Actually, Chung palmed the marked bullets, hiding them in his hand during their examination and marking. The muzzle-loaded guns were rigged so that the bullet in fact never left the gun. The guns were loaded with substitute bullets, but the flash from the pan was channelled to a second blank charge in the ramrod tube below the actual barrel of the gun. The ramrods were never replaced after loading. The guns were aimed at Chung, the assistants pulled the triggers, there was a loud bang and a cloud of gunpowder smoke filled the stage. Chung pretended to catch the bullets in his hand before they hit him. Sometimes he pretended to catch them in his mouth.
The trick went tragically wrong when Chung was performing in the Wood Green Empire, London, on March 23, 1918. Chung never unloaded the gun properly. To avoid expending powder and bullets, he had the breeches of the guns dismantled after each performance in order to remove the bullet, rather than firing them off or drawing the bullets with a screw-rod as was normal practice. Over time, the channel that allowed the flash to bypass the barrel and ignite the charge in the ramrod tube slowly built up a residue of unburned gunpowder. On the fateful night of the accident, the flash from the pan ignited the charge behind the bullet in the barrel of one of the guns. The bullet was fired in the normal way, hitting Chung in the chest. His last words were spoken on stage that moment, “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” It was the first and last time since adopting the persona that William “Chung Ling Soo” Robinson had spoken English in public.
Chapter One: The Wood Green Empire (from
The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer" by Jim Steinmeyer)
All the World's a Stage.
Inscribed in the plaster and finished in gold leaf, those five famous words appeared over the proscenium at the Wood Green Empire in north London, in the smooth white halo that formed the focal point of the theater and surrounded the bloodred, gold-tasseled curtain.
It was a typically artistic touch for a Frank Matcham theater. Built in 1912 on the High Road, the Wood Green Empire was one of the last designs of the noted architect. Matcham's many "Music Halls," "Empires," "Palaces," and "Hippodromes" dotted all of Great Britain and were carefully designed to accommodate variety entertainments, following a precise formula of seats, balconies, lobbies, and exit doors. Traveling from city to city, the Edwardian music hall performers—continually rearranged and reassembled like puzzle pieces for that week's entertainment—were pleased to arrive at the Matcham houses. They admired the modern loading doors that opened directly onto an alley, the full-sized orchestra pits, generous dressing rooms with slate tables, convenient bathrooms, good acoustics, modern electric lighting, and the deep stages that could show off any act to its best advantage. Some of the theaters were even equipped with special rooms for the horses or sea lions popular in animal acts.
To music hall patrons, Matcham theaters represented the epitome of Edwardian design. The lobbies were lavish and exotic, with mosaic floors, crystal fixtures, and arched staircases fitted with thick Axminster carpeting and polished brass handrails. The dress circle offered an elegant oak bar stocked with bottles of scotch and gin, taps of stout and ale. The cantilevered steel balconies, built without vertical posts, guaranteed that every spectator had a clear view of the stage. The auditoriums were decorated as Moorish temples, rococo palaces, or renaissance castles, filled with tight whorls and broad curlicues of filigree, scrollwork, cartouches, carved elephant heads, richly painted friezes, goddesses smiling benignly from the tops of their caryatid columns, and glittering stained glass set within oval domes. It was all finished in soft, rich hues: burgundy or forest green plush, mahogany-colored velvet curtains, glowing rose-colored marble, alabaster, and burnished gilt trim.
The design of the Wood Green Empire continued Frank Matcham's tradition of indistinct fairy-tale decor, all translucent white, warm cream, gold leaf, and red plush. There were eighteen hundred and forty seats. By all accounts, on the night of March 23, 1918, at the nine o'clock Saturday show—the second performance of the evening and the last show of the week—every seat was filled and a handful of latecomers stood in a neat line in the back of the stalls, leaning against the upholstered railing and contemplating their programs. Every one of them was there to see the star attraction, "Chung Ling Soo, The World's Greatest Magician, in a Performance of Oriental Splendor and Weird Mysticism, assisted by Miss Suee Seen, presenting in rapid succession the most Beautiful, Baffling and Interesting Series of Illusions ever submitted to the Public."
