Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The tale of the Magician’s postcard

How do you catch a bullet between your teeth? Have you ever dined with a dog? How far would you go for fame?

Alexander Crystal Seer poster
Crystal balls, commonly used to
spy on Thing Detectives.
(pic credit: Vintage Ephemera)
He arrived out of the blue, spouting words like magic, bullets and cash. A distinct chill passed through the Thing Detectives office – it tugged at the hairs on the back of my neck. It felt like we were being watched, maybe through the business-end of a dusty crystal ball. 

“Magical memorabilia”, our new client said, white teeth glimmering (I’m guessing here, it was a phone call), “think you can manage that?”

He wanted Ephemera, which are paper collectibles to you and me- photos, posters and postcards of famous magicians from the early 1900s; The Great Lafayette, The Great Herrmann and Chung Ling Soo.

Had Mr. Lafayette, we wondered, opted for "The Great" after dismissing "the bloody brilliant" or "the ok, but you can sort of see the mirrors"?  Why had Mr. Soo not reckoned himself as highly as his contemporaries?

For anyone reading this who is turned a little cold by 'magic'- maybe you’re one of those "I don't care where the bunch of flowers came from, if you're a magician turn my house into a dinosaur" types? - I urge you to read on. Because delving deep into the history of conjuring we found the dedication and commitment shown by these early illusionists to be, quite literally, mind blowing.

The Great Lafayette (Siegmund Neuberger) and Beauty
The Great Lafayette (real name
Siegmund Neuberger) and
Beauty (real name unknown)
Chung Ling Soo was born an American called William Robinson in 1861. He shaved his head, grew a beard and changed his name at the age of 39 in order to advance his career prospects.

Mr. Robinson died on stage at the Wood Green Empire in London in 1918. The Great Lafayette also died on stage, during a fire at the Empire Theatre in Edinburgh. He was buried with his small dog, Beauty, whom he used to dine with.

Alexander 'The Great' Herrmann pioneered a technique for throwing cards long distances with a flick of the wrist, paving the way for the 'cards as weapons' martial art.

The thought that an Ace of Clubs might come whistling through the window towards my throat at the behest of some demonic cabal seemed somehow easier to believe than the fact our last case had been to source Bros’ first album.

Bros debut album - PUSH (1988)
Bros' debut album "push" (1988)
This should give Google something to think about.
The hunt begins...

We exhausted all internet-based avenues early on and not being likely to find such magical items in the classifieds, we tried to find a specialist - someone to share their wealth of knowledge with us.

In this case, The Magic Circle gave what background information they could and wished us well, although they couldn’t help, their hands were tied - slip knots, probably.
"William Ellsworth Robinson (the erstwhile Mr. Chung Ling Soo)" one friendly magician wrote, "managed to keep up the pretence of being Chinese in the public eye for his entire career, despite many of his fellow illusionists knowing the truth. He pretended to be incapable of speaking English, perhaps because his Brooklyn accent would blow his cover. Incredibly, a fellow illusionist "Ching Ling Foo", of actual Chinese descent, accused Chung of stealing his act. A contest was held to find the "greatest Chinese magician", from which Soo emerged victorious and Foo was branded an impostor." 
Magic circle logo
"Not apt to disclose secrets"
but jolly nice nevertheless.

It was then that we came up with what we now call The Bagatelle theory (explained in our next post, folks!). It boiled down to this: There were so many ways a hundred year old piece of card could be torn, or soaked, burnt, lost or simply and slowly perish. In order to make it to the present day it would have required safety...

We decided to search antiques shops near to the Wood Green empire, where Chung Ling Soo had met his sorry end in 1918.

The shop we found bulged over the pavement  with cobweb covered furniture, dusty vases, maps and bric-a-brac. The building itself, jutting out at strange angles in different shades of black and green, looked at once supernatural and against all rational laws of physics, resembling something akin to an Escher puzzle, haunted by a spirit that certainly wasn’t level. In short, it was the kind of building that one could absolutely imagine disappearing in a puff of smoke. 
The Wood Green empire
The wood green empire,
now a branch of the Halifax
building society.

Inside, weathered shelves held many strange and exotic things; tribal instruments, Japanese battle masks, a painting of a cow… and a postcard: part of a job-lot cleared from the Wood Green Empire in the 1970s. A postcard dated 1918, featuring the portrait and signature of a Chang Ling Soo (sic.) for sale for £800.

We expected, and secretly hoped, the proprietor of the shop to be an old, wizened gentleman, with an old, wizened beard and a penchant for talking in riddles. I was wrong, his name was Gary, and he had a story to tell:

“Chung Ling Soo’s most famous trick "The Living Target" involved him catchin’ a live bullet between his teeth. The trick being, right, 'e had a rigged gun, with a fake barrel and blank cartridge! It was aimed and shot at Soo, then he spat a previously palmed bullet onto a plate.

Chung Ling Soo, conjurer poster
Chung Ling Soo
Marvellous conjurer maybe,
but Chinese he was not.
But on the evening of the 23rd of March 1918, the trick went wrong and he was killed in full view of the audience on the stage at the Empire. Despite a jury's verdict of "accidental death" there was a rumour that it may have actually been suicide on account of Soo’s massive debts or even murder, as Soo's prop manager was doing the dirty with his wife.”

Gary paused.

“Go on, Gary,” I prompted.

“The postcard is a very rare thing indeed, being dated and signed one week before his death and illustrated with Soo holding the plate and bullet proudly above his head. It’s a piece of history, a priceless memento, and a testament to a true master of his art...

Having said that, fella, I could probably let it go for six-fifty?”

A signed Chung Ling Soo postcard
The Chung Ling Soo postcard, dated one
week after Soo's death.
Quite a haunting image, really.

Do you have anything to add to the mystery of Chung Ling Soo? Please post below.

If you have a case for The Thing Detectives, please get in touch through the usual channels.

1 comment:

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