Mystic publican’s tragic end

ballarat-star-hotel-melbourne

The former Ballarat Star Hotel at the entrance to China Town in the Melbourne CBD, where celebrity publican, Victor Louis Phillippe Becker ended his life. Picture: Google Street Views.

Found dead in Melbourne hotel room

By MICK ROBERTS ©

mons-victor-1884-bHEARING gunfire, the publican of a Melbourne hotel rushed upstairs to find the body of his celebrity guest lying in a pool of blood on a bedroom floor.

The year was 1903, it was a Wednesday afternoon, and dead at the Ballarat Star Hotel was one of Melbourne’s best known showmen. At the age of 50, illusionist, hypnotist and one time publican, Victor Louis Pillippe Becker (pictured) had ended his life, shooting himself in the head, shocking friends, colleagues and fans.

Becker had made the hotel at the corner of Swanston and Little Bourke Street in the Melbourne CBD, his base during the final weeks of his life.

The Ballarat Star Hotel was built in 1888 to the design of Twentyman and Askew Architects, and replaced a small hotel which had occupied the site since 1855. Today it trades as an office for a private medical insurer, and is a heritage listed building.

Becker was an eccentric Frenchman, who came to Australia at the age of 21 in 1874. A strapping young man, he became the Australian middleweight wrestling champion, as well as excelling in sports such as fencing, boxing and weight lifting. At the height if his career he stood, 5ft 9in (1.8m), weighed 11 stone (70kg), with a 41 inch (15cm) chest. But Becker was much more than an athlete. He was a showman, an entertainer and actor, who was constantly re-inventing himself. He became famous across the Australian colonies and New Zealand during the late 19th century. He also had a short stint in the United States, without achieving success.

Besides showbiz, Becker also dabbled in pubs, and he hosted several Melbourne watering holes during the 1880s and 90s. He was a well-known figure with his frock coat and top hat, and he was popular with Melbourne’s sporting community.

Becker’s wrestling career began in Paris when he was 17. He won his first match and became a noted wrestler in the Graeco-Roman style. In 1869 he took part in a wrestling tournament at the Casino Cadet, Paris, which was open to all comers. Twelve competitors wrestled for four nights; of these he beat three, lost one, but eventually won the prize – a valuable gold medal and 200 francs.

Becker served as a French sub-lieutenant in the 1870/71 Franco-Prussian war, and was taken prisoner before escaping. He managed to reach Paris, where he was sabred by a Prussian soldier during battle, receiving a severe wound to the head. He also lost a finger in the sortie.

The champion wrestler arrived in Australia in 1874, first to Sydney, and then, during April, to Melbourne. His first Australian appearance on stage was as an actor at the Melbourne Opera House, later known as the Tivoli, in the second act of Moliere’s Tartuffe. It would begin his long career as an entertainer.

Becker’s real passion though was wrestling. He was an athlete first, and an actor second. In 1875 he issued the following challenge in the pages of Melbourne’s newspapers: “M. Victor de Paris, Champion Middle-Weight Wrestler of the world, challenges all comers to wrestle in the French (Graeco-Roman) style for from £50 to £200 aside.” He had no challengers, so no income and the Frenchman turned his talents to his other skills as an entertainer.

In November 1874 he staged his first of many incarnations as an entertainer. Under the name of ‘The Fire King’, drabbed in a special leather and sponge suit, he would enter a burning hut or shanty, return from the flames holding cooked chops, and an iron vessel that had been allowed to get red hot. The Maitland Mercury reported on November 7 1874:

