Modern Mystic League
Blackburn & District  Society of Magicians
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Photos by Ian Brown
MAY 2019 - Brian Lead on Chung Ling Soo
The May meeting of The Modern Mystic League was treated to a wonderful lecture by the Concert Secretary, the Editor of the MeMeL, the President of the British Ring of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Secretary of the Northern Magic Circle (all one man, of course) our friend and colleague, Brian Lead on a topic he has researched and investigated over many years; namely the ill-fated death of Chung Ling Soo, the Marvellous Chinese Magician - except he wasn’t Chinese but the American William Ellsworth Robinson born in New York on 2nd April, 1861. He adopted the stage persona of a Chinaman, which proved very successful.

Brian began by providing everyone with an illustrated leaflet and some transcripts of interviews to keep, and started the story off by referring to the visit of one Robert Smithson, a young conjuring enthusiast, to see Chung Ling Soo at the Palace Theatre in Blackburn in 1902. Some sixteen years later Robert was to be present at the Wood Green Empire on that fateful night of 23rd March 1918 when Chung Ling Soo was killed whilst performing the bullet catching trick.

Referring to the illustrations, Brian took us through a detailed account of the night in question and how the trick was usually performed. The method was quite simple - until the gun failed. The findings of the Inquest into the unfortunate demise of Chung Ling Soo revealed that one of the doctored muskets had actually shot a deadly lead ball instead of retaining it safely behind a plug. So, it was a finding of ‘Death by Misadventure’, i.e. an accident.

Brian over the years has tracked down a number of witness accounts and interviewed Jack Grossman, one of the two marksmen, and looked at different theories about the events. Claims of suicide (by Will Goldston, ostensibly to sensationalise the account in his books) and murder were discounted.  After a long period of time the memories of those present had changed. Hector Robinson, Soo’s son, refuted any suggestion of suicide which seems improbable. 

Various methods for the dangerous bullet catching trick were examined, including the re-enactment by Paul Daniels in 1983 on his television show at which Jack Grossman was present. Annemann, Harry Dewhirst and Maurice Fogel all performed variations of the trick. Other unusual aspects of Chung Ling Soo’s death were also explored. For example, modern day surgeons are of the opinion that the horrific injuries described in the medical reports at the inquest could not have been inflicted in the way set out. So, even now there remain mysteries about the events in question.

Brian rounded out his lecture by returning to Robert Smithson, the Blackburn soldier, as Mike Caveney had sent him a copy of a letter written by Smithson many years afterwards describing his vivid recollection of the fateful evening.  Snippets of information have kept turning up over the years as Brian has delved further.

Brian has been touring this lecture as part of his year as President of the British Ring and has been enjoying great success with it. This is not surprising, given his enthusiasm for the subject, depth of research and attention to detail.

Roger Woods