“A conjuror is not a juggler; he is an actor playing the part of a magician; an artist whose fingers have more need to move with deftness than with speed … where sleight-of-hand is involved, the quieter the movement of the performer, the more readily will the spectators be deceived.” Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin Born…
I can still remember the astonishment, the absolute and overwhelming wonder, I experienced the first time I found out what those twinkly little dots in the night sky really are. They are stars, of course, but what came as a surprise to me was that each one of them is a massive burning ball of hot gas, just like the one we refer to as Sun. The only difference is that the ones we call stars are so unfathomably far away that from our vantage point they look like tiny white-yellowish specks of dust.
Just a few months ago I found out about the far side of the Moon (also referred to as the dark side of the Moon), and my world was rocked again. In my 29 years on this planet, nobody had told me about it! I learned history, mathematics, and physics in school… but a little more astronomy to shed some light on the beauty of the universe would also have been appreciated.
I wondered if other people had also missed out on the big news, so I did what any sensible inhabitant of the 21st century would do at a pivotal moment in his existence: I went on social media. Rather than spilling the metaphorical beans right away, I posed a question:
1: Have you heard about the “far side of the Moon?”
2: Do you know what that originally means?
Post yes/no answers only. Thanks!
There was an overwhelming surplus of yeses, but I realized some people might have been somewhat misled. This sentiment was voiced by my friend Joe Skilton, who tactfully pointed out:
Yes. But most people think they know and don’t 😉
My lovely sister sent me a text message inquiring:
What is that about? I’ve heard about the dark side of the moon, but I don’t know specifics. I know it’s the title of an album, but I’m not a fan of The Doors.
Sister isn’t a fan of Pink Floyd either. Anyway, all this led me to believe that many might not know about the astronomical implications (and the grandeur!) of the far side of the Moon. As I recently discovered, this refers to the hemisphere of the Moon we never see from planet Earth. Yes, there is such a thing.
Earth rotates around its own axis while simultaneously revolving in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. It takes us (that is, Planet Earth) 24 hours to spin a full revolution and 365 days to travel a complete lap around our star. As result of this difference in duration, we experience day and night 365 times every year.
The Moon also rotates at the same time that she revolves around the Earth. However, there is a fundamental difference. It takes the Moon 27 days to make a full turn around her axis, the exact same amount of time it takes her to travel around the Earth—a peculiar and lovely phenomenon known as synchronous rotation.
Let’s imagine it’s January 1, and the Moon is at point A on her journey around our planet. By January 8 (which happens to be my birthday, send me nice gifts), she has traveled ¼ of the path around her orbit, and rotated ¼ of a revolution. As a result, the Moon is showing us the same face we saw 7 days ago.
The same math applies at every single step along the way. Every tiny displacement is compensated by a proportionally tiny rotation, until the cycle is completed 27 days later. Then it begins all over again. As a result, only one hemisphere of the Moon is ever visible from Earth… and it’s always the same one. This hemisphere is referred to as the near side of the Moon. Its counterpart, which we never ever see from Earth, is known as the far side.
As fantastic as this sounds, it is no cosmic coincidence. At the beginning (that is, when the Moon was formed some 4.5 billion years ago, give or take a few million years) her motion was more accelerated. The omnipresent effect of Earth’s gravity on the Moon has slowed her rotation down to its current pace. Nowadays the Moon moves in perfect synchrony around the Earth, a graceful dance that has taken millions of years to refine.
– Just Deserts –
Where, How, Why I heard about the far side of the Moon, I can’t remember. Maybe it was actually Pink Floyd’s album (“The Dark Side of the Moon”) that sent me down the rabbit hole. After that, these are some of the sources I visited:
from the Cambridge Dictionary:
superstition — a belief that is not based on reason or scientific thinking and that explains the causes for events in ways that are connected to magic
– – – – –
Still to this day, when many of us carry supercomputers in our pockets, superstition is widespread in many nations. (One would think that three centuries after the Enlightenment all irrational beliefs would be wiped away from our systems, but apparently it didn’t turn out that way. Oh, well.) Fortunetelling and casting horoscopes are prevalent in first world countries. In less affluent communities the situation is much worse.
