No one was as successful at impersonation and forgery as William Ellsworth Robinson, nor has anyone failed as spectacularly.
No one was as successful at impersonation and forgery as William Ellsworth Robinson (1861–1918). Nor has anyone failed as spectacularly as Robinson did in front of hundred of people, before the age of television and computers linked us up.
Born the day after April Fool’s, a little north of Manhattan, in Westchester County, William Ellsworth Robinson was the eldest of three children. Rather than move further north, as many families would do a century later, in the 1960s, the Robinson family moved to Manhattan, where his father sought employment.
James Campbell Robinson, William’s father, worked in traveling minstrel shows. His specialties were impersonations, ventriloquism, and magic tricks, all of which he taught to his eldest son. However, as good as the son became at performing magic tricks, he possessed a single failing that prevented him from becoming famous: He never invented a trick. He could only copy other magician’s tricks, which meant he would never become a headliner.
In 1887, recognizing that he would never be original, Robinson began copying the act of the German magician Max Auzinger, whose stage name was Ben Ali Bey. Billing himself as Achmed Ben Ali, Robinson gained attention performing in front of a black velvet curtain, but he had yet to do something astonishing within that tight black space. His act was certainly not like that of Georges Méliès (1861–1938), who apprehended the alchemical relationship between magic tricks and film. Among the first filmmakers to use special effects, he brought a transforming light and the start and stop of a camera to bear on the world around him.
In his 1902 film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), Méliès was the first person to successfully film himself voyaging to the moon and back, an act that should have received wider attention than it did at the time. Robinson could not get himself to the moon, even if he pulled it out of his sleeve, so he did the next best thing. He became the Chinese magician Chung Ling Soo, basing his act on the world-renowned magician Ching Ling Foo (1854–1922), whom Irving Berlin mentioned in his song “From Here to Shanghai” (1917):
I’ll eat the way they do,
With a pair of wooden sticks,
And I’ll have Ching Ling Foo,
Doing all his magic tricks.
Foo’s most famous acts included pulling a 15-foot pole from his mouth and beheading one of his servants, who turns and walks off the stage headless, unfazed by this interruption. One of his best-known tricks was to pull a bowl full of water out of an empty cloth, and then pull a baby out of the water.
In 1898, while Foo was traveling across America and performing to full theaters, he offered a reward of 1,000 dollars to anyone who could replicate this trick. Robinson claimed he could do, or even improve, it. Suspecting the trick had indeed been figured out, Foo refused to meet Robinson, setting their rivalry in motion.
Two years later, Robinson was well on his way to becoming Chung Ling Soo, son of a Scottish missionary and Cantonese woman. His story went that he was orphaned at 13 and raised by a Chinese magician, who taught him the secrets of ancient Chinese magic, which, because of his unique birthright, he was able to mix with modern western magic.
Robinson wore his hair in a queue (the front part of his head shaved and the remaining hair braided into a long ponytail). He dressed in what his audience perceived as traditional Chinese garb — long silk robes with wide sleeves. He never spoke while onstage, claiming he knew no English. “Suee Seen,” who was actually Olive “Dot” Path, an American woman in on the charade, assisted him.
In January 1905, Chung Ling Soo and Ching Ling Foo were performing in London at the same time, Soo at the Hippodrome and Foo at the Empire Theater. Their acts were nearly indistinguishable. Sick of Robinson’s rip-off, Foo announced that he would replicate at least half of Soo’s magic acts and prove he was an impostor.
All of this would have mattered had the public actually cared about Soo’s true identity, but they didn’t. The forgery was as good as the original, if not better. When Foo realized people did not care about the truth, he withdrew the challenge, publicly embarrassing himself. This, of course, could be the end of the story, but it isn’t.
While I was researching William Ellsworth Robinson and others who played yellow face, I wondered if my grandfather, Chan Ching Yau, who in 1919 was the first Chinese to graduate from the University of Bristol, England, earning a BSc in Civil Engineering, might have taken my grandmother, Ivy Hillier, the first in her family to marry a Chinese, to see either Chung Ling Soo or Ching Ling Foo perform.
For a few moments one afternoon, while looking at some grainy newsreel, I thought I might glimpse my grandparents smiling in the crowd of World War I veterans Soo was filmed greeting at 1915 benefit performance (the only known film record of him), but my grandfather did not matriculate until 1916 and had not yet met his future wife. When I learned that Soo/Robinson died unexpectedly on March 24, 1918, the likelihood of seeing them in the audience vanished.
I suppose I was hoping for the impossible because I have no photographs in which my Chinese grandfather and my English grandmother are seated with their biracial son, my father, smiling at the camera.
Soo’s most famous act, which he stole from Foo and copied to near perfection, was “Condemned to Death by the Boxers.” In this act, the magician’s assistants appear onstage dressed as members of the Chinese secret society known as the Yihequan (“Righteous and Harmonious Fists”) or, as the English called them, “Boxers.” The Boxers selected members of the audience to come up and mark a bullet. The bullet was loaded into a muzzle-loaded gun and fired at Soo, who held a plate in front of his heart so the marksmen would know where to aim. He would then drop the bullets into the plate at the right moment, as if they had been stopped there. When a audience member inspected what was in the plate, they would see the marked bullet.
The trick is simple. As the rifles and bullets are being inspected, Soo held onto the marked bullets and substitutes were loaded into the guns. There were two chambers in the rifle, one that was loaded and the empty chamber below, which was ignited. On March 23, before a full audience at the Wood Green Empire in London, two guns were fired and the bullet from one pierced the plate and struck Soo in the lung, ignited by built-up residue. He fell to the ground and exclaimed, “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain,” speaking English in public for the first time in many years. He died the following day. He was a forger who had not been meticulous enough and it caught up with him.
Although the examiners at the inquest concluded that it was an accident, not every agreed. One such person was Will Goldston, a magician and magic dealer, and good friend of Harry Houdini. Goldston said that when Soo stopped by his shop, he confessed to being depressed about supporting the families of his wife and girlfriend who lived on the opposite ends of London. It seems that as successful as he was, he was still short of money. Robert Smithson, an ardent fan who saw all of Soo’s 14 performances when the act came to his town in America, supported this view.
By chance, Smithson was able to catch Soo’s act in London, while on army leave. In a letter he wrote to a journalist, he stated that he had memorized Soo’s routine and, on March 23, the magician did two things he had never done before. He went to the center of stage and talked to the audience about how dangerous this trick was and said that other magicians had died performing it. And then he loaded the rifle himself.
In his book Sensational Tales of Mystery Men (1924), Goldston, who saw Houdini and Soo as equals (never once mentioning his rival, Foo), wrote:
It is a fact that many of the cleverest members of my profession have selfishly carried their secrets to the grave. Houdini and Chung Ling Soo are cases in point. That is not fair play. Magic must live after its creators have passed on. I feel I have a duty to perform, and trust that, after my death, others will be found to carry on the work that I have started.
There, in print, Houdini (the great original) and Soo (the great forger) are given equal billing. This, of course, is the forger’s dream, to be as good as the original, if not better.