The patrons naturally expected to be amazed and astonished. Instead, every member of that audience, nearly two thousand people, watched as Chung Ling Soo's spell was unexpectedly broken. They were the eyewitnesses to a final explosive act—the climax of the strangest tragedy in stage history.
* * *
At 9:00 p.m. promptly, there was a clatter in front of the stalls as the musicians took their places in the orchestra pit. The lights dimmed, and Mr. Forbes Russell, the musical director at the Wood Green Empire, stepped to the podium, his head bobbing above the railing at the front of the stage. He nodded to his musicians, gave the upbeat, and the audience was treated to a brief overture—in honor of their star attraction Mr. Russell had selected the latest Denmark Street "Chinese" melody, which allowed him to use the gong and marimba, specially installed that week to provide the proper oriental accents.
Then the music hall acts began. Tom Keno, the "Pattering Comedian," dashed onto the stage to offer a few minutes of quick laughs. The Three Osrams, an Australian acrobatic act, were next; then Annie Rooney, "In a Bright Entertainment;" Ruby Roya, a dancer who billed herself as "The Radiant Revue Girl;" and Will H. Fox, who sat at a piano and offered comedic monologues that slid smoothly into his original songs filled with puns and topical references. The printed program boasted that Fox had performed his specialty "over 16,000 times."
Like most music hall acts, these first five turns each ran only ten or fifteen minutes long. The art of the music hall was in assembling these short performances into a well-composed program of ascending wonders—the first act was often deliberately sacrificed to the stragglers, who arrived with their glasses of beer and awkwardly stumbled through the rows of spectators, high-stepping over each set of knees as they searched for their seats. Those ten minutes were devoted to grabbing the audience's attention and settling them down. Then a few flashy or fast-moving acts could impart enough energy to carry them through the mediocre performances that, of necessity, filled out the center of the program. The idea was to build steadily to the big finish, the most anticipated attraction. When the local music hall was lucky enough to engage a star for the week, a closing act whose name could be proclaimed in extra-large type at the top of the bill, invariably the whole show seemed infused with a magical, electric energy. The anticipation seemed palpable; every burst of applause seemed to crackle with excitement, every joke seemed funnier, every song brighter and more memorable.
Just past ten o'clock, Will H. Fox stood at his piano bench, and in response to a flurry of laughter and applause, he bowed deeply, scanned the audience with a broad smile, and marched to the wings with a grand, purposeful stride as the front curtain dropped. There was a brief pause as the orchestra picked up their instruments and Forbes Russell raised his baton. Then the gong echoed through the Wood Green Empire, followed by an energetic flurry from the violins—a convincing oriental crescendo—to announce the star attraction. The curtain rose on a beautiful silk backdrop, painted in shades of blue and white in a recreation of that famous scene found on china services, the arched boughs, curved bridge, and distant pagoda of the famous Willow Pattern. This silk curtain swept open, showing a row of Chinese assistants standing in line, bowing to the audience. Behind them, another round curtain opened, revealing a blue and white scene behind it, then another, and another: nested concentric circles creating the illusion of the Willow Pattern coming to life. As the stage was gradually revealed, the audience saw a final row of Chinese assistants, flanking one final upright circle in the center of the stage. The assistants turned and bowed, the kettledrums rumbled with anticipation, and the disc was raised to show a tall, handsome, swarthy Asian man posed in profile. This was Chung Ling Soo.
Soo turned to the audience and walked slowly to the footlights with a kind of bowlegged swagger, shifting his weight from leg to leg beneath his gold embroidered silk robe. He bowed to the center, to the left and to the right, and then slowly removed his cylindrical mandarin hat, which was taken by a waiting assistant. With a fixed smile he opened his robe, turned on his heel and tossed the robe back off his shoulders; another assistant stepped behind him to catch the garment with a flourish.
