The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo

Riddle of Chung Ling Soo Cover

The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo, Will Dexter, (London: Arco, 1955)

Library Call Number: GV1545.S66 D49 1955

“…With his death was revealed one of the great illusions this master of illusions had perpetrated – his own identity.”

William Ellsworth “Billy” Robinson, a native of New York, is best known as Chung Ling Soo. As Soo, he remained silent and only spoke through an interpreter. His first words in public after assuming the identity were his last as his Bullet Catch trick malfunctioned, fatally wounding him.

Billy Robinson began his magic career as Robinson, the Man of Mystery. He and partner Olive Path developed several magic acts. As he continued to practice, Robinson entertained the idea of impersonating an “easterner”, creating personas such as “Achmed Ben Ali” and “Abdul Khan”. Using makeup and mimicry, he filled in for Alexander Herrmann “The Great” and purportedly left no audience member suspicious of his identity. While touring, Robinson and Path found themselves booked alongside a novel act, Ching Ling Foo. This act consisted of a Chinese ex-patriot and his daughter performing magic in a “traditional Chinese style.”

Ching Ling Foo offered a $1000 reward for anyone who could reproduce one of his signature acts, producing a large bowl of water from his robes. Robinson took up the challenge but Ching Ling Foo refused to let him attempt the trick. This gave Robinson the idea to develop his own act based on that of Ching Ling Foo. He joined the more than ten imitators of Foo’s act and developed the Chung Ling Soo character. Soo had soon developed dozens of unique features in his act far surpassing Foo in originality. As this act gained popularity, Foo would challenge him again to perform his tricks, this time for £1000. This challenge may also have been a publicity stunt by Foo, who once again denied Robinson his chance to prove his skill with his absence from the contest.

In The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo, Will Dexter explores the life of Billy Robinson and his personae working backwards from his onstage death at the Willow Green Empire theatre in London in 1912. A magic enthusiast himself, Dexter eulogizes Robinson by explaining the origin of his renowned act which would be his demise.

This book was acquired by ARC as a part of the Art Latcham Magic Collection to support studies in History, Literature, Psychology, and Industrial Design.Cover and interior art of The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo