The New-York Historical Society recently opened a small exhibition on the history of magic in New York, drawn from the vast private David Copperfield Collection. An unannounced surprise at the opening was the presence of Copperfield himself, who gave us a short guided tour of the exhibit (as Homer Liwag toiled in the background, putting last minute touches on the exhibit).
You can listen to Copperfield’s commentary, as broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM, by clicking on the grey triangle above.
In order to whet your appetite about participating in this year’s contest, here’s a story that magic historian, collector, and magician Mike Caveney told at the Genii Convention this past weekend.
It concerns Chung Ling Soo, a magician who performed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in England and the United States to great acclaim. He performed in traditional Chinese garb and made a sensation with his version of the bullet-catching effect, a notoriously dangerous illusion. In Chung Ling Soo’s version, a marksman would load a marked bullet into a rifle, and Chung Ling Soo would place a plate in front of his traditional robes, right in front of his heart, where the marksman would aim. Ordinarily, when a rifle is shot in this manner, the bullet would break the plate and go through the heart. But, of course, what happened at each performance instead was that the bullet would not pierce the plate, but instead would magically be stopped and caught in the plate—and the mark on the bullet would verify it as the original bullet loaded in the gun. A real showstopper. Until…
One night the trick went wrong. The trick that had claimed several other magician’s lives, now claimed another. The bullet pierced the plate, hitting the magician in the heart. Chung Ling Soo went down in front of the entire audience. He was rushed to the hospital and despite the best efforts of the doctors, died. An inquest was subsequently held to determine what had happened and the examiners came to the conclusion that it had been an accident. The gun had been loaded incorrectly.
Or had it?
Back to historian Mike Caveney. He showed his Genii convention audience a fascinating letter in his possession which a gentleman named Robert Smithson had written to a well-known journalist of the time. In his letter, Smithson explained to the journalist that he had been a great fan of magic when he was a child. In fact, he had been so taken by magic as a youngster, he had attended every one of the fourteen performances that Chung Ling Soo had given when the magician was in Smithson’s town. He had memorized the act, never forgetting the deep impression that Chung Ling Soo’s magic had made on him—especially the bullet catching trick.
Fast forward a number of years later, and Smithson is in the army, on leave for a few hours with his friends in the center of town. Lo and behold, he passes a theater and who is performing that night but Chung Ling Soo. Smithson turns to his companions excitedly and tells them about how obsessed as a youth he was, watching this great magician, and he eventually persuades his friends to come with him to the theater to see Chung Ling Soo perform.
Well, as it turned out, that night was the night. Smithson and his companions eye-witnessed the death of Chung Ling Soo. But the reason Smithson wrote to the journalist was that he was sure it was no accident.
You see, Smithson told the journalist, he had memorized the whole routine from top to bottom during his fourteen previous viewings. And on the fatal night, Chung Ling Soo did two things that Smithson was sure the magician had never done before: First, before the bullet-catching trick, he went center stage before the audience to tell them just how dangerous this trick was, and imparted the fact that several other magicians had died performing this effect. This was something, Smithson wrote, that Chung Ling Soo had never done before. But, second, the clincher for Smithson was this: instead of an assistant loading the rifle, as Smithson said had always been done before, this evening Chung Ling Soo had loaded the rifle himself.
Was it possible? Well, Will Goldston, a magician and magic dealer who Chung Ling Soo had been friendly with, thought it could be so. Goldston said that Chung Ling Soo had been in his shop earlier that week, depressed about his life—he was hard up for money and he was supporting the families of both his wife and his girlfriend on opposite sides of town.
But another twist of the story occurred at the hospital, when the doctors tried to save Chung Ling Soo. Because it was only as the doctors took off Chung Ling Soo’s robes, make-up, and wig that they learned the truth, which only those in Chung Ling Soo’s inner magic circle had already known: Chung Ling Soo was in reality William Robinson, a New York-born Irishman who had made his way to England and had become the invaluable chief assistant to the biggest magical star of the time, The Great Hermann. Robinson had taken on his Chinese persona by basing his act on that of an actual Chinese magician who had toured Europe, Ching Ling Foo. Robinson went so far in his deception, that in public appearances in costume he would go out with a “translator” who would “translate” Robinson’s nonsense gibberish into English. Robinson even had had the audacity to publicly call Ching Ling Foo—the genuine article—a phony.
Talk about fake news.
But it took Robert Smithson, Chung Ling Soo fan extraordinaire, to uncover Billy Robinson’s final deception: The accident that was no accident.