10 Epic Magic Trick Failures

Chung Ling Soo's "Condemned to Death by Boxers"
The robes and magical props of Chung Ling Soo, displayed in The Magic Circle's Museum in London. © Guilhem Alandry/In Pictures/Corbis

Magician William Ellsworth Robinson performed in the early 20th century under the name Chung Ling Soo. From today's perspective, his whole act comes across as racially offensive; Robinson was a native New Yorker of Scottish descent who took on an Asian persona, stole a name from a living Chinese magician, and only spoke onstage in fake Chinese gibberish [source: Faraci]. (Think Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," but worse.) In Robinson's act, he was sentenced to death by firing squad. In a nod to the circa-1900 Boxer Rebellion, a failed anti-imperialist uprising in China, he called his act "Condemned to Death by Boxers." Classy.

The key to Robinson's trick was a gun with a secret second barrel. An audience member would load a real bullet into the gun, but what actually fired was a blank from the other barrel. It had worked smoothly for him at show after show until March 23, 1918, when he forgot to clean the gun properly [source: Black]. Built-up powder caused both the blank and the real bullet to fire simultaneously. The bullet struck Robinson in the chest.

When the bullet hit, Robinson broke character on stage for the first time since assuming his Chinese persona [source: Faraci]. His last words were, "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain."