He lived in a little house in Greenwich Village crammed with magic books, mummy cases and antique posters, including a dozen of the American magician who went under the Chinese name Chung Ling Soo and who became an instant legend in 1918 when he died by muffing the trick of catching a bullet in his teeth. (emphasis added)Did they shoot the bullet or toss it to him?
Chung Ling Soo was an American who took on his Chinese persona after being slighted by a real Chinese magician and successfully toured the world, speaking only through an interpreter in public.
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 [sic] 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.
Magic, The Science of Illusion, gives more information on his life and his feud with Ching Ling Foo but, strangely, makes no mention of his last performance. It also has pictures.
Boris Karloff gives us another version, demonstrating yet again we need to recognize that different people claim to possess different truths about the same situation.
Travelanche offers the story with yet new variations. A notable observation and worth bearing in mind today (substitute the word politics for vaudeville):
In vaudeville, phony tended to play better than authentic. Chung made his entrance from the ceiling suspended by his Manchurian pigtail. Ching would never do any such thing for the simple reason that his pigtail was real!
Finally, here's a video that appears to be of the actual William Robinson before he became Chung Ling Soo. It says 1900 and it's very short, but he does the trick described by Travelanche that he was supposed to have copied from Ching Ling Foo.