Born in Clayton-le-Moors in Lancashire in April 1875, Fergus O’Conner Greenwood eventually became the stage illusionist, ‘Gustave Fasola’. It was under this stage name, in December 1904, that he was initiated into Freemasonry in the ‘Duchy of Cornwall Lodge No 3038’ which then met at ‘Horns Hotel’ in Kennington Park (pictured here in around 1910).
At the time, there were other entertainers who used their stage names for Lodge membership, but would it be allowed by UGLE now? And, in 1904, would a candidate’s conviction and prison sentence from 12 years earlier have needed to be disclosed on his application?
As a teenager, Fergus toured small halls and schools with a friend, James Lee, billing himself as “Professor Greenwood, sleight-of-hand entertainer”. During this period, the youths were in the habit of taking lodgings in the towns in which they were working and then leaving suddenly without paying their hosts – sometimes taking with them bits and pieces that didn’t belong to them!
In 1892 in Blackburn, Lancashire, they were both convicted of ‘larceny’ and sent to prison for a month after a weekend spent using their talents for nefarious purposes. After staying on a Saturday at a lodging house in Bridge Street, they made themselves disappear along with “a purse, a lady’s companion, a box of paints, a picture frame, and a pack of cards” leaving their account unpaid. On the same day they had stolen two over-coats from the shop of a Mr Beaumont in Northgate, and they then turned up on the Sunday at a lodging house run by a Mrs Parks asking her to shorten the coats to fit them. They left her house the next day, again without paying, and took with them various things including her “hairbrush and comb”.
In court, they told the Bench that they gave ‘conjuring entertainments’ in schools. “Yes” interrupted Chief Constable Lewis who had arrested them “and they can do it very well, too”. Unfortunately, this review of their showbiz talents from a respected member of the community didn’t help much with the Blackburn justices who handed out the one-month jail sentence. Lee confirmed he had also been before the Nelson justices for larceny and Greenwood admitted that he had twice been in custody in Birmingham. The local press reported that they were “both well-dressed, seemed indifferent to their position, and smiled in the dock” as they pleaded guilty to all the charges and received their sentences.
By 1894, Fergus was receiving wider recognition for his talents and, in October of that year, he was promoted by a Burnley based showbiz agent in ‘The Era’ as “Professor Greenwood, the boy illusionist, acknowledged to be the youngest prestidigitateur in the World.” A few weeks later, the advert was “Professor Greenwood….. Scientific Illusionist and Conjurer”.
Fergus was also employed for a few years in the 1890s as an assistant to the well-known entertainers ‘THE FAYS’ i.e. Alexander Fay (whose real name was Alfred Hutchinson) and his sister, Annie. The Fays had become famous throughout the World because of the tragic events at one of their matinee shows in Sunderland on June 16th, 1883. What caused the most excitement amongst the children of the town on that fateful day was the announcement that “Every child will stand the chance of receiving a handsome present” – and well over 1,500 children showed up and paid a penny to try their luck.
At the end of the show, when the gifts were being distributed, there was a ‘Hillsborough type’ stampede. Disastrously, a door at the bottom of the stairs from the gallery had been bolted ajar, leaving just enough space for one person to squeeze through at a time. Within seconds, the gap was choked and the once-laughing, once-smiling, youngsters became a writhing heap of bodies.
The hall manager was one of the first to arrive at the door from its other side. He told the coroner at the inquest: “When I approached the lower door I heard some fearful screams, groans and noises of struggling. I rushed to the door and attempted to open it, and found I could not do so; the bolt was in the socket about two feet from the door frame, and the opening was jammed up nearly as high as my head with the bodies of children.” 183 youngsters, some only 3 years old, tragically lost their lives on that dreadful day.
By 1897, Fergus had left the employ of the Fays and taken with him Alexander’s daughter, also named Annie, whom he married in Norwich in 1895. He also took with him all the secrets he had learned about their magic acts and started performing as ‘Gustave Fasola’. At this time, he was appearing in “Miss Lyle’s American Mysteries assisted by Gustave Fasola, illusionist and hypnotist in Light & Dark Séances, The Phoenix, and Original Locked and Corded Box Illusions”. Within a year or so, he had taken over the star spot from ‘Miss Lyle’ (who may have been his wife, Annie) and the act was billed as “Gustave Fasola, Ventriloquist and Conjurer, also Miss Lyle in her Cabinet Séance”.