The apparatus, which is the invention of M. Becker, is designed for the purpose of enabling firemen to pass into the interior of a burning house, for the purpose of saving life or valuable property, also for enabling firemen to occupy a position exposed to the flames when extinguishing a burning building. The dress is composed of leather, over which pieces of sponge are thickly sewn with copper wire… A small hut composed of dry faggots on an iron frame was erected in the gardens, which, when thoroughly on fire, gave out a very great heat. Into this M. Becker went and walked about amid the flames, but seldom staid longer than a minute and half. Only on one occasion did he stay two minutes. He half cooked some chops, and brought out of the fire an iron vessel that had been allowed to get very hot, but he constantly came out and seemed very glad of a breath of cool air, which he obtained by opening a small oblong square of glass placed on the front of the headpiece for the purpose of seeing through. The patent consists in the solution with which the sponge on the outside of the leather dress is thoroughly saturated. Becker states that he has used this dress at many fires in France, and that the principle has been adopted by the French Government, and has been used with success by firemen. Owing to the unfavourable state of the weather yesterday very few persons attended at the gardens, but M. Becker decided to give an exhibition to the small group of about 40 persons who attended. So far as heat was concerned, the test was a fair one, for the gum twigs burnt so fiercely that it was not comfortable to stand within a dozen yards on the windward side of the fire.

From about this time the French showman took the stage name of Monsieur Victor, which when advertised on his play-bills, always featured the abbreviation of “Mons. Victor”. To his public though, Becker’s stage name was always spoken with the Australian pronunciation of the first word, “Mons”. He became known far and wide simply as “Mons Victor”.

Becker first dabbled in the liquor trade in 1880, when he opened a ‘wine hall’ in Stephen Street, Melbourne. He would go on to host at least half a dozen pubs in major regional centres in Victoria over the following 20 years. When he opened his Melbourne ‘wine hall’ it seems he was already living with his future wife, Mary Jane Nichols, who he eventually married in 1883. They had one child together, Victor Edward, in 1879, who it seems died as a baby. My research was unable to discover any other children for the French showman.

In November 1880 Becker had a confrontation with Antonio Therea, who was charged with threatening his life while in the bar of his Stephen Street wine hall. From newspaper reports of the time, it appeared that a quarrel had arisen between the two men, and the court found there were faults on both sides. The Bench bound them over in their own recognisances of £100 to keep the peace.

Between the years 1882 and 1889, Becker made quite a name for himself travelling the colonies, including New Zealand, wrestling, boxing, weightlifting and fencing. Also during these years, he toured with “athletic troupes” performing in the town halls, and tent shows. The shows featured heavy weight lifting, fencing, “single-stick”, and boxing, “statuettes” and comic songs.

Mons Victor’s feat of holding at arm’s length a 132-lb weight always was often rewarded with deafening applause. The Hobart Mercury reported on September 2 1886:

ATHLETIC EXHIBITION

A very successful exhibition of athletics was given at the Exhibition-building last night, by Professor Miller, Mons. Victor, and Mr. Price, instructor to the Hobart gymnasium. Before the entertainment commenced the building was crowded. The first item on the programme was an exhibition of the different catches and points in Graeco-Roman wrestling, which was given by Professor Miller and Mons. Victor. Though the latter is an extremely powerfully-built man, he was like a child in the grasp of his wieldy antagonist. Mr. Price gave some very clever tumbling, after which Mons. Victor appeared. He first showed some clever feats with two 56lb. weights, which he threw about as if they were toys, and wound up by lifting and putting up over his head a huge dumb-bell, weighing 130lb. Professor Miller then did some feats with heavy clubs, and put up a dumb-bell weighing 184lb., which feat, he stated, there was only another man in the world capable of performing. The next item was, perhaps the best of the whole evening, consisting of a fencing match between Messrs. Price and Victor. Mons. Victor is acknowledged to be one of the most brilliant swordsmen in Australia, and Mr. Price has achieved fame in this beautiful exercise in the old country. It was a very marvellous display of agile practice. Mr. Price first disarmed his antagonist. The bayonet exercise was then gone through by a squad of the Rifles, under Sergeant Carter. Some very gentle boxing followed, and Mr Price gave a splendid exhibition of his skill with the clubs, and received rounds of applause. Some fencing was then given by Professor Miller and Mons. Victor, and single stick play by the Professor and Mr. Price. In each of the encounters, the Professor proved his superiority, though the ability of his antagonist was in no way to be despised. Mons. Victor gave a very striking series of “statues,” representing “The African struggling with a lion,” “Ancient and modern Gladiators,” finishing with the “Dying Gladiator.” The programme was wound up by an exhibition of Graeco-Roman wrestling by Professor Miller and Mons. Victor, in which Victor was handled like a kitten by his huge antagonist, though his wonderful strength and agility prevented the Professor from securing more than two falls. The proceedings throughout were of a most orderly nature, and the entertainment far above the average of anything of the kind hitherto held here. To a certain portion of the community, athletic exhibitions are devoid of interest unless for the excitement of seeing someone disabled, but to those that understood and appreciated scientific athletics, last night’s entertainment could not have been improved upon. Mr. W. Webster acted as master of the ceremonies and Mr. A. Walton presided at the piano, and discoursed suitable music during the proceedings.

