WA History

The Great Jansen

The Great Jansen (Harry August Jansen) was touring Australia for the first time and was scheduled to perform at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth for two weeks. Opening on Saturday, 27 July 1912 he was described as a magician and illusionist and it was stated that his magic “eclipses anything hitherto attempted.

Advertisements and feature articles flooded the newspapers. He was putting on a “programme which will surpass anything that has ever been presented in the history of magic.” The audience would see people “come and go at his call, disappearing into air and return at the rapping of his wand.” Considered “clean and wholesome fun“, it was a show not to be missed.

The Great Jansen

The effects he produces – admittedly illusions – are so clever that science is baffled, and vision is discredited by the belief of beholders who see all their world and its laws set at naught. Jansen gives a glimpse of the world of dreams.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 24 July 1912; Page 4; Jansen Coming to Perth

Not only was he a talented magician but he was also a smart marketer. Rather than sticking to traditional advertising methods, he promoted his show using a gimmick.

On 29 July 1912 an advertisement headed with the words “Are you the Mysterious Mr. Jansen?” and “Five Pounds for Nothing” was printed in The Daily News and The West Australian. Giving members of the public an opportunity to “show how clever they are”, it stated that on 5 August between the hours of 5:30 pm and 6:00 pm Jansen would be in front of the Perth General Post Office (St George’s Terrace) in disguise. For half an hour he planned to mingle amongst the crowd. If someone recognised him, they were required to tap him on the shoulder with a copy of that day’s newspaper (either The Daily News or The West Australian) and declare, “You are the mysterious Mr. Jansen.” If they met those conditions, they would find themselves £5 richer.

Jansen had pulled the same stunt before. It was noted that a crowd of 50,000 people amassed in front of the Post Office in Sydney while 30,000 people gathered in Melbourne (both figures were heavily exaggerated). In those instances he was not recognised in Sydney while he was recognised when he appeared on Prince’s Bridge in Melbourne.

Two possible disguises: the working man (left) and the naval man (right).

The excitement for the chance to win the money increased as the date approached. The Daily News believed that simply watching the crowd as they attempted to find Jansen would be “good sport for the public and good copy for the pressman.” Truth however was a little less positive. They predicted that no one would pick him out due to his clever abilities to change disguise and stated (tongue-in-cheek) that the doctors and nurses better be prepared.

It is to be hoped that the powers that be at the Perth Hospital will not be caught napping, and that they will have as many doctors, nurses and beds as possible in readiness for those people who are struck with such heavy stuff as is contained in the “Snooze” and “Westralian,” for if they are not killed on the spot, they will certainly require every medical assistance and tender nursing, to bring them round again.

Truth (Perth, WA : 1903 – 1931); 3 August 1912; Page 3; His Majesty’s Theatre

According to Jansen, at 5:15 pm on the day of the stunt he looked out the window of the Palace Hotel and observed several hundred people waiting at the post office. Having ordered a taxi, he hopped on board and was driven several times around the block in order to prevent anyone following him. He was a few minutes late but made up for it by staying five minutes past the end time.

The Perth General Post Office (today the Treasury Buildings) circa 1900s. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (Call Number: 230498PD).

As he walked amongst the crowd in disguise he observed many people. A man in a grey suit with a little girl dressed in blue appeared to recognise him but was apparently too unsure of himself to tap Jansen on the shoulder with his newspaper.

Two travelling men also spied him and decided not to give the game away. In the midst of all the chaos they took him to a nearby hotel where Jansen ordered a cigar and remained there for a few moments.

A lady wearing a red basket hat with a green rope on it focused on a man who was much too tall, however, had she turned around she would have found herself face to face with Jansen.

One person (assumed to be a man) was disguised as a woman and the crowd quickly “made short work of him.” While a well-dressed woman found herself targeted and was jostled so much that she sought refuge inside the post office.

He watched as a young woman had a difficult time after a young man pinned a sign on her back which read, “Touch me, I’m Jansen”. At another moment he stood nearby and listened to the conversation of two men as they urged each other to tap the shoulder of a man they thought was him.

