In 1911 one man dominated the vaudeville stage, commanding yearly earnings of what would amount to almost £4million in today’s money. He was lauded by his audiences, sneered at by his detractors and loved by those he himself loved the most; his dogs. He was The Great Lafayette, master magician and illusionist.
The Great Lafayette was born in Munich, 1871, as the not-so-great Sigmund Neuberger before emigrating with his family to America and creating his life on the stage. He did not mix well with other people, he could be domineering and demanding, but he doted on his dogs, most especially the slender hound he was given as a gift by fellow illusionist Harry Houdini. Beauty ate the finest food, wore jewelled collars and slept on silken cushions. When Lafayette was on tour, Beauty stayed in her own suite of rooms.
It is no surprise that when Beauty died unexpectedly, shortly before a run of shows in Edinburgh, Lafayette was inconsolable in his grief. Lafayette demanded that she be buried formally, in a proper grave and in a human cemetery. Officials responded that a pet could only be buried in its owner’s grave so, in order to achieve this goal, Lafayette bought a plot in Edinburgh’s Piersfield cemetery where Beauty would lie, awaiting the day when her master would join her.
Wrapped tightly in a cloak of despair and loss, Lafayette is claimed to have said that her death had shattered his very soul and she would not have long to wait.
He was right.
Less than a fortnight later, Lafayette was performing in the Empire Theatre when something went terribly wrong. A pyrotechnic element of the show, some say an oriental lamp and others a wall sconce, ignited one of the theatre’s curtains, the wooden set dressing was consumed rapidly and the entire stage was enveloped in a roaring inferno. Lafayette himself is said to have escaped the fire but, realising that his black stallion was still in danger, returned to the flames. He was last seen desperately attempting to lead the horse to safety.
Eleven performers, including Lafayette, died in the fire. Amazingly, nobody in the audience was harmed although the theatre itself was razed to the ground. Confusion reigned as a charred body, pulled from the ashes and believed to be Lafayette, was later identified as a body double used in some of the magician’s routines. Where then, was the great illusionist himself? Speculation ran riot.
Legend states that a workman, sifting through the rubble of the theatre some days later, stumbled across a curious find; a papier mâché hand, itself intact but detached from the statue it had come from, that pointed ominously to a corner of the destroyed theatre. The workman followed the silent instruction and found Lafayette’s body, horribly burned but identifiable from rings on his blackened fingers.
Given that his body was so badly burned, Lafayette was cremated and placed in an ornate urn. A grand funeral procession, described as “one of the most extraordinary interments of modern times”, carried the urn to Piersfield Cemetery where it was placed in the grave he had only recently bought, nestled between Beauty’s outstretched paws.
Daniel Pietersen, 08/02/17