Beneath the embroidered robe, Soo was dressed simply, in dark silk pants and a loose oriental tunic, in an artistic contrast to the bright scenery and the colorful robes worn by his assistants. Like any virtuoso, Chung Ling Soo began his show in gradual steps, with small, elegant exercises in conjuring. He tore a strip of tissue paper into dozens of separate pieces, which he wadded at his fingertips. Blowing on the torn bits, he opened the bundle, slowly, slowly, to reveal that the pieces had fused back together again. He held the strip high in the air, and then dropped it from his fingertips so it fluttered to the floor. In his small movements, Chung Ling Soo exhibited a regal grace. He changed a vase of ink into a vase of water, and made a purple silk handkerchief disappear on one side of the stage and reappear on the other, tied securely between two yellow handkerchiefs.
The magician was almost completely bald, with a small patch of hair at the back of his head, ending in a long black braided queue. He never spoke during his performance. At several points, one of his main assistants, Kametaro, offered the few necessary words of explanation, apologizing that Chung Ling Soo could not speak English. Soo listened intently to Kametaro's words, eyes half closed, smiling and nodding in casual agreement. After almost 18 years in the British music halls, Chung Ling Soo had never needed any words. He was a master of pantomime, accentuating every illusion with his dramatic poses and expressive gestures. His eyes twinkled as he performed, and with a cocked eyebrow or a crooked smile, he perfectly conveyed what was then thought to be the oriental sense of humor.
As a sign of his stardom, Chung Ling Soo was not merely a ten-minute act on the music hall stage; he performed half the program, a full fifty-five minutes of magic. After establishing his credentials with the audience as a master of sleight-of-hand deceptions, he smoothly transitioned to larger and larger wonders. The curtains opened on five wooden crates, each filled with glass bottles of stout. Soo moved from crate to crate, examining the contents and indicating pleasure at the discovery. With a casual gesture, he directed his assistants to stack the crates. When the heavy boxes were assembled into a tall column, a fabric canopy was whisked over the tower of stout. Seconds later the fabric was drawn away and the boxes and bottles had disappeared. In their place was one gigantic, six-foot-tall bottle. Soo registered his delight, rubbing his hands together before reaching over to the oval label on the bottle. He looked out at the audience with a wink—there was one more surprise in store—then swung open the label like a door. Inside the bottle was Suee Seen, the co-star of the show and Soo's wife, a delicate Chinese maiden with a pale white face and narrow dark eyes: a living porcelain doll. Offering the magician her tiny hand, she stepped from the opening in the bottle and bowed, palms pressed together, first to Soo, and then turning to acknowledge the applause of the audience.
By 10:30, Chung Ling Soo was well into his program, and the pace of the illusions quickened, a sign of his innate showmanship. He held up an arrow attached to a long white rope, and then loaded both into the barrel of a rifle. Suee Seen took her place on the opposite side of the stage, standing in front of a large round target. Soo lowered the rifle, pointing it directly at the Chinese princess, and fired. The arrow and rope flashed across the stage, passed through her body and impaled itself in the bull's eye of the target. Suee Seen, her eyes tightly shut, released a short, sharp scream of surprise, which precisely mirrored the audience's reaction. The rope was threaded through the center of her body! Soo slowly approached her and, whispering in her ear, tenderly convinced her to open her eyes. He slowly led her forward to the footlights, demonstrating to the audience that the white rope had passed through the waist. Soo tugged it to and fro as she looked down in amazement. Pulling the rope free of her body, Suee Seen regained her composure, smiled sweetly, and skipped into the wings.
