WA History

The Great Wizard

Having completed a successful tour in South Australia, on 21 April 1868, Frederick William Auger Kohler, accompanied by his agent, Louis Peter, departed Adelaide for Fremantle. The brig ‘Emily Smith’ arrived a month later, on 19 May. Disembarking at Albany, Frederick, or, as he was professionally known, Professor Kohler, placed an advertisement in a newspaper announcing his imminent arrival.

Professor Kohler, The Great Wizard, performed one night at Sherratt’s in Albany and then travelled to Fremantle by passenger van. As each day passed, he announced in the newspapers his intention to “give a series of his wonderful performances.” The advertisements gradually increased in detail. By 20 May 1868, he claimed that he was the “First Magician to His Majesty the King of Hanover, Duke of Cumberland,” and he invited people to witness his “grand magic performance, or two hours in the world of wonder.

His first shows took place in the evenings of 27 and 29 May at the Oddfellow’s Hall in Fremantle. Front seats cost three shillings, back seats were two shillings, and children half price. The doors opened at 7:30 pm, and the show started at 8 pm. The Fremantle Rifle Volunteers provided extra musical entertainment.

A variation of the ribbon trick – endless paper ribbon.

Visiting magicians were rare in the Swan River Colony. A journalist for ‘The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times’ predicted that, as many of the children had not seen such tricks, Professor Kohler’s shows would be popular. Their assumption was correct. A review published in ‘The Herald’ described the audience clapping profusely during and at the end of the performance.

A master of sleight of hand, for two hours, Professor Kohler performed various magic tricks, some of which were new to those watching. Wearing a black tunic, with his arms bare to the elbows, he manipulated cards, eggs, ribbons, rabbits, and pigeons. From his mouth, he pulled yard upon yard of ribbon. The cluck of a hen from the front bench resulted in the Professor putting his hand into a seemingly empty bag. From within, he continually pulled out eggs.

Many who came to scrutinise in the closest manner, being fully prepared to explain the rationale of the ambi-dexterous Professor’s movements, were compelled to acknowledge their incompetence in this instance.

The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901); 3 June 1868; Page 3; Fremantle

After a third show at the Oddfellow’s Hall on 1 June, Professor Kohler announced he was heading to Perth. On 8, 9, and 10 June, he performed at the Mechanics’ Institute on Hay Street with the Volunteer Band providing additional entertainment. Despite the wintery weather, a “large and most respectable audience” filled the Hall and clapped and marvelled at the magician’s tricks. With the success of his shows in Fremantle and Perth, he announced he would next perform at Guildford on 12th, York on 15th and 16th, Northam on the 18th, and Newcastle (Toodyay) on the 20th.

The Mechanics’ Institute circa 1868. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.

Adults and children alike attended the Guildford show and expressed their approval with “continued roars of laughter.” According to a correspondent, it was a welcome break to their monotonous life. As promised, he completed his tour of the eastern districts by visiting York, Northam and Newcastle. Inclement weather affected the turnout, but those who braved the rain were impressed with the show.

Word reached other country towns of The Great Wizard, and some newspaper correspondents expressed their desire for him to visit them. Heeding that request, on 7 July, Professor Kohler and his agent sailed on the ‘Wild Wave’ to Bunbury. On 13 and 14 July, he performed in the large ballroom of the Wellington Hotel. According to a correspondent, both evenings were “somewhat unpleasantly crowded” with people eager to see the show. From the audience, he selected volunteers to assist him, and while on stage, he performed various tricks on them. Throughout, he maintained his humour and courtesy to those assisting, which resulted in “unbounded applause.

The Wellington Hotel in Bunbury (right) circa 1924. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.

Upon his return to Fremantle in late July, he proposed to perform one-off shows at Fremantle, Perth, Guildford, York, Northam, and Newcastle. No advertised dates followed the initial notice. No newspapers printed reviews. It appears he changed his mind as, by 7 August, he was in Geraldton and “inspiring heaps of laughter into fronts and sides of full house audiences.

Professor Kohler has gone to Champion Bay, where no doubt he will be heartily welcome.