In Nigeria, superstition has taken the form of witchcraft and it is more prevalent in destitute areas of the country, where black magic is to be blamed for socio-economic issues. The matter might sound preposterous to many of us, but it is a real a problem and it has somber consequences—one of them is the proliferation of violent witch hunts, a very lamentable situation.
A few years ago this serious issue led to whimsical consequences.
Watch committees support the efforts of the local police force in troublesome areas of Nigeria. In 2009 a vigilante squad intercepted two men trying to steal a car—a Mazda 323, official sources inform us. One of the robbers fled. The other delinquent, members of the law enforcement party claim, used black magic to transform into a goat. Shape-shifting is a practice familiar to those initiated in the dark arts. An astute attempt to escape, frustrated by the long arm of the law.
The vigilantes apprehended the suspect and brought it to the authorities, who would make an informed, unbiased decision. A spokesman for the police told the media that the goat was being held in case its owner claimed it. Another representative, referring to the animal as the “armed robbery suspect,” declared that it would remain in their custody until further investigation. One way or another, they arrested the goat—for a crime it didn’t commit, many of us believe.
News of this episode spread fast and far. The BBC reported “Nigeria police hold ‘robber’ goat.” The Daily Mail proclaimed “Police arrest goat accused of armed robbery.” My personal favorite comes from The Telegraph: “Nigerian police hold ‘magic’ goat over attempted car theft.” Though the media covered the incident, no account of the aftermath is to be found. For all I know the goat might still be spending its days in prison.
– Just Deserts –
Sources cited above:
The art of magic flourishes with uncanny, fascinating, bizarre stories—some as strange as they get. Today we want to share three of them with you: two are real, one we’ve entirely made up. We won’t tell you which is which.
– Malini and the Turkey –
It is a little known fact that if you take a live turkey, tuck its head under its wing, and gently rock it from side to side (as if comforting a baby), within just a few moments the bird will fall deeply asleep.
Max Malini, one of the most celebrated conjurers of the early 20th century, was known for going to great extents to accomplish his miracles. The story goes that an English Duke invited the magician to an elegant dinner party. In preparation, Malini plucked every feather off a live turkey, rocked it to sleep, and snuck it into the kitchen.
At dinner time the still unconscious turkey, served on a tray and neatly adorned with vegetables, was brought to the table. Dark paste was used to make the skin appear roasted. Before the host started to carve, Malini stopped him and offered to do a special trick for the company. The magician waved his hands mysteriously over the bird and asked the host to continue. When the Duke poked the poor animal with a fork, it immediately woke up, squawked, and ran around and off the table.
To this day, it is still one of Max Malini’s most celebrated feats.
– Shameless Self-Promotion –
In 1889 Charles Himbert, the son of a wealthy Englishman, created a big commotion in the small town of Springfield, Colorado. Quite a modest settlement at the time with slightly over 1000 residents, it consisted of little more than small houses, the town hall, and the building responsible for the area’s one and only newspaper: the Springfield Inquirer.
Himbert was a competent conjurer, thirsty for public recognition. One glorious afternoon he visited the mayor to announce his upcoming greatest feat (back in the day it apparently was a simple matter to go knock on the mayor’s door without an appointment). Himbert handed the official a sealed envelope, which he claimed contained a prediction about the future.
Word of the encounter spread, and the magician became the talk of the town. Seven days later hundreds of people assembled. The envelope, which had been closely guarded by the mayor at all times, was opened.
To everyone’s astonishment, Himbert had successfully predicted the front page headline of that day’s Springfield Inquirer. The prophecy was completely accurate, word for word. Everyone was mesmerized. Himbert was proclaimed the greatest (he probably was the only) conjurer the town of Springfield had ever seen.
