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Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Illusionist's Lion and the great escape


Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19110302-16-2

In February 1911, the great illusionist Gustave Fasola, whose real name was Fergus O'Conner Greenwood from England, stepped forward on the Vaudeville stage of the Melbourne Opera House to perform his "The Lady to Lion" Illusion. Waiting in the wings, was the 18 year old African Lion "Wallace" confined in a cage ready to be transferred into the box prepared for him in the course of the illusion. Wallace, however, managed to escape from the cage to bound across the stage in front of a startled audience, before calmly making his way out of the theatre onto the streets of Melbourne. Followed by Fasola's assistant James Pearson, the lion eventually wandered into the Temperance and General Mutual Life Society's building, where Pearson told the lion to "go in there" after touching the big cat's whiskers with a long wire fork.  Melbourne Zoo, the lion's owners were soon contacted and the animal was soon contained an hour later, then returned to the zoo.

A thousand people waited on Saturday afternoon. outside the Temperance and General Building, Little Collins Street, Melbourne, to witness the recapture of a full grown lion. The lion, made his escape from the Opera House, and having walked down Little Collins Street, had been cleverly entrapped in the building in time to avert a panic.
The lion, which assisted Fasola the illusionist, to mystify the Opera House audiences, was engaged from the Zoological Gardens. While waiting in the wing, to be mysteriously transferred to an empty cabinet the door swung open, and springing onto the stage the lion stealthily crept forward to the footlights. The people in the stalls, uncertain whether to be frightened, rose hurriedly from their seats.
Mr. Pearson one of Fasola's attendants, touched the beast's whiskers with a long wire fork. The animal turned his head towards the other wing, and trotted across the stage. After abandoning the boards the lion quietly passed out of the stage door entrance into Rainbow-alley and into Little Collins street. Then a lady saw him and fainted, and other people fled in various directions.. The lion, however, showed no inclination to attack any one.
Pearson was the only person who seemed to have any regard for the lion's welfare.  He followed it from the Opera House, and when the corner of Swanston street was almost reached he noticed the open door of the Temperance and General Mutual Life Society's building. Touching the lion.with his fork the attendant said "Go in there," and to his surprise the order was obeyed.  As soon as the beast had entered the building Pearson closed the door; remaining outside himself. About an hour elapsed before the cage arrived from the Zoo, and into it the lion quietly entered.
Western Star and Roma Advertiser Wednesday 15 February 1911

Fasola, at Melbourne Opera House, has revived an old show pro, the lion used by him in his latest illusion being old Wallace, formerly with Bostock and Wombwell; but lately enjoying a well-earned rest at Melbourne Zoo. As soon as he heard the music, and saw the lights and crowd, the old fellow was so delight ed at being back again in the business that he bowed low in response to the applause, and strutted about his cage full of pride at being on the salary list. But Wallace was not satisfied with the narrow confines of the theatre. He watched his chance, slipped out of the stage door into Little Collins-street. He saw the open door of the Temperance and General Building at the corner of Swanston-street. and stalked in, an attendant who had followed him pulled the gate to, and he was securely caged, except that he had the run of the building. Those in offices barred themselves in till he was caught, and by Mr. Aydon's orders cut out of the programme and sent back to the Zoo.
The Newsletter: an Australian Paper for Australian People Saturday 25 February 1911


..After abandoning the boards the lion quietly passed out of the stage door entrance into Rainbow-alley, and into Little Collins street. Then a lady saw him and fainted, and other people fled in various directions. The lion, however, saw no inclination to attack anyone. Cowed by its unfamiliar surroundings it ambled hesitatingly along. Pearson was the only person who seemed to have any regard for the lion's welfare. He bad followed it from the Opera House, and when the corner of Swanston-street was almost reached he noticed the door open of the Temeprance and General Mutual Life Assurance Society's building. Touching the lion with his fork, the attendant said 'Go in there,' and to his surprise the order was obeyed. As soon as the boast had entered the building Pearson closed the door, remaining outside himself. A telephone message was sent to the Curator of the Zoological Gardens to send a cage down. This involved further delay. People had already waited three-quarters of an hour for the big game hunt, and were impatient to see the capture or the kill. They became so restless that mounted troopers had to be called to preserve a space in front of the door of the building'. The lion was also growing tired and began scratching at the frass. It tore some woodwork away and demonstrated its feelings in a series of roars, which excited the people to an extraordinary degree. They thought that it was going up stairs. Great pieces of meat were brought, and the beast at the sight of them became quiet. The lion was eventually captured quietly.

Freeman's Journal (NSW) Thursday 23 February 1911

The lion in question was an African Lion named Wallace. He had been purchased by the Melbourne Zoo in 1907, from Bostock & Wombwell's Circus stock.

...The break up of a menagerie such as Bostock and Wombwells gives the Zoo its opportunities. For a particuarly fine black maned lion, which the Zoo badly wanted and two lionesses which it did not want..
 THE NEGLECTED "ZOO.". (1907, March 15).
 The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 4.