The Herald (Fremantle, WA : 1867 – 1886); 15 August 1868; Page 3; Public Works

After his time in Geraldton, he performed again at the Mechanics’ Institute in Perth. He was still popular, and everyone was “highly amused and astonished at the professor’s mysterious operations.” Afterward, he announced his return to the eastern districts. His show was popular with the residents, and it appears his return was due to their request. He performed at the Mechanics’ Institute at Guildford on 31 August, then at York, Northam, and Newcastle on 3, 4, and 7 September. Amusements were few and far between, and his shows were welcome entertainment even as the wet weather continued. A York correspondent noted:

Professor Kohler has again been among us. He performed in Mr. Craig’s large room on Thursday night last to a full and well-pleased audience; the Professor appears, however, to be doomed to have wet weather when he visits us, for at an early hour of the day on which his performance was to take place it commenced to rain torrents…

The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901); 16 September 1868; Page 3; York

On 19 September, Professor Kohler announced his final performances in Fremantle and Perth. He advertised it as a ‘people’s night’ and a ‘Million Night Performance.’ Ticket prices reduced by a shilling, and he promised to offer greater variety, including a demonstration of the never before seen trick: the inexhaustible bottle.

He performed his various tricks in front of an audience crammed into the Oddfellow’s Hall in Fremantle. The inexhaustible bottle (which was new to most people) caused “unbounded astonishment.” It involved the Professor holding a bottle before the audience and asking them what drink they would like. Answers would vary, and each time, the requested drink would pour from the bottle into a glass. Thrilled with the show, a writer for ‘The Herald’ claimed, “We have never had anything in the colony like it before, and shall not for a long time – if ever – have it again.

People held their breath, and looked at each other in utter bewilderment, as the Wizzard with the most perfect coolness, and in the quiet, easy, unpretentious way peculiar to Mr. Kohler, supplied the various liquors demanded.

The Herald (Fremantle, WA : 1867 – 1886); 3 October 1868; Page 2; No Title

Again, Professor Kohler decided to return to the eastern districts, taking advantage of the various fairs held at York, Northam, and Newcastle. Throughout October, he advertised his pleasure at being able to visit the towns once more. Unfortunately, he never made it. Around 20 October, he fell ill with quinsy (an infection behind the tonsil). No one thought it was anything serious besides being a sore throat, and for several days, he rested at the Freemason’s Hotel in Perth. On 23 October 1868, he died at age 46.

The news of Professor Kohler’s death was a shock to the people in the colony. A journalist described him as “a general favorite with all who knew him by his cheerful and generous disposition.” He was also described as having an “amiable disposition” with a “gentlemanly bearing.” The Great Wizard was there for less than a year, but it was clear he had left a lasting impression.

Ever since the Professor’s arrival in the colony, some months since, he was largely patronized, and distinguished himself in his performances in the various townships.

The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901); 28 October 1868; Page 3; Local and General News

At 8 am, on the following day, he was buried in the Church of England denomination at East Perth Cemeteries. No headstone marks his resting place, and the location of his grave is unknown. His agent, Louis Peter, remained in Perth, and, as Professor Kohler died Intestate, he applied for Administration of his Estate. A list of his goods, and chattels, as part of the documentation, provides us with a glimpse into a magician’s bag of tricks. Along with his clothing and jewellery, he owned a magic punchbowl, magic fountain, a blind tailor, a magic glass, a flower grower, 15 iron rings, a magic egg bag, and an inexhaustible bottle.

A section of East Perth Cemeteries.

Professor Kohler was a fixture in Western Australian entertainment for six months in 1868. In later years, he was only mentioned briefly in articles reminiscing about colonial-era entertainment. A highlight, for one writer, was when he turned 24 guinea pigs into plum puddings and back again. Reviewers never mentioned it in the earlier articles, and whether that trick existed remains to be seen.

Over time, as is often the case, people soon forgot about Professor Kohler, The Great Wizard. However, I have no doubt his performances remained part of the memories of the children and adults who attended them in 1868. When amusement was limited, he provided the people with joy, laughter, wonder, and magic.

More information about Professor Kohler’s time in Australia is available on the website Magic in Sydney: http://sydneymagic.net/kohler.html



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