The Man Behind the Magician

by Sophia Smith

Local historian Geoff Crambie talks to Sophia Smith about his grandfather Carel who spent his career clowning around with Barnum & Baileys Circus, Buffalo Bill and Chinese conjuror Chung Ling Soo...

Geoff Crambie

On September 14th 1880, Carel Johannes Crambie, entered the world. Born in Holland, a dreadful tragedy happened in his life at just the young age of five.
“My great grandfather was a ship engineer, he would work on all the barges in Rotterdam, there were lots more canals in this city compared to Amsterdam.” said Geoff.
Carel’s father would allow him to keep him company at work, but one day as his father was repairing an engine on the canal, the engine backfired and his father fell into the cold canal. Geoff’s grandad was left on the boat stranded, screaming and shouting for help as he watched his father below drown in the water beneath him. “There was nobody around to help him, at five-years old that must have been so horrendous. He still could recall that day in his nineties, it never left him.”

Carel Johannes Crambie

As he grew up, Carel was sent to the Boer war in South Africa to fight against the British. “He was against us!” gasped Geoff. “He was a Dutch National, and all nationals from age 18 to 20 had to fight in the Boer War. He was given dispatches for his bravery. There’s a memorial in South Africa that I went to see during my time over there. It was for all the soldiers in Holland that died, thousands of them. Luckily, my grandad survived.”

Clowning Around

When Carel returned to Holland, he wanted a big change in his life and searched for a new career path after living with the horror from the war. Suddenly an idea struck, he would become a clown!
“His new career was in the Barnum & Bailey Circus. He became a clown named Popov. He was extremely fit and could back flip, he wasn’t that tall but gosh he was agile! Even in his nineties he could still dance and cavort about.”
At the circus, Carel met the notorious American hunter and showman, Buffalo Bill. “His name was William Frederick Cody. He was a soldier in the American Civil war and was known for hunting bison. He started his Wild West Show in 1883 and became one of the most famous men in America!”

Buffalo Bill

Geoff pulled out his grandfather’s passport with a pencilled signature in the back. “Back then you must have had a signature in the back of your passport to validate it, when he met Buffalo Bill he asked him to sign it!”
During Carel’s time at Barnum & Bailey Circus, he travelled to eight different countries across the world. In 1907, the circus journeyed to England and Geoff’s grandad became a music hall performer.
“He worked with many famous performers, Harry Lauder, Marie Lloyd and Florrie Forde. These were big musical stars; they were as big as Beyonce and Ed Sheeran are today! They certainly earned good money.”
During his trip to England, Carel met Geoff’s grandma, Sarah Elizabeth. “My grandad was in the ring frolicking about as usual, a lady waved to him in the audience. He blew her a kiss back and they met after the show and began courting! It all took off from there, a few years later they were married in Coventry and my father was born.” smiled Geoff.

A Great Illusion

One evening, legendary magician, Chung Ling Soo sat in the audience at one of Barnum & Bailey Circus shows. He had arrived so that he could be introduced to the famed Buffalo Bill and observe the circus. That particular night, Geoff’s grandad was also working, and his ardour caught Chung Ling Soo’s eye. “He offered my grandad a new job on the spot, my grandad didn’t even think twice and joined him. He worked for him for eight years!”
Working for Chung Ling Soo was the best years of Carel’s life, he travelled all over England staying in numerous hotels in various locations every week, earning good money. In 1915, when he settled down with Sarah and wanted to get married, he gave his notice in to Chung Ling Soo.

At the circus, Carel met the notorious American hunter and showman, Buffalo Bill.

“In 1916 my grandad was handed a letter and a handmade crocodile skin wallet from Chung Ling Soo.” Geoff began to read the letter…

To whom it may concern,
Mr Carel Crambie has been in my employment for several years. I have always found him to be willing and conscientious in his work and I will recommend him to anyone who desires his service.
Chung Ling Soo 程連蘇

Geoff’s Grandad (circled) on stage with Chung Lee Soo performing The Deadly Gun Trick

Defying the Bullets

On March 23rd 1918 during a performance at the Wood Green Empire, London, Chung collapsed on stage after a bullet hit him in the chest, he died the following morning at Wood Green Hospital. Two shots were fired, instead of ‘catching’ the bullets in a dazzling display of magical daring, a real bullet was shot. What many of Chung’s fans did not realise during his life performing, that he was not Chinese at all, but instead an American conjurer with no Asian heritage. Mr William Elsworth Robinson was a New Yorker who constructed his identity for fame. After years of performing as ‘Robinson the Man of Mystery’, he decided to get a new schtick.

Carel (Centre) with Geoff, Ruth, Shaun and Janette

“Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain!” Chung Ling Soo declared in perfect English.

The death of Chung Ling Soo would explain why the magician’s manager, William Robinson, disappeared on the night that Chung Ling Soo was shot. They were one and the same person! “Nobody knew until he died that he impersonated a Chinese man. They asked for a birth certificate at his inquest, his wife had to take it to the coroner’s office, it said his real name! It was put in the coroner’s report, it was a mystery until the day he died.” gasped Geoff. “Never in 15 years had the gun trick gone wrong! That night, blanks had not been put into the gun! Everyone in the audience watched in shock.”

Oh my god! Something’s happened. Lower the curtain!

William moved to Europe at the end of the 1890s and created, Chung Ling Soo. Many people believed that he answered an advertisement for a Chinese magician in Paris, others believed he picked up on the search for oriental magicians in the USA. He barely said a word on stage, and when he did it was always broken English or speaking in a made-up language that had to be translated. He would use makeup and he shaved the front of his head until a long dark plait was left at the back.

Four generations: Carel (left) with Geoff’s dad Richard and Geoff with Shaun

“My grandad never even twigged; nobody ever saw him outside of the dressing room except when he was in his robes.” Said Geoff. “I managed to find this book many years ago with images inside. The book is nearly as old as me, it was made in the 1950s!”

Geoff flicked through the book ‘The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo’, he stopped at a page and pointed at an image of acts stood together in their oriental garbs ready for the deadly gun trick. He pointed at a man with a moustache, “my grandad. Everything about him was just wonderful, you can see his cheeky character just through his photos!”