Moments later, Soo's wife entered again, now in a different bright silk costume, and hopped onto a wide table in the center of the stage. A tall metal cylinder, some two feet across, was lowered over her, covering her completely. Soo clapped his hands, the cylinder was lifted, and in her place was an enormous orange tree, its branches filled with green foliage and ripe fruit. Soo and an assistant reached up to the branches of the tree, picking handfuls of oranges and placing them in a basket. Using a mighty, underhanded pitch, Soo tossed each orange into the audience. The oranges were propelled to the back of the theater, to the far corners of the balcony, to specific seats in the dress circle as the audience clamored for their souvenirs. Each orange had a small red paper label tied to its stem, a portrait of the magician. One of the last oranges was tossed straight up the aisle, where the spotlight settled on Suee Seen herself, magically rematerialized and standing in the midst of the audience.
Music hall habitues would have seen Soo's show before, at Wood Green or many of the other halls in the area, and they remembered some of his most popular illusions, determined this time to watch the performance even more closely. During his years on the stage, through trial and error Soo had added many new features, concentrating on a large repertoire that he tailored to his own personality. Of course, he had imitators. After he had become established in the halls, there were many other magicians who pretended to be Chinese, donning yellow greasepaint and glossy black wigs, squinting and grinning at their audiences, or yammering some pidgin gibberish. Soo prided himself on the authentic and indulged in none of the standard cliches. The public knew that he was the real thing. Some in the audience that night probably recalled the newspaper scandal, about a dozen years earlier, when another "Chinese" magician appeared in London and started performing under a deceptively similar name comprised of Chinese syllables. In a bid for publicity, the imitator had offered an affront to Chung Ling Soo and Suee Seen, accusing them of merely pretending to be Chinese. Chung Ling Soo and company arrived at the designated newspaper office, prepared for a magic duel, but at the last moment his detractor had lost his nerve and failed to show up. Ever since then, Chung Ling Soo had possessed the press's endorsement and the public's confidence.
During the years of the Great War, Chung Ling Soo's name had become a sort of trademark for miracles. British soldiers at the front had begun to turn it into a catch phrase. Faced with a typically impossible military order, they might mutter under their breath with an exaggerated Cockney accent: " An' jus' 'oo do you think I am? Chung Ling Soo?"
The Chinese Ring Trick was one of his specialties, included in his show for many years. Suee Seen held a stack of a dozen large, heavy metal rings, each about ten inches across. She handed each of the rings to various members of the audience, gesturing that they be examined carefully for any breaks or gaps. The rings were collected again and tossed up to the stage where Soo began to link them together into a large chain. First two rings, linked and unlinked as he held them at his fingertips. The process seemed effortless: steel rings softening to melt through each other, then hardening again. He tossed the rings high into the air and linked them, with a clang of steel against steel, as they descended. He linked three rings, then four, five, and six. Soo interlocked the rings in a number of places, forming woven chains or impressive knots of steel. Finally he assembled all of the rings in a line and then folded them together again, forming a jumble of steel loops that hung like so many keys dangling from a single ring. He paused only briefly for applause. With a final shake, the rings came loose again, miraculously dropping to the stage, separate and single.
At 10:40 that night at Wood Green, the tone of Chung Ling Soo's show shifted dramatically. A beautiful silk curtain, emblazoned with the imperial Chinese dragon in green and gold, obscured the stage. The orchestra took up an ominous march, which was suddenly repeated, in muffled tones on stage, with chimes and drumbeats. The curtain was raised on an elaborate setting, featuring a wide oriental archway. A phalanx of Chinese soldiers, in leather and bright brass plate armor, marched though the arch toward the audience, beating the time on their native drums. Two of the soldiers rested long rifles on their shoulders.
As the line of soldiers parted, another line of assistants appeared through the archway with an elaborately carved ebony and gold palanquin. Carrying the palanquin forward by its horizontal handles, they set it on the stage and opened the door to reveal Chung Ling Soo seated inside. As he stepped out, the audience saw that he had donned the elaborate headdress and the quilted robe of a Chinese warrior. His face was fixed in a somber gaze, as if lost in thought.
