Thomas Edison’s trick photography imitates the magician Ching Ling Foo

Thomas Edison’s trick photography imitates the magician Ching Ling FooThe magician Ching Ling Foo would produce "the strangest sort of objects from under a cloth…"
Thomas Edison was making short films at the same time as the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo was performing in the United States at the turn of the century. Edison used trick photography to capitalize on Foo’s fame by making a film duplicating Foo’s signature magical illusion of producing large items from under a cloth. In the same year, Edison also made other films with special magical effects, such as a performing magician, ghosts in a spooky hotel, and tricky demons like Mephistopheles and Mephisto.

Ching Ling Foo Undone, 1900

From a contemporary live review of Ching Ling Foo’s magic performance:

"Ching’s performance consists for the most part in producing, in some mysterious way, the strangest sort of objects from under a cloth spread upon the stage, which has previously been carefully shown to the audience, so that they may see that nothing is concealed within its folds. His most startling trick is the production of the immense bowl shown in the picture, which holds two pails of water and is said to weigh eighty pounds. How he carries this strange object about with him and finally causes it to appear from under the cloth without any undue fuss is a secret which the guards carefully. Before producing the bowl, he brings out in the same way a big flat dish of walnuts or a pair of live chickens, or a live lamb or a lighted lamp or a bowl of goldfish or anything else he pleases. During his first week here, he produced his little almond-eyed two year old daughter from under the cloth but the Gerry Society* shut down on this, one of the most surprising and effective features of his performance."

(*Note: the Gerry Society was the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.)

The summary of the film Ching Ling Foo Undone from Edison’s film catalog:

"The magician enters upon the stage, and removing a covering from a small table, shakes it before the audience to show that there is nothing whatever concealed inside, places the cloth upon the floor, and when he removes it a large washtub is found to be entirely filled with water, which he splashes before the audience to show that there is no deception. He places the cloth over the tub again, and when he removes it five large geese are found to be swimming in the water. The magician takes the geese out of the tub, and places them on the stage, and they walk away. He again places the cloth over the tub, and when he removes it the tub disappears and a small boy stands in its place. The boy walks off the stage to the astonishment and amazement of the audience. 50 feet. $7.50."

For more background information, here’s the whole article, from an 1899 issue of The New York Dramatic Mirror: Wonderful Conjuror: Ching Ling Foo, The Miracle Factory >>

Download early Edison films at Chronological Title List of Edison Motion Pictures, American Memory, The Library of Congress>>

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