That same evening, the inebriated editor of the Springfield Inquirer told his drinking companions how the trick was accomplished: with the aid of a generous financial offer to the newspaper. Word spread fast. Although sweet, Himbert’s glory didn’t last long.
– Seek and You Will Find –
Anna Eva Fay was a magician who, like many others during the boom of spiritualism, tried to pass off her tricks as legitimate powers. Billing herself as “The Indescribable Phenomenon,” Fay gained popularity as a stage psychic on vaudeville circuits during the late 19th century.
On stage Fay presented a mixture of conjuring tricks and demonic feats. Best received were the séances where she contacted spirits from beyond, asking for answers to her inquiries.
One evening while performing in New York, a man asked the medium where his stolen car could be found. Fay concentrated, staring into the great nothingness. Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find tells us the Good Book. Well, Fay asked, and it was given to her. In turn, she transmitted the message from beyond: the address where the car could be found.
On the next day, the papers reported, the car was indeed found at the prescribed address.
Not unlike the two gentlemen mentioned above, Fay was willing to go out of her way for her audience’s delight—not to mention attention from the media. As it turns out, Fay’s husband had paid two men to steal the car and leave it at the appointed location. One way or another, the owner was thrilled to have his vehicle back. Another satisfied customer.
– Just Deserts –
We made up one of the the tales, so we might as well make up one of the bibliographical references:
* Malini and the Turkey – Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, by Ricky Jay
* Shameless Self-Promotion – The Stories of Magic, by John Steinmeyer
* Seek and You Will Find – The Illustrated History of Magic, by Milbourne Christopher
The sun was setting the day before the deadline, but the construction was nowhere near completed. Though the foundation had been laid and the walls were erected, it was clear now that delivery on time would be impossible. The magistrate who commissioned the project was a ruthless man; he would not take this lightly, and the Indian knew it. Cantuña felt the heavy burden of failure and disappointment. Fear had begun to creep its way into his mind.
In the midst of despair, the stranger appeared—where did he come from? No footsteps had been heard in the open space of the plaza. He wasn’t Spaniard, but he wasn’t Indian either. A tall and imposing figure, he wore unfamiliar garments, and his eyes were deep and darker than the blackest black. Cantuña recognized him immediately. (Catholic priests told tales warning them against temptation and sin, but no one had believed. The stories were dismissed as nonsense, though now it was clear they were quite true).
With no need for introductions, the stranger made an offer. He stated the terms of the agreement: a straightforward deal, quid pro quo. Though the stranger spoke the dialect of the Indian, his contract was written in a language long forgotten. Cantuña took the silver needle, pricked his finger, and signed his name on the dotted line.
The stranger smiled a twisted smile and vanished from view as swiftly as he had appeared. Suddenly, a million vicious-looking little creatures materialized all around. With no time to waste, they started to work. Cantuña observed in astonished delight.
As time passed and the night grew darker, the cathedral began to take shape. It was magnificent, exactly as he had dreamed: an architecture so beautiful it couldn’t have been built by mortal hands. Now he knew the deal would be worth its price.
The last stone was set as the first glimmer of morning sun emerged from behind the mountains. The stranger returned and declared himself victorious, but the Indian disagreed. The cathedral will be complete before the new day begins, he had been promised. Although the last stone was set on time, the holy place wasn’t whole. On one forgotten corner of the foundation an empty space remained. Still to this day, you can witness the missing piece that was never placed in the Iglesia de San Francisco.
An agreement signed in blood is sacrosanct and its terms must be honored. Though some say Cantuña was lucky, I suspect the Indian was more cunning than the devil himself.
– Just Deserts –
*This is our take on a myth of creation that originated in the town where Siegfried was born: San Francisco de Quito. Growing up there, one hears different iterations of this story. Today we share this one with you so you can tell it to others.
Most people seem to think about human memory in binary terms: either you were gifted with a precious mind or, like many, you consider yourself condemned to forgetfulness. If you belong to the latter category, do not despair!