At the age of 35, Becker knew his days of earning an income as an athlete were numbered. He was a born entertainer, and in 1888 he turned those skills to hypnotism. His talents as a hypnotist though were not on par with his athletic abilities as a young man. The Adelaide Express reported on Monday March 26 1888:

A Mesmerist Duped.

Mons Victor, the well-known athlete, gave what purported to be a private mesmeric séance at St. George’s Hall, Melbourne, on Thursday afternoon in the presence of about 300 persons. The Herald says he was himself sincere in his belief that he possessed mesmeric powers, and was perfectly honest in his efforts to display them; but the proceedings were rendered farcical in the extreme by his grotesque deception practised upon him by the dozen young fellows who were supposed to be his “subjects.” They obeyed his every behest with most suspicious eagerness, and took the first opportunity when his back was turned to let the audience know that they were carrying out a preconcerted hoax by their ridiculous grimaces and antics, when supposed by Victor to be quiescent under his influence. They carried on the tomfoolery for over an hour, during which time the spectators were convulsed by the extravaganza. One young fellow, whom Victor imagined he had mesmerised, drank cod liver oil under the representation that it was whisky, but audaciously revealed the make believe to the audience by pretending to pommel and kick Victor behind his back, when supposed by the latter to be standing still, completely mesmerised. The final scene was of the most absurd character. The “subjects” turned upon Victor, hustled him about the stage, leaped on his back, and almost brought him to the floor in their rough horseplay, while the supposed mesmerist, confident in his powers, vainly adopted the stock methods of restoration. The proceedings throughout formed a cruel and reprehensible practical joke at Victor’s expense.

Becker went back to the liquor trade, and received the license of the Commercial Hotel in Pall Mall, Sandhurst in Melbourne during November 1888. The Sportsman reported on December 5 1888:

NEXT morning amongst a number of other places we dropped into was the Commercial Hotel, where we found Mons. Victor (ex-wrestler and hypnotist) metamorphosed into a Boniface. I am sorry to say the change does not seem to done him good physically. He seems to have fallen away a good deal, and looked somewhat careworn. Financially, however, he is doing all right. The morning I saw him the hotel was thronged, some 40 or 50 Melbourne people being present, and they enjoyed a musical treat, Mr Elliott, junr, a Melbourne bookmaker, and one of the most accomplished musicians of the line, favored us with some sacred music, both vocal and instrumental, after hearing which most of the audience, having a few hours to fill-in before the first race, left to inspect some valuable trotting mares bred in Sandhurst…

While hosting the Commercial Hotel, Becker lost his wife, Mary Jane to consumption on October 22 1889. He remarried Louise Ennis, the daughter of a local publican, the same year, and took the license of the Victoria Hotel in Bendigo.

From the Victoria Hotel, Becker with his new wife, went on to host the Royal Hotel, Port Melbourne, the Dublin Hotel in Arden Street, North Melbourne, and in 1895 he took the license of the All Nations Hotel, Lennox Street, Richmond.

