Lost Edinburgh: The death of the Great Lafayette

THE GREAT Lafayette was one of the best-known entertainers of the early 20th century. A two-week stint in Edinburgh in May 1911 would end in dramatic fashion.
The Great Lafayette's grave at Piershill CemeteryThe Great Lafayette's grave at Piershill Cemetery
The Great Lafayette's grave at Piershill Cemetery

Lafayette’s mystifying illusions and elaborate quick-changes were presented in the most lavish and spectacular act ever seen in the music halls. He was the highest paid entertainer in the theatre, receiving a weekly fee of £350.

An eccentric lifestyle

Born in Munich in 1871, Sigmund Neuberger, AKA The Great Lafayette, had an eccentric lifestyle. He lived as a bachelor recluse with a small cross-bred terrier, named Beauty, which he had been given by Harry Houdini. The dog slept on velvet cushions, dined at the table with Lafayette, had a collar of pure gold studded with diamonds. The radiator ornament on Lafayette’s limousine was a metal statuette of the dog. Lafayette’s London home and his private railway carriage had special rooms for Beauty, fitted with dog-sized settees and miniature porcelain baths. A plaque over the entrance to Lafayette’s London home was inscribed: ‘The more I see of men the more I love my dog’.

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Stint at the Empire

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Lafayette opened a two-week season at the Empire Theatre of Varieties in Nicolson Street,

Edinburgh on May 1. Four days later Beauty died of apoplexy - caused by over-feeding.

Lafayette was grief-stricken, and had the dog laid out on a silk pillow surrounded by lilies in his rooms in the Caledonian Hotel. Lafayette had Beauty embalmed and was given permission to have the dog interred at Piershill Cemetery, provided he agreed to be buried in the same place. Meanwhile the show went on.

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On Tuesday May 9, 3,000 spectators packed the Empire Theatre for Lafayette’s second evening performance. Lafayette’s act was the finale of the show. He entered, to a trumpet fanfare, dressed in a satin costume and proceeded to shake dozens of birds from a sequined cloth, finally producing a goat from the folds of the material. His act continued with ‘other remarkable illusions and elaborate scenarios in which he demonstrated his habit of changing identity with his many assistants’.

The Lion’s Bride

The finale was the ‘Lion’s Bride’ which involved the use of tapestries, cushions, tents and curtains to create an Oriental setting. An African lion paced restlessly in a cage while fire-eaters, jugglers and contortionists performed. A young woman in Oriental dress walked slowly on stage and entered the cage. When she was inside, the lion roared and reared up ready to pounce. The animal skin was then suddenly ripped away to reveal The Great Lafayette who had mysteriously changed places with the lion.

As The Great Lafayette took his bow a lamp fell amongst the scenery which instantly caught fire.

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A mass of flame shot over the footlights to the stalls. The audience, now accustomed to unusual effects, were slow to recognize the danger. Only when the fire curtain was rapidly lowered did they hurry to the exits. By this time the stage was an inferno. It took three hours to bring the fire under control, and eleven people died. They included members of the orchestra, stage hands, a midget in the act called Little Joe, Alice Dale, a tiny 15-year-old girl who operated a scene-stealing mechanical teddy-bear and the Great Lafayette.

Eyewitness reports claimed Lafayette had escaped but had returned in an attempt to save his horse.

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A charred body, dressed in Lafayette’s costume, was found near the stage, but a further search of the basement revealed another body, this one with the diamond rings which Lafayette always wore.

The first man was one of the doubles that Lafayette often used in his act.

Funeral procession

On May 14, 1911 the streets of Edinburgh were thronged with spectators to see his ashes moved from a funeral parlour in Morrison Street to Piershill Cemetery. The funeral was described as ‘one of the most extraordinary interments of modern times’. The first car in the long cortege was Lafayette’s silver-grey Mercedes, the sole passenger being a Dalmatian hound. There was great ceremonial at the Cemetery, as Beauty’s coffin was opened and Lafayette’s ashes placed beside the dog. Harry Houdini sent a floral representation of Beauty to the funeral.

The grave, with memorial stones to Beauty and The Great Lafayette, can be seen on a grassy mound just inside the Portobello Road entrance to Piershill Cemetery.

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