Memory experts talk about natural and artificial memory. By naturalmemory, they mean what individuals are able to retain in their minds without making a conscious effort. Artificial memory comes through the practice and application of mnemonic techniques.
As it turns out, like a muscle, memory can be trained. There are different kinds of wacky mental strategies used to remember all kinds of information, from names and faces to grocery lists and telephone numbers. Although quite fascinating, specific techniques and approaches are beyond the scope of this essay (I promised to keep these short and, one hopes, sweet). A simple Google search will take you down this intriguing rabbit hole—try typing “art of memory” for a start.
The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, who lived around 500 BC, is often credited as the father of mnemonic devices. Back in the day before teleprompters were a thing, orators would recite lengthy speeches with the aid of such methods. After Simonides, many men have reminded us of the value of this almost-forgotten art.
Harry Lorayne is the contemporary master of memory systems. He has brought ancient methods back to life, developed his own ways, and published prolifically on the subject. When appearing on television—he was invited to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson modest 24 times—Mr. Lorayne would often memorize the names of every single person in the audience, sometimes over 500 individuals. His aptly titled The Memory Bookis a New York Times Bestseller, and Time Magazine rightly called him “the Yoda of Memory Training.” He also likes card tricks.
As the story goes, one day Harry Lorayne was having lunch with a friend—a gentleman I happen to know well, who personally told me this tale. At one point someone approached their table. Harry greeted him effusively; it was an old friend he hadn’t seen in years. After a few minutes of conversation, Harry asked the newcomer for his telephone number, so they could stay in touch. Before his friend could begin to speak, the memory expert stopped him. After producing notepad and pen from his pocket, he signaled him to continue. Harry wrote down the information and they hugged goodbye.
The person with whom Mr. Lorayne had been enjoying lunch gave him a puzzled look. “You are a world-renowned memory expert,” he said. “You have a remarkable reputation for being able to remember e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. It surprises me that you have to write anything down.”
To this, the master mnemonist promptly replied, with an enormous smile on his face:
“I have a good reputation. I want to maintain it.”
– Just Deserts –
*As mentioned above, this tale was passed on to me by a dear friend, who is also friends with Harry Lorayne. Minor details have been altered for ease of reading, but the essence of this story has been maintained. It really happened.
*Seeing is believing: Mr. Lorayne inspires wonder in the CBS game show I’ve Got a Secret – (he makes his glorious appearance at 6:44 minutes) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xo3RDIVWs08
*Good ol’ Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Lorayne
It could be argued that every intellectual development in the human race is consequence of our insatiable curiosity, aided by our big brains. Collectively, our relentless, inquisitive efforts of the last millennia have helped explain a decent chunk of the world in which we live. Every day new mysteries are unveiled thanks to scientific advances.
Contemporary philosopher Tim Minchin described Science as “not a body of knowledge, nor a belief system. It’s just a term that describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation.” To this he enthusiastically added, “Science is awesome.”
What was a mystery only a century ago is now common knowledge. What is an enigma today might be “common sense” a mere 100 years from now. Of course, there are mysteries, and then there are mysteries: some urge close scrutiny, while others invite quiet contemplation. Some mysteries, I believe, we can afford not to know. We can appreciate and enjoy them for what they are, as they are.
Marina Abramović is an influential contemporary artist who has been hailed as the “grandmother of performance art.” Her career is marked by performances most people would refer to as (mmm, what is the euphemism I’m searching for here?) “unconventional.” Upon looking a little closer, one quickly realizes that her work delves into fascinating, heart-breaking, beautiful themes.
There was that time she took prescription drugs in order to explore unconsciousness in live performance; there was that occasion when she let strangers manipulate her using different objects, testing and pushing the limits of the interaction between audience and performer; there was that other time she walked a 2500-kilometer stretch of the Great Wall of China to meet her former partner and then permanently say goodbye, the performance they labeled Lovers. These are mere glimpses into Marina Abramović’s career, and into her soul. Another theme this artist cherishes, I humbly believe, is mystery.
