Chung Ling Soo was a New Yorker by birth, a Scot by ancestry, and "the Original Chinese Conjurer" by choice. The magician, born William Robinson, gained prominence thanks to a feud with an actual Chinese stage magician, Ching Ling Foo (né Chee Ling Qua; the good people of New York in 1898 were not sticklers for authenticity in their Chinese names). Robinson basically stole Foo’s act; Foo called him out (a practice magicians such as Harry Houdini engaged in frequently in the nineteenth century; it was often good for business for both parties, and beyond that, magicians were high-paid entertainers who often poached tricks from one another and carried grudges), but then backed down, leaving Robinson to perform as Soo. The newspapers of the time either believed him or played along, and so he was the undisputed Chinese stage magic champion of New York. But Robinson would be as forgotten today as the great Tampa were it not for the manner in which he died; Bill Robinson, Chung Ling Soo, the Original Chinese Conjurer, botched the bullet catch.
A recent book on the bullet catch spells it out with its title: Twelve Have Died. Harry Houdini, the greatest magician of the twentieth century, was unwilling to do the trick; jumping off a bridge with an iron ball shackled to his leg was one thing, but his peer Harry Keller had warned him off the bullet catch. There were just too many factors that could go wrong (at least two bullet catchers died at the hands of their audience volunteers). The trick involves using a gaffed gun or substituting trick bullets for real ones to ensure that an assistant’s shot makes a noise and a muzzle flash but doesn’t actually fire a bullet; the magician then spectacularly produces a previously hidden bullet — in hands, in clothing, or in teeth. A little patter makes the trick seamless, and variations often add additional evidence that the bullet really had flown, as by putting a sheet of glass between the gun and the magician. Chung Ling Soo’s death occured when a poorly maintained gaffed gun allowed gunpowder (intended for a blank) to trickle into the barrel where the real bullet was stored.
The idea of invulnerability from bullets is an old one; the trick was apparently invented by a sixteenth century magician named Coulen (who was later beaten to death with his own rigged gun). But wherever there are superstitious young men faced with guns, there are superstitious young men who’d love to believe that there is a way that they can dodge the one with their name on it. It’s particularly common when one side has all the guns; the Fists of Righteous Harmony movement, subtly encouraged by the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, launched a broad social uprising in an attempt to drive foreigners and Christian missionaries out of China. Because they were the Fists of Righteous Harmony and practiced wushu, the uprising was known as the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers believed that they would be mystically protected from European bullets; they weren’t, and the thousands of American soldiers and marines who showed up to rescue embattled Western merchants and diplomats, slaughter the rebels, and sack the Forbidden City, proved it.
A similar result occured when two Oglala leaders, Kicking Bear and Short Bull transformed the Ghost Dance, a messianic and originally pacifistic pan-Indian religious movement, into one with distinctly militaristic overtones. Wovoka, the mystic who started the Ghost Dance movement, had encouraged his followers to take no violent action; their dance alone would bring about the promised land in which the whites would vanish and their ancestors return. Short Bull and Kicking Bear told their followers that the "ghost shirts" they wore would stop white bullets. They didn’t; at Wounded Knee, 290 Lakota were killed by American soldiers in a matter of minutes. (Wovoka survived, his millennialist movement discredited when it was not forgotten, and ended up working as an extra in silent Westerns.) Similar fates befell followers of the Maitatsine movement in Nigeria in the 1980s and followers of Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twin boys installed as the head of the God’s Army movement in southeast Asia, the "Egbesu Boys" in Nigeria, and apocalyptic mystic Alice Lakwena’s Holy Mystic Army in Uganda. (Lakwena, who claimed to channel the spirit of an Italian soldier, has since given way to her nephew, Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army kidnaps children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves while awaiting the end of technology, the Lord’s Resistance Army’s inevitable triumph against their newly disarmed foes, and a new nation based upon the Eleven Commandments; the eleventh commandment, revealed to Kony, prescribes followers against riding bicycles.)
Almost invariably, soldiers relying on mystical protection against their foes weapons suffer the same fate as Chung Ling Soo: they get shot and die. But the strategy still enables leaders to gather forces, young men stupid with superstition and hope, around them and send them out to the slaughter. And as the charms and trinkets and spells fail, the question remains, as it did at William Robinson’s inquest: is it murder, suicide, or — as it was ruled for Chung Ling Soo — simple death by accident?