Maurice Rooklyn, The Human Target

This is the story of a short period in the life of an Australian magician, Maurice Rooklyn, who, in the formative years of his career, found it both desirable and necessary to stare down the wrong end of a .303 rifle.

Maurice Rooklyn was born in London in 1905, to parents of Russian heritage. By 1912 the family had emigrated to Sydney, Australia, where the young boy grew up with an insatiable energy and ambition to perform on stage. By the age of twelve he was already performing a magic act with his brother, Harry, but after a disastrous episode (1) with a failed "Substitution Trunk" trick, Harry gave magic away and became, instead, a skilled violinist on the variety stage.

Maurice continued to work on a range of magic and variety acts, including juggling, ventriloquism, card manipulations, pseudo-mindreading and general magic. At the age of fifteen he left home, struggling to make a living, but by 1932 he had been a performer in many concert parties and travelling troupes, including a period with an artist named "Theodore", of whom we will hear more later. At the age of 28 Rooklyn had become the President of the Australian Magicians' Club (2).




1934 was in the midst of the Depression years, grim times for performers and public alike. Rooklyn recalled, in later years , "It was a depression year, so you had to come up with something sensational to pack a theatre, and the night after I was wounded onstage you couldn't buy a seat in the theatre... people came to see me get killed!"

On March 1, 1934, newspapers announced the appearance "direct from overseas" of The Human Target, commencing Friday March 2 at the New Tivoli Theatre (Haymarket, Sydney), along with the Jim Gerald Company.

According to the programme buildup,
"... we see a man defying death, shaking dice with Destiny. It is thrilling, it is unbelievable and yet it is true. Picture yourself standing looking down the barrel of a loaded rifle, a finger trembling on the trigger, then the deafening explosion and this dare-devil catches the bullet in his teeth. If he misses, it is the finish. We have pleasure in presenting this act for your approval."

The Bullet-catching stunt, documented back as far as the mid-1700s, is renowned for being a risky and sometimes fatal trick, wounding or killing multiple magicians over the years, of whom the most famous was Chung Ling Soo (William Ellsworth Robinson) shot at the Wood Green Empire in 1918 (4). Australian magician, Jean Hugard, featured the routine using modern rifles from 1906 and, while his method was clever, he nevertheless suffered injury when a mischievous assistant slipped some shot pellets into the gun. Despite any number of cunning methods used to effect the trick, the Bullet Catch was never a completely safe act.

From Maurice Rooklyn's own description (1) his routine was seen by the audience as this:-
"My presentation called for a committee to come on stage and bring their own cartridges. A committeeman was then handed a file and asked to mark a selected cartridge on both shell and projectile, and load it into a .303 military rifle which had been previously examined. The rifle was then handed to the marksman who stood downstage at the O.P. corner. The committee stood behind him.
Two committeemen were asked to come forward to examine my mouth, and after satisfying themselves that it was free of foreign matter, return to their former places. I took an upstage prompt position so that the marksman would fire obliquely.

At a given signal, the marksman fired. The committee was then invited to approach me and, using a pair of tweezers, one of them took the bullet from my teeth and plunged it into a glass of water for cooling. It was then taken from the glass and examined for rifle grooves and markings. The empty shell was then ejected from the rifle, and both shell and rifle re-examined."

Incident at the Tivoli Theatre

During the season starting Friday March 2, Rooklyn's act proceeded with apparent smoothness every performance, newspapers commenting "it is some time since an act which thrills and holds an audience spellbound, as does 'The Human Target' at the Tivoli, has been seen..." Wearing a metal breastplate as his only protection, Rooklyn faced the marksman, Bernard Caplan, as his young wife, Ettie Rooklyn, assisted on stage.

On the evening of March 8, so it was reported by the papers, Rooklyn stood his ground in front of the rifle but, as it fired, he lurched back and, barely managing to keep his balance and composure, staggered into the wings having been hit in the shoulder by a sliver of bullet casing. "I knew he had been shot" said Bernard Caplan, "but somehow I could not run to him, as it would have spoilt the great effort he was making." After fainting briefly, Rooklyn was given first aid at the theatre then taken to Sydney hospital, where he was later allowed to leave.

"I am using steel-jacketed .303 bullets which are marked by one of the audience", he told the Labor Daily. "The mark must have been cut a little too deep last Thursday night. When the bullet was fired, a portion of the steel jacket burst away. A sliver of steel an inch long was extracted from my shoulder."

When dealing with magicians and the publicity stories generated around them, it is always difficult to delve into the bare truth. Was Rooklyn injured in a complete accident? Was an accident staged in order to generate drama and publicity for the performance? Whatever the reality, Rooklyn was undeterred by this incident and continued to perform as The Human Target, appearing at the Bondi Six Ways Theatre and the Hoyts Star Theatre, Bondi Junction between April 28 - May 4.



Second Incident

Rooklyn was billed for May 3, 4 and 5 at the Hoyts Olympic No.2 Theatre in Bondi. On Saturday May 5, 1934, onlookers saw what appeared to have been a bullet striking the performer on the scalp. Sagging forward with blood pouring from his face, Rooklyn was assisted off the stage, where a doctor called up from the audience said that the wound appeared to have been caused by a splinter of a shell case which had become embedded in the scalp after abrading Rooklyn's nose.

One might expect that, assuming these to be the dangerous accidents they appeared, Maurice Rooklyn might have come to his senses and abandoned the Human Target act. However, signed contracts and advertisements exist to show that that, while on tour, Rooklyn was contracted to appear with the act between July 10 and July 26 at the Roxy Parramatta, Sydenham Theatre, Ritz Theatre (Concord?), Spanish Theatre Ryde, Regent School Of Arts Cessnock, and the Valencia Theatre in Gosford.
A single advertisement for Cole's Marquee Theatre in Wollongong shows that Rooklyn presented The Human Target the following year, on Saturday February 9, 1935, and several performances from August 16, 1935 at the Civic Theatre (a.k.a. Barclay Cinema) near the corner of Hay and George Streets, Haymarket, Sydney.

