the "Condemned to Death by the Boxers" illusion unfolded, an accidental discharge from a modified gun struck his lung. Despite being rushed to the hospital, he passed away the following morning. His final words on stage, in a poignant departure from his Chinese persona, were, "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain."

Following his untimely demise, the public was stunned to discover that he was, in fact, not Chinese. His true identity as William Robinson came to light, unveiling the intricate web of illusions that had captivated audiences for years. Nevertheless, his contribution to the world of magic as Chung Ling Soo remains legendary.

Chung Ling Soo's life was one filled with mystery, deception, and astonishing performances. As we remember this influential magician, we pay homage to his skill, showmanship, and the enduring allure of magic that continues to captivate audiences to this day.

Join me next week for another captivating edition of Hocus Focus as I explore the lives and illusions of more extraordinary magicians from the past. Stay tuned and let the magic unfold!

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