Secrets | WILLIAM ROBINSON
"Spellbound they gathered, far and near to scan, the weird powers of this wondrous man."
To say Chung Ling Soo's death overshadowed his life is an understatement and one of the greatest tragedies in magic history.
The story of his death is nothing when compared to the story his life.
Born William Ellsworth Robinson on April 2, 1861 in New York, he was known as Billy Robinson to his intimate acquaintances, as The Man of Mystery to his first audiences, then later as Achmed Ben Ali, Nana Sahib, Abdul Khan, and Hop Sing Soo before finally settling on his greatest role, Chung Ling Soo, The Marvelous Chinese Conjurer.
William Robinson was a contemporary of Herrmann, Kellar, Thurston, Maskelyne, Devant, and Houdini. He was highly esteemed in his field for his work onstage and behind the curtains. He was also one of the most secretive men who ever lived both, personally and professionally.
Secrets were his life.
His untimely demise cast a fog of mystery which enveloped and obscured the life of one of the greatest magicians who ever lived.
What were his secrets?
What took place between the beginning of his career, when he invited his audiences to enjoy "little experiments, which endeavor to prove that seeing is believing" to the end where he played the most prestigious theaters and was billed as:
A GIFT FROM THE GODS
MORTALS ON EARTH
TO AMUSE AND MYSTIFY
Growing up in New York, the young William Ellsworth Robinson was able to watch the great magicians who performed at Barnum's or the New York Coliseum. He witnessed Robert Heller on Broadway as well as Signor Blitz when they brought their world class shows to town.
Robinson's passion for studying secrets began when he first read Modern Magic by Professor Hoffmann. This was one of the most important books ever published in magic as it published the true secrets of professional magicians. The book also gave many detailed designs of conjuring apparatus assuming that every reader was a skilled metal or wood worker. Unable to afford the expensive conjuring apparatus revealed in Modern Magic, the young Billy Robinson took a job in a brass foundry and learned the art of shaping and crafting metal. Young Robinson started to make his own props and when he showed his handiwork to Francis and Anthony Martinka, they gave him a job at their world famous magic manufacturing company and shop, the Palace of Magic.
It was in Martinka's workshop that William Robinson continued his education and developed his skills for years as he built props, apparatus, and illusions for local and travelling professional magicians. By his early twenties, Billy Robinson was an expert in magic.
As he progressed in his art he began spending more and more away from Martinka and America and more time onstage in Europe, seeing increasing success with his Achmed Ben Ali act, which used very novel principles in deception that had been honed to a fine art by Robinson after seeing it in use by Auzinger. The act attracted the attention of some of the biggest names in magic including Alexander Herrmann and Harry Kellar who saw Robinson's devices and expertise as the future of magic.
Over dinner Kellar offered William Robinson a part in his show. Herrmann was planning a tour featuring his two new illusions: Black Art and Le Cocon. These two illusions were ones that Robinson had stolen from Auzinger and that both Herrmann and Kellar wanted so badly. After delaying Robinson finally accepted Kellar's offer to come perform in the show and work backstage for the sum of $60 a week.
Robinson worked with Kellar for some time, learning as much as he could, before departing from his show and joining Kellar's rival, Herrmann's show. As that ran it's course, Kellar realized how much he needed Robinson to succeed and lured him back to the Kellar show with brand new illusions he needed Robinson to build. Kellar correctly calculated that Robinson would eventually get bored with Herrmann's show and want to work on something the world had never seen before.
Robinson would go on to work on many projects, always with an eye searching for pieces of magic which he could eventually use in his own show.
He was ruthless in his pursuit of magic.
One of the darkest blemishes on his name was when he agreed to work with Zanzic on fleecing the public with fake séances using state of the art magic methods. One of their clients was a wealthy German businessman who wanted to spend an hour with the materialization of his wife's spirit, alone for an hour. Zanzic hired a prostitute and made the necessary arrangements to convince the client that he was being reunited with his dead wife. Unfortunately the German businessman died of a heart attack while in bed with who he believed was the spirit of his wife. When Zanzic and Robinson heard the prostitute screaming they burst into the room and tried to dress and sneak the dead body out, only to be caught by the German businessman's servant, who immediately called the police. The magicians explained the situation, bribed the police, and left town.
William Robinson would continue to acquire, develop, and shuttle secrets to and fro when the price was right. This was a man who knew magic as well as anyone and as his value grew so did his reputation for duplicity.