Although in his 40s, the call of the travelling showman was always loud in his ears, and in between stints as publican, he continued performing. The most unusual stage show in his career came just prior to him taking the license of the All Nations Hotel in February 1895.

all-nations-hotel-richmond-vic

The All Nations Hotel, Richmond Victoria. Picture: Google Street View.

During January 1895, at the age of 42, he travelled to Brisbane, Hobart, Adelaide and Sydney performing his strangest show yet, as an “extraordinary sinuous contortionist”.

It was from this time that Becker seems to have made a few wrong business decisions and his life began to fall apart. He built a grand boxing hall beside the All Nations Hotel in Lennox Street Richmond about the same time he was confined to bed with an unknown illness. He was laid-up for over three months. Despite this he pushed on with his boxing hall, with the venture opening for business in October 1895. The Coolgardie Miner reported on October 18 1895:

VICTOR’S HALL.

The opening of the above hall, which is situated at Richmond, and close to the old Crystal Palace, was witnessed by a vast assemblage last Saturday evening. The hall can provide room for about 600 although Victor says it will hold 800, and is lofty and well ventilated. Mons. Victor delivered an oration, and dwelt upon his future intentions, &c, at some length, but the crowd wanted fight, not talk.

The crowd, however, were not aware of Becker’s illness, and his inability to perform any strenuous activities. By February the following year he was forced to close the hall after the brewery, which owned the land, called him in on his debts. He was unable to pay, and the building was advertised for lease as a livery stable by the brewery. The Sydney Referee tried to help out Becker, by placing the following article in the newspaper on Wednesday 13 May 1896:

A DESERVING CASE

A Good Athlete in Trouble.

Last week I received the following letter from Mons. Victor, who was very prominent as a Graeco-Roman wrestler some years back, and lately took an active interest in boxing. He is now in strained circumstances, and being a real good fellow himself, ever ready to assist others in distress, it behoves us to do what we can to help him out of his present bad plight. Any subscriptions sent to this paper will be gratefully acknowledged: – Dear “Amateur,” – I saw by your paper last week that you were kind enough to mention that a testimonial had been started to try to help me on to business again. I have been for the last six months very ill in bed, and it will be a long time before I will be right again. While I was ill the brewery foreclosed on the bill of sale, and I left the hotel without a shilling. If you will be so kind as to make an appeal through your paper I shall feel very grateful. Thanking you for your kindness.—

I am, &c, MONS. Victor.

Melbourne, May 5, 1896.

The following month, Becker’s wife, Louise received the license of the Oxford Club Hotel in Lonsdale Street, North Melbourne. It seems though she was estranged, and that he hadn’t been living with her for some time. Becker continued performing various types of restrained athletic shows, with him taking a particular interest in the goldfields towns of Coolgardie, Boulder and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. He started gymnasiums and athletic instruction classes in the goldfield towns, as well as reportedly owning a number of pubs (Although I’m unable to find his name connected to any of the pubs in the towns).

Becker was granted a divorce from his wife, Louise in 1900 when he found her in bed with another man after returning from one of his frequent roadshows to Western Australia. The Melbourne Weekly Times reported on Saturday February 24 1900:

BECKER V. BECKER.

A petition by Victor Louis Becker for a divorce from Louise Becker, on the ground of misconduct with John Evans, who was joined as co-respondent. Mr A E. Jones appeared for the petitioner. Petitioner stated that he was married to the respondent on the 20th November, 1889, at St. Mark’s Church, Golden Square, Bendigo by the Rev. R. Buchanan. They lived together at various places until August, 1898, when she told him that the business they were carrying on – they were keeping a restaurant – was too quiet for her. On the 8th August she left him, and he found that she was staying at a house in Moor street, Fitzroy, where the co-respondent was also living. On Sunday, 23rd August, he and a man in his employ went to the house. He rushed into the room and found the co-respondent, who was a colored person, and well-known on the variety stage as a clog dancer, there. Petitioner, acting on legal advice, refrained from doing anything to the corespondent. Albert Ernest Jones, a waiter formerly employed by the petitioner, said that when the respondent was leaving, she remarked that it was too slow for her there. He went with the petitioner to Fitzroy on the 28th August, when they found the respondent and co-respondent in a room together. Petitioner said to respondent, “So you left me for —- like that.” His Honor granted a decree nisi, with costs against the co-respondent.