His assistant Kametaro stepped forward to address the audience in broken English. "Ladies and Gentlemen, if you please . . . Chung Ling Soo now demonstrates how he was condemned by the Boxers during the rebellion, and executed by firing squad. How he defied their bullets! And again, tonight, on our stage just as in Peking many years ago."
Chung Ling Soo took several deliberate steps away from the footlights, removing himself from the action.
Kametaro continued his instructions: "Two gentlemen on stage, please. Two men who know something of guns, who have loaded bullets." He scanned the front row of spectators for audience members who were willing to help. That night there was a bit of hesitation, so Kametaro continued with flattery. "Do we have any British soldiers in our audience, any brave young men who know their guns, please? Surely you would be willing to step up here, on behalf of the audience."
One soldier in uniform stood up and made his way from the side of the auditorium to the stage. Seated in a different spot in the auditorium, another young man—also a soldier but out of uniform—decided to join him. These two volunteers were quickly handed the rifles to examine.
The British soldiers, blinking uncomfortably in the spotlights, discovered that their experience with guns was actually of little value. Chung Ling Soo's rifles were muzzle-loaders, two old-fashioned weapons that were markedly different from the automatic rifles they had been trained to use in the British army. They peered down the barrels, checked the trigger, and nodded in agreement. Yes, they were real guns.
"Now, please select two bullets. Real bullets, you'll find." From a box of bullets, each soldier selected one and held it up in the spotlight so the audience could see. The bullets were large round slugs, about the size of marbles. Suee Seen stepped up to the men, holding a small metal cup in her hands, and she signaled for the men to drop the bullets inside. Kametaro continued, "Miss Suee Seen shows you the two bullets. Could we have two gentlemen in our audience mark them? A scratch or a mark that you will see again. . . ." She stepped off the stage and down the stairs, locating two gentlemen seated on the aisle who agreed to mark the bullets. She reached into the cup, lifting out the first bullet, and handed it to a man along with a small knife so he could scratch an identifying mark into the soft lead. The second bullet was given to a second spectator, and the marking repeated.
The Chinese assistants talked them through the procedure as the audience watched intently. First, a tin of gunpowder was shown and some of the powder was sprinkled onto a small tray. "Real gunpowder? Is it real?" Kametaro asked. One of the soldiers smelled the powder. Kametaro carried the tray of powder forward, touching a lighted match to it. The powder exploded with a white flash and a small acrid puff of smoke. "Yes, real powder," he answered his own question. Kametaro poured a charge of gunpowder into each of the two rifles. The Chinese assistants followed with the cotton wads. Each rifle held a metal ramrod beneath the barrel; these were unsheathed, and, as the soldiers from the audience supervised, each charge and wadding was tamped down.
In the aisle of the theater, the marked bullets were dropped into the cup with two sharp pings, and Suee Seen quickly returned to the stage, where she tipped the contents into the hands of the waiting volunteers. Each British soldier took a bullet, looked over the marks so they would recognize them again, and dropped their bullets into the barrels of the rifles. The Chinese assistants followed with another cotton wad, which was rammed in place. They set the ramrods aside on the table and then positioned the percussion caps on the guns. With another rattle of the native drums, Soo's cast escorted the young soldiers to the side of the stage so they could watch the finish of the illusion.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, silence please. Silence for Chung Ling Soo," Kametaro warned. He pointed ominously at the men seated on the aisle. "Two bullets! You have seen to it that the bullets were marked." Then pointing to the side, to the volunteer soldiers, "And you seen the guns loaded. Now silence, and watch closely. Watch, everyone."
Chung Ling Soo backed slowly into place, to the far right of the stage, from the audience's viewpoint. He stood just several feet in front of the curtain. An assistant handed him a porcelain plate, which he gripped tightly between his hands. Meanwhile, the Chinese riflemen took their positions on the opposite side, duplicating a chilling execution by firing squad. They crouched and slowly lifted the rifles to their shoulders. Between the riflemen and the victim stood Kametaro, well back of the firing line, his sword drawn and raised over his head, awaiting the final signal.
