"Chung Ling Soo!
Condemned to Death by the Boxers!
Defying Their Bullets!"
In the early 20th century, a magician by the name of Chung Ling Soo ("the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer") became world-famous for a bullet-catching trick.
A small firing squad of assistants, dressed as Boxers, would march onto stage. Two of the assisants carried old muzzle-loading rifles, which were inspected by two random members of the audience. Soo's wife would head into the crowd and ask two spectators to scratch their initials onto lead bullets, which were then placed in a cup and brought back to the stage.
When the selected audience members were satisfied that no sleight-of-hand was going on, they would shake Soo's hand and return to their seats. Two of Soo's small Boxer army would step forward with the loaded weapons and take aim at the conjurer. Soo held a small china plate in front of his chest, and the firing squad would be given the signal to fire.
As soon as the shots rang out, the audience would cheer in amazement. Soo appeared to stop the bullets in midair and catch them on the plate! The audience members would then be invited to inspect the bullets and confirm that they were the same as the ones which had been loaded into the rifles. Every time, Soo was able to successfully dupe the audience. Except once.
On March 23, 1918, while on stage in London, Soo did not catch the bullets. As the shots rang out, the conjurer collapsed to the floor and began to bleed profusely from a bullet wound in his chest. The next day, Soo was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
As rumors of murder and suicide swirled, Soo's wife made public the details of his trick. Soo would hide the initialed bullets in the palm of one hand, while holding the plate in the other. Duplicate bullets would be loaded into the rifles, which had sealed barrels. The detonating spark was diverted to the ramrod tube, where it would fire a harmless powder charge. Soo would then produce the initialed bullets from his palm and place them on the plate. By Soo's final night, however, the rifle was so worn that some of the gunpowder in the main barrel was able to come into contact with the percussion cap. As the "Boxer" pulled the trigger, the lethal charge was ignited and the rifle fired, killing Soo.
Soo's famous act was far from original; variations of the bullet-catching trick had been practiced for years, with often lethal results. The trick was well-known among magicians, most of which avoided it due to the danger. Harry Houdini, not one to shy away from danger himself, once told Soo, "Be careful with your bullet-catching trick, as your method is certainly daring."
The well-guarded methodology behind Soo's trickery wasn't the magician's only big secret. Chung Ling Soo, the Chinese conjurer who never spoke on stage, and only through an interpreter off-stage, was actually an American, born in Brooklyn, named William Ellsworth Campbell. While touring England in 1900 (with stage name William E. "Billy" Robinson), Campbell decided to model himself after Ching Ling Foo, a real Chinese magician. The actual Ching exposed Chung as a fraud in 1904, but the identity mystery only seemed to heighten the imposter's appeal to his audiences, an appeal which lasted right up until the magician's final act.