There was only one close call. At one point a rough, heavy set man grabbed him by the wrist and growled, “You’re Jansen, ain’t you, and I want that fiver.” Not having shown he had a copy of the day’s paper, Jansen managed to convince him that he was not the person he was seeking and sent him in a different direction.

Once time was up, Jansen hopped onto a passing cart and eventually made his way back to the hotel. He completed the stunt undiscovered. With the £5 still up for grabs, he announced that the exercise would be repeated on the next Thursday. If he was still undiscovered after that, he vowed to donate the money to the Perth Children’s Hospital.

According to Jansen it was all a bit of fun however there was certainly an element of “roughness and horseplay” carried out by a crowd desperate to win the money. Other writers told a slightly different story and reported on the disorderly moments.

At the stroke of 5:30 pm the people who were gathered in front of the post office grew restless and began to look at each other with a suspicious eye. Men who were assumed to be “obviously disguised” were immediately set upon and with a “dented hat, a torn collar, and always with dishevelled hair” managed to bury their way out of the “mass of humanity” that surrounded them.

Jansen was known to don the disguise of a woman and thus every woman in the crowd faced a similar fate. No matter what they looked like, they were “jostled about, turned and twisted” and had their hat or hair vigorously pulled in order to ascertain whether it was fake.

A poem by a Mt Hawthorn resident who was part of the crowd.

In the centre of the crowd the behaviour was worse. People were constantly smacked across the shoulder with a folded up newspaper. Anyone who found themselves accused of being Jansen hotly denied the fact but it was to no avail; it only increased suspicion.

Anticipating social disruption, seven or eight policeman were on duty in the vicinity of the post office in an attempt to keep a pathway clear for people wishing to enter. At first they found it all amusing and remained calm but that quickly changed when one of them was “thrown off his feet and trampled underfoot for quite half a minute“. A “rowdy individual” was then dragged away and shaken until the message got through.

There was no one to appeal to. Even the law was powerless to cover one with its protecting arm.

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 6 August 1912; Page 5; A Triumphant “Make Up”

As the allotted time came to an end, people on the outskirts of the crowd departed. Many however stayed until well after 6:00 pm in the hope that they would spy Jansen and somehow win the money. They too eventually lost interest and left, finally rendering the area near the post office quiet.

An illustration of the crowd.

On the following day Jansen placed another advertisement in the newspaper stating that he would again be at the post office at the same time on 8 August 1912.

Not everyone was thrilled with Jansen’s advertising gimmick and many were dreading the second instalment. Several people wrote letters to the editor of The West Australian complaining about the “inconvenience, indignity and loss of time” that came from the crowd blocking the road.

For over an hour last night (and at the busiest part of the day) business with the G.P.O. was practically held up, and on Thursday evening, should the performance be allowed to be repeated, it will be worse.

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954; 7 August 1912; Page 11; Jansen’s Cheap Advertisement

Anyone hoping for a second opportunity to win the £5 were to be disappointed. The police received several complaints and, in a similar outcome to what occurred in Sydney, Jansen was sent a letter from Robert Connell (the Acting Commissioner of Police) requesting that he refrain from committing the same stunt again.

Deciding to comply with the Acting Commissioner’s request, Jansen did not appear in public on 8 August and (as promised) donated the money to the Perth Children’s Hospital.

Great are the uses of advertisement.

Geraldton Guardian (WA : 1906 – 1928); 10 August 1912; Page 4; Metropolitan Mems.

The cleverness of Jansen was apparent both on the stage and in utilising the press. He had advertised his show and the gimmick but it was the gimmick, the money on offer and the associated public disruption that clearly generated more publicity. To pass undetected amongst a crowd of people was impressive however, as one reporter noted, “…to get an advertisement worth two or three hundred pounds for practically nothing is an achievement of which any man should be proud.

Dante the Magician (a name used by The Great Jansen in later years) performing a magic trick in 1953.



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