The Chinese magician paused dramatically, drew a deep breath, and then raised the plate until it was in front of his chest. Holding his pose for a moment, he created an incongruous picture—his small porcelain plate brandished like a shield. It was a reminder of the odd Boxer cult that had inspired the Chinese rebellion in 1900, reported in a series of lurid newspaper headlines around the world. According to the Boxers' mystical beliefs, they were impervious to foreign bullets. Now Chung Ling Soo would demonstrate how his magic surpassed even the claims of the Boxers. He braced himself, looking down to widen his stance, and then took another deep breath. With a quick nod to Kametaro, he signaled that he was ready.
Kametaro lowered his sword sharply. The Chinese riflemen, who had been posed, immobile, guns pointed in careful aim, squeezed their triggers.
The last drumbeats ended as the riflemen took their positions. Chung Ling Soo's audience sat in breathless silence. There had been no music from the orchestra to break the tension. The prolonged stillness only accentuated the two sudden, almost simultaneous cracks from the rifles. The sharp explosions echoed off the hard white plaster and gold filigree of Frank Matcham's theater, and drew an involuntary gasp from many in the audience. It was 10:45 p.m.
* * *
An audience was lucky to see the gun illusion. For 12 years, Chung Ling Soo had included Condemned to Death by the Boxers in his shows, but it was performed erratically, unexpectedly, as a special dramatic feature, and only at the whim of the star. He never presented it on a matinee, which was arranged for children and families. The gun trick was seldom advertised, and almost never promised on the playbill. Later that Saturday night, as the audience stood on the sidewalk outside the Wood Green Empire and discussed what they had just seen, they studied the fine print of their programs. Even allowing for the romantic titles that magicians used to advertise their specialties—The Mystic Bottle was the illusion in which little bottles became the giant bottle, The Living Target was the rope and arrow trick—they found no mention of the gun illusion.
Like any good joke or a popular song, a great magic trick not only surprises its audience but also reaches its climax by fulfilling expectations, by completing every element of foreshadowing. It ends by achieving a magical but perfectly logical ending. For a dozen years, even though the situation had seemed impossible, Chung Ling Soo's porcelain plate did manage to stop the bullets. Upon the crack of the rifles, Soo thrust the plate forward, then twisted it upright in his hands—from a shield to a tray. The audience heard the snap as the bullets hit the porcelain, then the rattle as they whizzed around like a roulette ball in a circle within the lip of the plate. He stepped toward the footlights, offering the bullets to the two volunteers from the audience. The men would dip their fingers into the plate, pick up the two lead slugs, and identify the marks as Soo smiled with relief. For many years, that was the inevitable, theatrical climax of Condemned to Death by the Boxers. Soo then offered hearty handshakes to his volunteers—first a western handshake, then a Chinese handshake, clutching his own hands and bobbing them up and down in front of his chest—as the men were escorted back to their seats and the orchestra sounded a triumphal chord. Sometimes he awarded his volunteers the bullets as mementos. Occasionally he gave away the plate.
If everything had proceeded as planned, Chung Ling Soo would have continued with the finale of his show. His popular fire-eating feat was scheduled next, and it climaxed when the burning embers in his mouth were instantly transformed into a shower of colored silk ribbons. Then the curtains would have swept open, revealing a large metal globe set within a raised stand. Showing the metal sphere empty and then closing it again, he would have magically produced a line of costumed actors from its interior. In the program it was called The World and its People.
* * *
At 10:45 p.m. on March 23, 1918, as the shots rang through the theater, Soo reeled, twisting slightly to his right. His shoulders arched. He dropped the plate, which smashed against the wooden stage floor.
His assistants, familiar with the clockwork precision of his performances, watched dumbfounded. Used to the rhythm of the show and anxious to get backstage to their next costume change, they turned to see the nightmarish scene. Soo shouted out a few words—the company onstage and spectators in the first few rows heard him distinctly—and then backed up several steps toward the wings as his knees began to buckle. A technician from the wings rushed on, catching the magician's shoulders and easing him to the ground. It was only when Soo fell onto the stage, his eyes wide and his mouth contorted into a tight grimace, that his assistants noticed the dark stain on the front of his robe.