Abramović has said that “the funeral is the artist’s last piece before leaving,” and she seems to be taking her own words seriously. As I type this, Spring 2017, Abramović is 70 years old and in good health—hopefully we’ll have her for a few more decades. In any case, arrangements have been made for the day she leaves this world. There will be three funerals held simultaneously in Belgrade, Amsterdam, and New York: one for the real Marina, two for artificial bodies.
The artist doesn’t want this occasion to be somber. Instead of lamenting her death, she prefers people to celebrate her life. If her last wish is granted and everything goes according to plan, the world won’t know which city is playing final resting place to the real her. Marina Abramović won’t be with us, but this lovely little mystery will remain until the end of time.
Oh, how I wish I had thought of this one first…
– Just Deserts –
Have you ever wondered why many magicians use playing cards as their instrument? (Oh, you had not. Now you do? Good!) It’s rather strange, if one stops to think about it. Casting love spells, influencing meteorological conditions, and turning water into wine all make perfect sense—very utilitarian applications of one’s magical powers. However, if a conjuror intends to provide proof of his mastery over space and time, why doing so with palm-sized printed pieces of paper? Why use such a peculiar tool for such a monumental task? After a little over 10 years of pondering this question, I have stumbled upon a few answers, which I would love to share with you today.
Playing cards originated as a form of entertainment. Card games led to people betting money. Ambition led to people cheating. To increase their odds of winning, some developed techniques that would allow them to manipulate playing cards—and with them, the outcome of the game. False shuffling and dishonest dealing are some of the crooked gambler’s most lucrative talents. Such techniques, among many others, have been adopted and adapted by magicians as a form of entertainment: honest deception. In addition to those learned at the card table, magicians have been devising their own stratagems for hundreds of years, resulting in a vast repository of techniques.
Another reason behind magicians’ fascination with playing cards are the endless possibilities this medium offers. A deck is divided into 4 suits, 13 values, and 52 unique identities that allow myriad opportunities: playing cards can transform, appear and disappear; they can be arranged in countless different sequences, conveying countless different meanings; they can be used to create the illusion of reading minds and predicting future events. Some card experts can mesmerize, surprise, and astonish (generate a whole range of emotions!) using an ordinary deck of playing cards. It is a remarkably versatile tool.
The aforementioned conditions might be the original reason magicians became interested in playing cards: available techniques led to a multitude of magic tricks, and a multitude of magic tricks led to the development of more sophisticated techniques. This set in motion a cycle that resulted in the proliferation of playing cards as one of the conjurer’s most cherished instruments. However, I believe there is yet another argument—the most romantic of them, and my personal favorite. One that is much more essential and lovely.
Playing cards are loaded with hundreds of years of meaning and symbolism. Fortunes are won and lost in casinos, but beyond financial implications, chance and luck—fundamental factors in all human affairs—are present on the turn of a single playing card. In card games, in magic tricks, and in life we all want to beat the odds and win the grace of Lady Luck.
It’s been said that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Magic can be seen as silly little tricks (“Why lose the selected card in the deck if he’s going to find it anyway?”), or it can be regarded as ritual through which we share our humanity. Playing cards can be printed pieces of paper, or symbols that appeal to our deepest dreams and desires. Maybe, just maybe, it’s all about creating the illusion of control over our unique, chaotic, and beautiful little lives.
It can be quite lovely to keep this in mind next time someone asks you to pick a card, any card.
– Just Deserts –
* This essay is the result of obsessive love for conjuring with playing cards.
Harry Houdini was an international celebrity, even in those pre-internet days when being a celebrity actually involved hard work and dedication. By 1914, the year this story takes place, the escape artist was “as famous as any man on the planet […] he could have dined with any local celebrity, aristocrat, or business mogul of his choice”, tell us William Kalush and Larry Sloman, authors of the New York Times Bestseller The Secret Life of Harry Houdini.
