The magician whose greatest illusion was death

THIS is the story of magic and illusion, doppelgangers and death, creativity and confusion. It is the true story of a magician who died as he had lived, surrounded by mystery.

Little is known about the early years of Sigmund Neuberger. He was born in 1872 in Munich and his family emigrated to America, where he first turns up in vaudeville as a crackshot with a bow and arrow. Then an outing to see the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo opened his eyes to the spectacle of theatrical illusion.

He next emerged in 1900s London, reincarnated as The Great Lafayette.

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The audience marvelled at his sleight of hand, going wild for his signature illusion "The Lion's Bride" – a 25-minute drama which saw Lafayette transform from a Turkish pasha to take the place of a real lion. It brought the house down.Lafayette quickly became the highest paid performer of his time, earning around 44,000 a year (or about 2.75 million today) and his show was booked ten years in advance.

He was a perfectionist who demanded total loyalty and obedience from his staff, insisting that they salute him and grant him access to their bank statements. Unsurprisingly he was not always liked. Will Goldston wrote in his Sensational Tales of Mystery Men:

"Lafayette was the most hated magician that ever lived. He was so intensely unpopular that he was greeted everywhere with the most utter and open contempt."

Arthur Setterington was so intrigued by this account that he decided to find out more and wrote his own book, The Life and Times of The Great Lafayette, and was surprised by what he discovered.

"He treated his company very well," says Setterington. "He paid them way above the going rate and took care of them. I think it was just jealousy that gained him his reputation."

Lafayette was somewhat misanthropic, avoiding close relationships with anyone other than his dog Beauty. A pit bull given to him by the escape artist Harry Houdini, Beauty lived in luxury, enjoying her own suite of rooms and eating sumptuous five-course meals. A sign in Lafayette's London home made clear to visitors the importance of Beauty to her master:"You may drink my wine; you may eat my food; you may command my servants; but you must respect my dog."

Beauty was wearing her diamond-studded dog collar as she travelled with Lafayette in their private Pullman coach to Edinburgh on 30 April 1911. They booked into the Caledonian Hotel in adjoining suites and prepared for their two-week run at the Empire Theatre.

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Tragedy struck the very next day when Beauty died of a stroke. Lafayette was inconsolable.

"Beauty was his life," says Setterington. "He was shattered by her death and performed each evening with his shoulders shaking with grief. He announced that his own death could not be far away."

Lafayette was adamant that his dog be accorded a human burial, but was told that the only way a dog could be buried in consecrated ground was in the grave of its owner. Lafayette bought a plot in Piersfield Cemetery, himself pledging to be buried into the Edinburgh soil beside her when he died. The funeral was to be held on 10 May.

Through his suffering, Lafayette continued to work. It was nearly 11pm the night before the funeral and the Empire Theatre was filled with a capacity crowd of 3,000 paying admirers. Lafayette, dressed flamboyantly, changed places with his double and prepared to don the lion skin for the finale of The Lion's Bride. As the lion roared, an oriental lantern from the set caught fire. Flames licked round the proscenium, draughts forcing the smoke outwards. The fire curtain was brought down and panic was averted by the genius of the conductor who instructed the orchestra to begin the national anthem. On cue the audience stood and was ushered to safety.

Behind the safety curtain, the scene on stage was desperate. Theatre policy insisted that all exits onto stage be locked. There was nowhere to run. The Great Lafayette was last seen on stage attempting to rescue his black stallion Arizona.

At 5am a charred body was discovered wearing Lafayette's pasha costume, lying beside a dead horse and lion. It is believed to be the body of the great one. Also recovered were two members of the company, mistakenly thought to be two children, who are later identified as two midgets. (Read how The Scotsman of 11 May 1911 reported the fire.)

Next day, Lafayette's London solicitor arrived in Edinburgh and voiced concern that the body was missing Lafayette’s conspicuous rings. Still, the body was removed to Glasgow for cremation in preparation for the funeral.

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Three days after the late-night blaze, a workman sifting through the rubble of the ruined theatre found a severed papier-mch hand, pointing the way to an overlooked body. The hand on this body was adorned with rings. It was later identified as Lafayette.Once the body mix-up was cleared Lafayette's funeral was carried out according to his wishes. It was one of the most spectacular scenes ever witnessed in Edinburgh.

Four Belgium horses with nodding plumes carried his coffin. Behind the hearse came Lafayette's silver Mercedes, the only occupant his other dog Mable sitting bolt upright. When the procession reached the cemetery the Jewish rabbi refused to conduct the ceremony when he learned Beauty was to be buried too. An Edinburgh minister was found to carry out the funeral and the urn containing the ashes of The Great Lafayette were placed between the two outstretched paws of his beloved friend.

Floral tributes covered the area, one from Houdini in the shape of a dog's head read:"To the memory of my friend Lafayette, from the friend who gave him his best friend Beauty." Another tribute, from the heroine of The Lion's Bride, Lalla Sabini, a six-foot high floral depiction of a stage with the words "The Last Act" picked out in white.

So ended the life of one of the world's greatest illusionists. Whether he really foresaw his own death or whether it was just spectacular coincidence can never be known. What is without doubt is that in death The Great Lafayette pulled off one of the most extravagant illusions of his life.

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