Magic offers a twofold thrill: 1) the how-did-they-do-it nature of tricks and illusions; 2) the often serious danger magicians seem to place themselves in. While you may assume much of this danger is for show, there's a sordid history of magic acts that killed the magician. These magicians who died during tricks aimed to awe and delight audiences but learned the hard way what happens when illusions go wrong. If nothing else, this list proves magic is a dangerous profession requiring extensive knowledge.
Magicians who died performing span generations and come from many countries and cultures, giving a reminder of the public fascination with the medium. Surely that fascination stems, in part, from a general lack of understanding of how tricks and illusions work. Magician stage deaths surely only increase mass interest in the craft because they highlight how much danger these entertainers put themselves in, and play to the religious and occult underpinnings of magic's ancient origins.
Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of American magician William Ellsworth Robinson. Robinson performed in yellow face, trading on racist notions of Eastern mysticism and ancient Asian magic and was most famous for his bullet catching trick, which he called "Condemned to Death By the Boxers" so it had a nice Chinese ring to it. Robinson performed his trick using a gun with two barrels - one took the real bullet he showed the audience for effect, the other held a blank.
On March 23, 1918, during a routine performance, Robinson shot himself for real, and by accident, because he had been lazy. The thing with guns is, you have to clean them if you want them to work properly. Robison supposedly never cleaned his trick gun, and gunpowder built up in the chamber. The day the magician died, the blank lit accumulated powder, which exploded and fired the real bullet in the second chamber.
The bullet pierced Robinson's lung, and for the first time in his professional career, he spoke in English on stage: "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain!"
Professionally known as "Karr the Magician," South African escape artist Charles Rowan lost his life during a daredevil escape attempt in 1930. A largely forgotten figure in the annals of magic history, Rowan left behind little in terms of personal biography.
However, a Reuters report of his death survives:
A ghastly death befell a traveling magician named Karr here this afternoon, when his oft-repeated stunt of allowing himself to be strapped in a straightjacket and charged by a motorcar failed... a large crowd, including numerous small children... saw a car dash into Karr and kill him... he was struck by the right wheel, which almost severed one of his legs.
Karr. Car. Maybe it was fate?
Black Herman, AKA Benjamin Rucker, died of natural causes on stage. Herman was a political radical influenced by Marcus Garvey and similar thinkers of the time, in whose milieu he lived after moving from his native Virginia to New York City. During his show, he played up his African heritage, building a strong sense of African American identity that mixed superstitious beliefs, spiritualism, and anti-racist lessons. He performed to mixed-race audiences in the North but was relegated to playing Black-only venues in the South.
Black Herman was most known for being buried alive, a trick that could last as long as a week (he wasn't actually buried, it just appeared as though he had been).
At the end of a show in Louisville, KY, in April 1934, Rucker suffered a heart attack and died. Most people believed this was part of his act, a new trick he was trying out, and refused to believe he was dead. His former assistant used this to his advantage, putting Herman's corpse on view and charging a fee to see if he was, in fact, deceased.
Washington Irving Bishop was an American mentalist and spiritualist best known for his ability to read people's minds (which came down to his ability to read body language) and for being the originator of the blind drive, a trick other magicians took up, which was exactly what it sounds like - driving with a blindfold on.
Bishop was also known for suffering cataleptic fits, which sent him into a temporary catatonic state. Even during a performance, he could pass out at any minute. Because of this, he carried a note in his pocket explaining he probably wasn't dead and should not have an autopsy performed on him.
On May 12, 1889, Bishop collapsed on stage at The Lambs Club in New York City, but then he recovered and continued performing. After passing out a second time, however, he was determined dead. Physicians performed an autopsy on him only a few hours after his collapse, declaring that Bishop passed from hysterocatalepsy. Bishop's wife and mother ardently claimed Bishop had been in a trance-like state, not dead, after his fit, and was killed by the autopsy, which sliced open his skull and removed his brain. Charges were brought against the doctors, but they were never convicted.