Becker continued his roadshows, travelling to the capitals of the colonies, performing his “conjuring entertainment” as an illusionist and “shadowgraphist” from 1900 through to 1903. In between referring boxing and wrestling matches, he was performing his shows ‘the Mystic Marble Statue’ and the ‘Mysterious Talking Hand’ to crowds in Perth, and Melbourne.

While the French showman was battling marital problems, he was also facing increasing financial difficulties. He had been drawing on £300, from the Bank of Australasia since June 1902, and which by July 1903 was almost exhausted.

Although many of his friends believed that his death on August 19 1903 was not suicide, and could have been an accident, an inquest found otherwise. The Melbourne coroner, Mr Candler found Becker had shot himself in his bedroom at the Ballarat Star Hotel. The Kalgoorlie Miner reported on Thursday August 20 1903:

SUPPOSED SUICIDE

MELBOURNE. Aug. 19.

“Mons Victor,” conspicuous in bygone years as wrestler and athlete, was found dead in his room at the City Hotel this afternoon with a bullet wound in the head. A revolver was found lying close to the body. The deceased, whose real name was Victor Becker, but was known all over Australia as ‘Mons Victor,’ was a Frenchman. Although advanced in years, he enjoyed splendid health, and invariably had a source of income. His moods were always genial. In the light of these facts his friends can not believe that he committed suicide, and consider that he may have accidentally fired the fatal shot. When Victor quitted wrestling, about 15 years ago, he became a hotelkeeper in this State. He spent some time in West Australia. Lately he had interested himself in theatrical ventures, and only to-day was to have started out ahead of a theatrical company to tour the State.

Just weeks before Becker had performed in Perth, Adelaide and Kalgoorlie he had announced he was taking his “conjuring entertainment” to South Africa. He advertised to sell his gramophone just days before he was found dead in his hotel room, and his friends said he gave no indication that he was a man contemplating suicide. The Ballarat Star newspaper reported on Saturday August 22 1903:

THE DEATH OF MR. M. VICTOR

VERDICT OF SUICIDE MELBOURNE, Friday.

An inquest was held today by Dr Cole on the body of Victor Becker, who was better known as “Mons. Victor,” at one time a champion wrestler and athlete, who shot himself on Wednesday last. The evidence showed that the deceased had recently returned from West Australia, where he had been running a gramaphone and illusion show. He appears to have fallen upon bad times, as in June of last year he placed a sum of £300 to his credit in the Bank of Australasia. He had been drawing against this until there was only a balance of £1 10s 6d remaining. His wife had called to see him on Monday last at the Ballarat Star Hotel, where he had been staying, but she was too ill to appear to give evidence today. Notwithstanding that he appeared in good spirits the licensee of the hotel, Mr F. Foxhall, considered that deceased had premeditated suicide for two or three days. Monday last was the first time he had failed to pay his lodging account. He had also sold a gramaphone for £10, and had been drinking more than usual. The coroner returned a verdict of suicide, which was premeditated, but there was no evidence to show the state of the deceased’s mind at the time.

Mons Victor’s funeral was widely reported around Australia, and was largely attended by Melbourne’s celebrity set, including actors and athletes. The Melbourne Sportsman reported his funeral on August 25:

All that remained of the once formidable champion middle-weight wrestler, Mons. Victor, were consigned to their last resting-place, the Melbourne General Cemetery, on Saturday afternoon, when there were a fair number of the late athlete’s surviving confreres present. General regret was expressed at Victor’s untimely end, and it was agreed that matrimonial and monetary worries were at the bottom of it all. The pity of it!

Becker’s ex-wife, Louise continued as a Melbourne publican, before her death in 1914.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2016.


Categories: Melbourne Hotels, Victoria hotels, Western Australia hotels

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