Ching Ling Foo, “The Original Chinese Conjurer” was the most famous magician to ever come out of China, according to his advertising. In 1898, when he brought his show to America, he offered $1,000 to any magician who could duplicate his act. Much to his surprise, shortly thereafter, another magician, under the name Ching Ling Soo, began doing just that: and also billing himself as the “Original Chinese Conjurer”. Suddenly there were two originals.
In January of 1905 Soo began headlining at the Hippodrome Theatre in London. One month later, at the Empire Theatre, just across the street, Foo opened his identical show, advertised with identical posters and the matching tag line, “The Original Chinese Conjurer”. The two began campaigns of trash talk, accusing each other of fraud and name calling that kept the theatre critics working their pencils to the nub, until Foo offered Soo $2,000 for a 'trick off' in front of the press. On the appointed day Foo was there but, alas, Soo was not. The London Weekly Dispatch asked, “Did Foo fool Soo? And can Soo sue Foo?” Alas, those questions were never answered. Then, in March of 1918, Soo was performing on the stage of the Wood Green Empire club in London, doing his most famous trick, a variation on “The Bullet Catch”, he called “Condemned to Death by the Boxers”. In this trick audience members loaded rifles, which were then fired at Soo’s chest. Soo caught the bullet in his hand to thunderous applause. Or at least he did until March 23, when after the guns fired Soo collapsed. As horrified cast members rushed to his side, Soo was clearly heard announcing, “Oh, my God. Something has happened. Lower the curtain”, in perfect English. He died the next day. At the inquest into his death Soo’s widow, Miss Olive Path (who also appeared as his male Chinese assistant and a Chinese princes), explained that the rifle was a prop. It was a real gun and capable of firing a real bullet, but with a hidden chamber. Cocking the rifle forced the bullet loaded by an audience member to drop out of the way, clearing space for another bullet made out of paraffin. It would dissolve with the force of the exploding gunpowder, allowing Soo to produce a bullet he had supposedly caught. It was and still is an amazing gag, when it works.
But over time Soo had allowed a buildup of gunpowder residue to foul the gun's chamber. On that terrible night the real bullet remained jammed in the chamber and blocked the safe paraffin round from entering. And so when the bullet was fired, it was really fired. And Soo was killed.
The inquest had also determined that Soo, the other “Original Chinese Conjurer” , was not actually Chinese. His real name was William Robinson. He was from Brooklyn and he had worked as a magician under the name “The Amazing Robinson”, with Olive as his assistant, until he had hit upon the idea of grafting onto the success of Ching Ling Foo, the actual original "Original Chinese Conjurer" -
- who by the way actually was Chinese but was actually named Chee Ling Qua. (Confused yet?) The lesson here is that you should never trust a magician, especially if you are another magician.
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