“Death by Misadventure” was the coroner’s conclusion after Chung Ling Soo died onstage at the Wood Green Empire in London on March 23, 1918 performing what is certainly the world’s most dangerous trick. The trick is called “The Bullet Catch” and as you can probably guess from the name, it’s a trick in which a gun is fired at the magician and he catches the bullet—most often between his teeth, however it has sometimes been caught on a plate, in the hand, in a handkerchief, apple, bottle, or on the point of a sword.
There is a book about the trick called Twelve Have Died, although in truth we don’t really know how many lives it has claimed. Houdini once announced he would perform the feat, but later decided it was too risky and never went through with it.
The trick goes back to the early 1800s, and is possibly older than that—although the earliest descriptions might be fictional. Like all tricks, the specifics of the performances and the methods used vary from performer to performer and change over time.
Many think the best performance of the trick is done by Penn & Teller. They do a “Double Bullet Catch”. That is they fire marked bullets at each other simultaneously and catch them in their teeth simultaneously. They use .357 Magnums outfitted with laser sights and fire through panes of glass to prove the guns were actually fired.
Magicians are very clever, and you won’t be surprised to learn that there are a variety of ways that a stunt like this can be faked. However you may be surprised to learn that there are a couple magicians who have (as far as we can tell) actually done the stunt for real! The first is German performer Ralf Bialla, who memorably performed it on Wild World of Sports, and more recently, David Blaine. Bialla wore steel dentures and steel gloves to form a funnel into his mouth. Blaine had a metal cup in his mouth in which the bullet was caught.
Chung Ling Soo, the most famous person to die while doing the trick, always performed silently because he apparently spoke no English. When his final performance of the trick went wrong, and he was accidentally shot in the chest, he exclaimed in perfect English, “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” At his autopsy it was discovered that he was not Chinese, but an American named William Robinson. But that’s a story for another day.