Only a few weeks before World War I broke out, our hero found himself aboard the German steamship Imperator traveling back to America for an engagement in New York City. Among other elite passengers on the vessel was Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States and the man who gave the Teddy Bear its name. The two iconic gentlemen had met in the past and it’s said that they highly respected and admired each other.
During the transatlantic travel, a picture was taken of Roosevelt surrounded by a group of passengers; one of those passengers happened to be Harry Houdini. As mentioned before, by this point the escape artist was already a world-renowned celebrity, but on this particular occasion the focus of the photography was clearly the former president.
No problem. Houdini fixed the image by vanishing the other passengers, as well as replacing Roosevelt’s left arm, reconstructing the background, and centering the image on its new protagonists. The result was no longer a photo of Roosevelt with others, but a delightful portrait of Harry & Teddy—excellent promotional material for Houdini’s future enterprises.
Remember, dear reader, that our story takes place 76 years before the release of Photoshop 1.0 for Macintosh in 1990.
– Just Deserts –
* I first stumbled upon this lovely little story in The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero, by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. In it, the authors tell us not only how, but also why Houdini became the iconic figure he still to this day is—I wholeheartedly recommend it.
* Before and After pictures of Harry & Teddy live online. If you are curious—which I hope you are—a quick Google search should point you to them; try typing “Harry Houdini Theodore Roosevelt”. Have fun!
A mysterious stranger looks you straight in the eye. In a gentle tone, but with absolute confidence, he declares:
“An average-to-good chess player normally would think about two or three moves ahead in the game. A Chess Grandmaster can think anything up to 20 moves ahead.”
In the next room, I’ve got nine of the country’s top chess players: […] International Masters in there, and not one but four world-rated Grandmasters. I’m going to play chess with them all. Simultaneously.
We follow him into a room with nine chess boards arranged in a circle. In the interior of the formation are the people he has invited to take part in the experiment. After introducing himself, he humbly informs us:
“Just one thing I should point out: there are no computers, I’m not linked to any supercomputer for this, and there are no earpieces.”
He’s telling the truth.
The games begin. We see him pacing frantically from table to table, while his rivals take more time to think about their next move—and breathe. Time goes by. We see pieces removed from the boards. Kings fall and winners are declared. The final results are announced:
Based on these, we could come to a simple conclusion: our host is the greatest chess mastermind there ever was and ever will be.
But this mysterious stranger is no stranger at all. His name is Derren Brown, the United Kingdom’s most prominent contemporary mind-reader and an expert in the field of mentalism—the art of creating the illusion of psychic powers. The demonstration described here might not portray supernatural abilities in the traditional sense of the word, but it’s pretty close. Also, it is essentially an illusion.
What follows is a brief description of how this extraordinary stunt was accomplished, as disclosed by Derren Brown himself. Those of you who would rather wonder for the rest of your lives, please stop reading now.
The chess boards are arranged in a circumference. Let’s number them 1 to 9. Let’s also mentally pair them, starting with #1 and #5. Person #1 is playing the white pieces, so he makes the first move. At this point Mr. Brown doesn’t counter, but simply continues his way around the room. When he gets to table #5, he repeats the move made by player #1. Later, he will replicate the move made by player #5 on chess board #1. So on and so forth. In Brown’s own words:
“I’m not actually playing chess with either of them. I’m just remembering the moves and then mirroring them across on the other person’s table. In fact, they’re playing chess with each other.”
Brown mentally paired players 1-5, 2-6, 3-7 and 4-8, which would guarantee him an equal number of won/lost games. As for table #9, he was playing a real game. He would secure an overall positive result (more wins than losses) as long as he could be triumphant in this last one—which he was, while simultaneously keeping track of 4 other games.
Derren Brown might not be the greatest chess mastermind there ever was and ever will be, but there is no doubt he’s an extremely skilled performer. He is an extraordinary mentalist, an illusionist, and a magician of sorts.
The essence of the art of magic is the creation of lasting mysteries by concealing the method behind the illusion. Far from frustrating, the deception can be rather delightful. On rare occasions, however, the explanation is as exquisite as the mystery itself.
– Just Deserts –
* This week’s feature story is my written-form interpretation of the masterpiece performed by Derren Brown in Episode1, Season 1 of his TV show Trick of the Mind, which premiered in 2004 in the UK.
* The idea Mr. Brown based his performance on dates back to 1960. It’s buried in print, in the book universally lauded as the “Bible of Mentalism.”
* I’m a big fan of Brown’s work, but the person to first point me to this extraordinary performance was my dear friend David Tobar. He’s a kind person, a math geek and a lover of all things bizarre—basically, he’s a modern-day mad scientist. I love him very much.
Performers refer to disgraceful situations as dying on the stage: a joke doesn’t play, the audience falls asleep, maybe a drink is spilled all over a spectator. As with actual death, sooner or later its stage equivalent comes for all of us, but experienced entertainers discover that after the inevitable, life goes on.
That being said, from time to time literal death, inexorable as usual, lurks on the stage. This preface may spoil the climax of our story, but do not despair, surprises still await.
Chung Ling Soo was a conjurer who gained commercial success and critical acclaim in the Old Continent. His European debut took place in Paris in the year 1900, followed by almost two decades of accomplishments. Soo wore a traditional Chinese robe and kept his hair in a stylized queue: a long, braided strand emerging from the top of his otherwise neatly shaved scalp. On the stage he performed feats of wonder without uttering a single word; when talking to journalists, an interpreter invariably accompanied him. Only on rare occasions would he speak in broken English.
A self-proclaimed student of ancient Chinese mysteries, his performances were mesmerizing, from sleight-of-hand manipulations to big-scale illusions. In one of his most outstanding feats, he stood on an empty stage and displayed both sides of an unprepared piece of cloth, then tossed it aside it to reveal an enormous bowl full of water in front of him.
Yet, Chung Ling Soo’s most celebrated illusion was his rendition of a trick centuries old: the Bullet Catch. In performance, two assistants loaded muskets with gunpowder and ammunition, aimed at the magician’s heart, and fired. Using nothing more than a delicate china plate, the conjurer stopped the bullets. One immodest promotional poster declared Soo “A Gift from the Gods to Mortals on Earth.” After such an extraordinary demonstration, the title seems oddly fitting.
One evening in 1918, while performing at the Wood Green Empire in London, the trick went horribly wrong. In his Bullet Catch, Chung Ling Soo always used real guns, real gunpowder, and real ammunition. The firing of the muskets, however, was an illusion: an explosion was heard, but the bullets loaded in the chamber were not supposed to leave the gun. That evening, due to deterioration of the mechanism one of the projectiles was actually fired. It perforated his right lung.
This was the first and only time the conjurer was caught speaking on the stage, after a moment of shock, in perfect English: “My God, I’ve been shot. Lower the curtain.”
As it turns out, Chung Ling Soo, often billed as The Marvelous Chinese Conjurer, wasn’t Chinese at all. Not the slightest bit. Born William Ellsworth Robinson in the state of New York, he performed professionally on the American Vaudeville circuit, but fame and fortune came later in life. There was a great demand for Oriental Magic in Europe, and an agent offered Robinson an engagement at the prestigious Folies Bergère in Paris… if he could pull off an oriental act, that is. Chung Ling Soo managed to do it, remarkably, and never looked back.
His elaborate background story (which involves an orphan mentored by a Chinese magician) and his braided hair were fake, but there is no doubt he was an accomplished performer: a master in the art of deception.
After his unfortunate accident, the public was as shocked by his true identity as it was by his dramatic death.
– Just Deserts –
*I first encountered this fascinating and tragic tale in The Illustrated History of Magic, by Milbourne Christopher.
*When writing this piece, I navigated the internet in search of further sources and references. Some of them:
*The definitive work on William Ellsworth Robinson has been penned by Mr. Jim Steinmeyer, in his fascinating The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer.”