The key to the bullet catch trick is not getting shot to death. The bullet catch is an old illusion - the earliest recorded performance is from the 1580s* - but it’s always impressive. The general outline is always the same: an audience member helps load a gun with a marked bullet. The gun is fired at the magician, who falls to the ground as the crowd gasps. Seeming stunned, he gets back on his feet and produces from his mouth or hand or pocket the marked bullet. The mechanics of the trick vary - some magicians use blanks, some use wax bullets, now some use electronic guns that simulate firing - but the main element remains not actually getting shot.
That’s where Chung Ling Soo blew it.
Despite his name, Chung Ling Soo was not Chinese. He was born William Ellsworth Robinson in 1861, and after a couple of years performing as Robinson The Man of Mystery decided to get a new schtick. The yellowface was meant to give him an aura of exotic mysticism. In sort of a dick move Robinson took his name from the real Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo, and even did soe of the same tricks as Ching. Robinson threw himself into the role, always appearing in costume and speaking only in a nonsense made-up Chinese that had to be translated. Nobody knew he was really a white guy from Brooklyn.
The bullet catch was one of Soo’s most famous tricks. He performed it as ‘Condemned to Death By the Boxers,’ to give it more of an authentic Chinese current events vibe. His assistants would come out dressed as Boxers and line up as a firing squad. An audience member would load the bullets into the guns and Soo would catch them in his mouth and spit them out on a plate he held in front of himself. It was a wild success. For a time.
One night Soo got lazy. His version of the trick involved a second gun barrel that fired a blank, leaving the real bullet sitting in the chamber. But Soo never cleaned the gun properly, and he didn’t fire off the real bullet ever because he wanted to save money. Over time gunpowder accumulated in the chamber, and one night the flash from the blank ignited that powder, which fired the real bullet. Soo was shot in the lung.
As he fell to the stage, he finally broke character and spoke in English. "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain,” were the last recorded words spoken by Robinson. He died in the hospital the next day.
At the time there was some slight controversy over his death, and Soo and Ching Ling Foo had been in a very public feud. Some wondered if perhaps the imposter had been murdered by the real Chinese magician, but at the inquest Robinson’s wife disclosed the secret of the trick and explained how it had gone so tragically wrong.
* The magician who performed that trick was also killed by the gun he used in it.... but in that case he was beaten to death with the gun by an angry assistant.