 Wallace had been used by the Bostock & Wombwell Circus and Zoo for performances in New Zealand and Australia. At the conclusion of their Australasian tour the circus auctioned off the entirety of their stock and plant which included all of the animals. Wallace was also known to be the father of Wellington's first lion King Dick. Bostocks had gifted the one year old male cub to the City of Wellington in June 1906. King Dick was the nucleas that formed the early beginnings of New Zealand's first municipal zoological collections.

Dudley Le Souef, the director of the Melbourne Zoo had raised his concerns about the behaviour of the crowd, rather than that of his prized former circus lion.

"Wallace" was very glad to get home again; he was frightened, and excited, by the screaming and yelling of the crowd in the street."
"Mr. D. Le Souef, C.M.Z.S.. Director of the Zoological Gardens, made the above statement today when a "Melbourne Herald" ' reporter mentioned to him the startling incident of Saturday afternoon.
There would have been litfle difficulty or danger but for the thoughtless behaviour of the public." Mr. Le Souef continued. "The crowd became very excited pressed towards the lions retreat, and made such a great noise that our men, who were sent to cage the lion, couid hardly hear themselves speak. Had the barrier been removed, and the lion walked out, there would have been a stampede, and perhaps some people would have suffered in the crush."
"Was there any danger from the lion? Well, 'Wallace' is quiet enough. He has spent nearly all his life in captivity; but you can never trust a wild animal; it is always uncertain what it will do. Wallace is 18 years of age, but his teeth are still servicable. The danger lay, as I said, in the fact that the people went off their heads, and the police had to deal with it firmly."
"There is one statement I should like to correct' Our men never chloroformed  'Wallace,' or used any drug at all. The animal knew the men," and they knew how to deal with, it, using gentle persuasion. In 20 minutes from the time they set out, Wallace was safely caged. Yes, he was glad to be home again.

LION AT LIBERTY. ADVENTURES OF "WALLACE.".
(1911, February 15). Daily Herald (Adelaide, SA : 1910 - 1924), p. 6. 


Fasola, used Wallace for his "Lady to Lion" illusion, which according to his biography he had invented. Fasola continued for some time afterwards to use Wallace in his shows. By 1912, Wallace no longer appears in the advertising. I have no death date at the time of writing for Wallace, but I can only assume be lived to around 20-21 years of age, the average life expectancy for a lion in captivity.
The Indian Fakir, Fasola, who has just concluded successful tours to the three Southern cities, will arive in Brisbane with his full compliment of 10 speciality artistes by Thursday's mail train. The advance guard, consisting of the mechanical staff, heavy gear, the scenery, and "Wallace," the lion which made such a sensational escape recently in Melbourne, arrived on Monday by the steamer Cooma, so that everthng will be in order for Saturday evenîng's initial performance at His Majestv's Theatre. Every act of Fasola's is said to be novel and striking.

The Brisbane Courier (QLD) Wednesday 3 May 1911

To say that those present were mystified by the tricks of this Indian fakir on Thursday evening would be putting it extremely mildly, for they were simply astounded that such things could be done under their very eyes, and yet not know the why or the wherefore. Whilst all the tricks were simply marvellous, the one which most impressed us was the illusion whereby the lion was made to appear on tho spot where a few seconds previously stood a young lady.

Cowra Free Press (NSW) Saturday 21 October 1911

About the Illusionist Fasola
Far from being the “Indian Fakir and Illusionist” he became renowned as, Gustave Fasola was actually born: Fergus O’Conner Greenwood on 5 April 1875 in Clayton-Le-Moors, Lancashire.
As a teenager, he toured small halls and schools with a friend James Lee, under the billing of “Professor Greenwood, sleight-of-hand entertainer”. During this time the pair were often in trouble with the police, using their “skills” for other than entertainment purposes. In 1892 in Blackburn with Darwen, they were both sent to prison for a month for larceny.
By 1894 he had representation and received some recognition for his act as in October of that year he was being promoted in The Era as “Professor Greenwood, the boy illusionist, acknowledged to be the youngest prestidigitateur in the World.”
By 1897 he was listed as “Miss Lyles American Mysteries assisted by Gustave Fasola, illusionist and hypnotist, light & dark séances, the Phoenix and original locked and corded box illusions.” And in 1899 “Gustave Fasola, ventriloquist and conjurer, also Miss Lyle in her cabinet séance.”
One wonders if this is where he got his idea for his elaborate “bridal chamber” trick, which he performed at the Tivoli Theatre in Adelaide in 1911. “………. a cabinet composed of little else than a framework with a floor was enveloped by a curtain, which, however, gave full view all round the cabinet to the audience. Immediately the curtain was withdrawn, instead of the skeleton cabinet there appeared a furnished bedroom.”
Gustave Fasola toured Australia and New Zealand between 1911 and 1913 where his son Fergus Greenwood Jnr was born in Auckland on 2 March 1912. Fergus Snr died on 14 January 1929 in London.


Fasola's legacy lived on through out the decades. The most famous performances of the Lady to Lion trick perhaps lie with the duo Siegfried and Roy. The pair used white tigers as part of their trademark act. Roy was later attacked by a tiger named Monticore, and had sustained serious injuries. The final performance of Siegfried and Roy is shown in the video below. Animal acts were a huge part of the earlier Vaudeville scene from which Fasola had gained his fame from.