Chung Ling Soo's cast rushed to him. Some, like his wife Suee Seen, ran on from the wings, crouching by his side. For several uncomfortable seconds, the music hall patrons watched the clutch of nervous actors leaning over Soo's crumpled figure and listened to the murmurs and overlapping, barked orders—frantic commands that were being echoed by stagehands behind the curtains. After hearing Soo call out, the stage manager signaled for the curtain to be lowered, which spared the audience the climax of the tragic scene. Seconds later the white Bioscope screen fell quickly into place, and the projectionist in the booth took his cue; the latest silent newsreel from the War Office started with a flicker. Several minutes later, the film abruptly stopped, and the orchestra instinctively took up their instruments for the obligatory "God Save the King." The audience rose in an uneasy chorus before pushing their way out the doors and into the cool spring night.
* * *
It was only with Monday morning's newspapers that the nearly two thousand spectators at the Wood Green Empire, along with the rest of London, learned the truth. Chung Ling Soo had died, just hours after he fell, from his unexpected gunshot wound. The imaginary execution that they watched that night—the examined guns, the marked bullets, the methodical process of loading the rifles with powder—now seemed insidious and horrifying because it had proved to be real. The audience had eagerly watched every detail of the illusion, seduced by Chung Ling Soo's miraculous abilities. They expected a logical, magical, happy ending, not the tragedy that they had witnessed.
* * *
At first, the casualty seemed completely inconceivable. Soo's own staff was shocked by his death and could offer no explanations, neither for how he successfully caught the bullets every night, nor for how he failed on the last night. Magicians around the world were mystified. Harry Houdini, fulfilling a long engagement at New York's Hippodrome Theater—he was making an elephant disappear twice every night—dashed off a note to a colleague attempting to analyze what happened on the Wood Green stage. "From what cabled accounts I have read, it seems as if there were something peculiar about the whole affair, and as soon as I get details will let you know. There are only two ways it could have happened. One is a failure of exchange . . . or mixture of bullets." Houdini, who had been badly fooled by his friend Chung Ling Soo, included the most sinister possibility. "[If] one of the men instead of loading the trick cartridge would substitute one of his own . . . that would be murder."
* * *
Slowly, painfully, the details of Chung Ling Soo's death became known from public testimony, reports in the newspaper, or letters between his friends and associates: how he caught the bullets and why he chanced to fail in one show. These revelations led to the complicated history and relationships of this music hall star. Like the fine silk threads from his precious robes, his secrets began to unwind and fray, destroying beautiful patterns that had been carefully woven over the course of a long career. The very first clue, the thread that had quickly unraveled, was heard by a handful of spectators seated near the stage on that Saturday night. Although Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer," had never uttered a word from the stage during his long career, a moment after the rifles sounded, he cried out quite audibly to the people around him, in perfect English, "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain."
* * *
Houdini was not alone in thinking there was something suspicious and sinister about Soo's death. A number of the Chinese magician's associates attempted to braid together the confusing threads of the tragedy, and invariably wove plots of murder, revenge, infidelity, and betrayal. Or, strangest of all, there was speculation of a sensational public suicide, the result of many deceptions that had led to self-doubt and fatal despair.
An odd coincidence provided part of the solution to Chung Ling Soo's mystery. Few people realized that his career had not started in Imperial Chinese splendor, but in the cheapest dime museums and the most notorious variety stages, with a lifetime of secrets that were alternately guarded, hoarded, stolen, hijacked, or purloined. The ascendancy of the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer could be explained in five words, and they had been in plain sight of the Wood Green Empire audience, the gilded letters that had framed his last performance.
As the quotation continued from Shakespeare's As You Like It: "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and entrances; / And one man in his time plays many parts, / . . . Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon's mouth."