He was next in the newspapers early in 1907 – three years after joining Duchy of Cornwall Lodge 3038 – when Horace Goldin, a famous Lithuanian born illusionist from the USA (who billed himself as the “Royal Illusionist” as he had once performed for UGLE Grand Master, Edward VII) sought an injunction against him at the Glasgow Sheriff’s Court. Goldin was trying to stop Gustave, who was appearing at the Glasgow Empire as “ The Famous Indian Fakir”, from performing a trick in which a pretty girl appears to be fired from a cannon on the stage into a box suspended from the theatre’s roof above the audience.
In Court, it was claimed that Goldin held a patent on the trick, and, no doubt much to his disappointment, the secret of the trick was revealed to be dependent on nothing more complex than use of a trapdoor in the stage. The girl exited the cannon through its base, rather than through its barrel, and went under the stage through the trapdoor. Once the trapdoor was closed, the cannon was wheeled away and the box was lowered from the roof to take its place over the trapdoor. It was then a relatively simple matter for the scantily clad girl to enter the box through a panel in its base to be revealed to tremendous applause when the box was opened.
(When I was just a slip of a lad, I saw this trick performed by a famous illusionist of the day, whose name I’ve forgotten, at the Palace Theatre in my hometown of Halifax in Yorkshire. My family were seated up in ‘the Gods’ and, after the cannon had been fired and wheeled away, we could clearly see that someone under the stage was still struggling to close the trapdoor before the box was lowered to the stage to cover it. The audience in the expensive seats in the stalls no doubt wondered why there were roars of laughter coming from the rabble seated high-up in the cheap seats!)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Sherriff in Glasgow refused to grant the injunction and, despite the trick’s secret having been revealed both in Court and in the press, Gustave, along with many other magicians, continued to perform it and even took the trick on tour to Australia as the following Melbourne news cutting from 1911 shows (note that Gustave, the Englishman and ‘Indian Fakir’, has now become Italian!):
Although the Melbourne newspaper was not gushingly complimentary about our Bro’s act, his two-year tour of Australia and New Zealand seems to have been very successful and well-received and he is recorded in the annals of history as being the first illusionist ever to use a lion in a stage act in Australia.
In February 1911, soon after his arrival in Australia, Bro. Gustave was at the Melbourne Opera House to perform his ‘Lady to Lion’ Illusion.
Waiting in the wings, was an 18-year-old African Lion, named ‘Wallace’, who had been borrowed from Melbourne Zoo. He was confined in a cage but managed to escape and spring across the stage in front of a startled audience before calmly making his way out of the theatre onto the streets. A woman in the street who saw him come out of the stage door fainted and everyone else in the vicinity fled in various directions to find whatever safe havens were available.
Followed by Gustave’s assistant, James Pearson, Wallace eventually wandered into the open door of the Temperance and General Mutual Life Society’s building on Little Collins Street. Pearson quickly closed the door and remained outside whilst those inside the building barricaded themselves into offices. Around a thousand people gathered in the street waiting to see either the ‘capture or the kill’ and State Troopers were called to clear a space in front of the building and keep order. It was two hours later when a team from the Zoo arrived with a cage into which Wallace proudly strutted after his adventurous day out.
Our Bro’s son, Fergus Greenwood Jnr, was born in Auckland, New Zealand in March 1912 and a year later, shortly before his return to England, Bro Gustave was injured and some of his stage props were destroyed in a railway accident in Perth. It was reported that he and his assistant were nearly killed, but he was back on the road performing again within a few weeks.
However, his injuries may have been more serious than he originally thought as, back in the UK, he seems to have phased out his stage appearances. Before he went to Australia, he had started a business which manufactured and sold tricks and stage equipment for magicians from an address in Acre Lane, Brixton and maybe he was concentrating on this, rather than performing.
It looks like our Bro’s business wasn’t particularly successful and, in 1921, a company that was storing his equipment at two different London addresses placed adverts in the trade press warning that the goods would be sold to defray expenses unless claimed within 14 days.
Gustave rarely performed on stage again in the UK where the ‘variety’ industry was in the doldrums as films, particularly those from America, became more popular, but he was obviously trying to revive his flagging fortunes when, in the mid-1920s, he went to the USA and found work in cinemas, vaudeville and carnivals. As these press items from the USA show, he didn’t achieve the ‘top billing’ he’d enjoyed in Australia but was managing to make ends meet.