However, it seems that Rooklyn had enough sense to read the warning signs. By 1936 he was appearing at theatres such as the Majestic Newtown on a bill with comedian Roy "Mo" Rene, and at the Sydney Tivoli in "The Spice Of Paris", with a manipulative magic act (under such titles as "Rooklyn, The Gay Deceiver" and "Rooklyn, Master Magician").

In late 1936 he departed Australia for what was to be a successful three-year tour of British theatres, with the act which became his signature masterpiece, the billiards manipulation routine, "A Symphony In Spheres".

The following years would see him perform as both a hypnotist and stage illusionist touring in Australia, New Zealand and Asia, becoming one of Australia's foremost magicians, "The Amazing Mr. Rooklyn". After an extensive career, Maurice Rooklyn died in 1992 at his home in Sydney.

Rooklyn's Bullet Catching Secrets

Even were Rooklyn's method for the bullet catch known, it would hardly be wise to detail it in this story. The fact is that Rooklyn did not share his methods and we are only able to speculate, based on scant evidence and the usual contradictions which arise between descriptions of the trick and the magical techniques required to achieve the result.

In two magazine articles in the 1980s (5), a link is implied between the Human Target routine and a trick in which Rooklyn appeared during his early years. His mentor, "Theodore" (6), is described as a versatile performer who featured clowning, fire eating, hypnotism, escapology, magic and sharpshooting. Part of his show was "The Bullet Proof Lady, Eileen". Rooklyn was "Eileen"! However, from his book, 'Spherical Sorcery', it can be seen that the trick was in fact the apparent shooting of a bullet through an assistant's body, the bullet smashing a sheet of glass held in a stand at the back of the assistant. It is very doubtful that this routine had any bearing on the Human Target of later years.

Ben Robinson, in his book "Twelve Have Died" (4) states that Rooklyn used the "Meyer" method as used by Theodore Annemann. Unless there is some evidence for this, it seems unlikely that a young performer from Australia, not yet known to the professional world, could have had access to such a method. Annemann himself first performed the stunt in February 1934, barely before Rooklyn's performances, and Meyer's routine would .not be published until 1942 in Genii magazine.


A more likely source of information comes from Kenneth Jaffrey, a life-long friend of Rooklyn's, an amateur magician and naturopath. Shortly after Rooklyn's death, Jaffrey wrote a letter to Connie Rooklyn (Maurice's second wife), saying:-
(September 1992) "I first met Morry in the great economic depression in 1931. He was in Andrade's Magic Shop when I called in January of that year and Harry Job introduced us. Our friendship lasted over sixty years. At that time Morry was living at Bondi Junction and I was boarding just around the corner. He then moved to Paddington and later to Bondi. At this Bondi address we were discussing magic one day when Morry told me that he was having a hard time. He had come to the conclusion that in order to get into vaudeville he would have to get a sensational stunt. I suggested that the bullet catching trick had not been shown for many years and would be a good attention-getter. I happened to have a copy of the "Sphinx" magazine containing an article explaining the bullet catching trick using a 22 Remington rifle. I gave the magazine to Morry and then left for North Queensland for some weeks. When I returned to Sydney Morry had g
one one better and had decided to use a .303 rifle whch was more powerful and more dangerous. Everything was going well until he was shot twice. Both incidents caused a mild sensation and Morry received good press coverage. Morry then decided to specialize in something less hazardous. He took up card manipulation. This did not set the world on fire so he then took up billiard ball manipulation. As you know he did well and became the official world's champion at this art."

With one main difficulty, this would suggest that Maurice Rooklyn adopted the routine published as "A Club Version of the Bullet Catching Trick", by Lyn Searles. The difficulty is that the routine was not published in the Sphinx magazine until 1935, a year after Rooklyn had performed, but the method described is a reasonable match to the Rooklyn act.
Looking backwards through the Sphinx magazine, Henry Haldane published a method in Vol. 30 page 324 (September, 1931) but the concept appears to be untried and not a match to Rooklyn's routine.

Whether the passing of years had blurred Kenneth Jaffrey's memory of events, or some other explanation exists, we currently have no way of knowing for sure what technique Rooklyn used. Perhaps it is just as well.


(1) This and other stories of Rooklyn's early years can be found in his autobiographical book "Spherical Sorcery and Recollections of a 'Pro ", Emmar Investments, Sydney 1973. Photographs for this story are from original Rooklyn images and scrapbooks.

(2) The A.M.C presented "A Night Of Mystery" at Emerson Hall in Liverpool St, Sydney on June 24, 1933, in which Rooklyn was featured with his ventriloquial act, 'Fun In A Police Station'. Also on the bill was "Jafery - magician" (Kenneth Jaffrey)

(3) Television interview, Channel 7 Sydney, August 18, 1986. (4) "Twelve Have Died", Ben Robinson, pub. Ray Goulet's Magic Art Book Co, 1986.

(5) The Magic Circular, November 1984 / Hornsby Advocate March 28, 1984.

(6) Little was initially known of Theodore, but his story has now been told in “Theodore - Crawling Through a Keyhole”. The Sphinx magazine, in an article written by Australian magician Henry 'Rex' Hauptman, says he was "another old timer...his acts consist of illusions, escapes and juggling, but he builds his reputation on his magic kettle and 'Through a Keyhole'.

Thanks to Joe Pecore for assistance in researching this article.