The Great Lafayette
Some time ago a friend of mine in Edinburgh related an excellent story about a historic character buried in Piershill Cemetary in the city. It was a fascinating tale and one I’d never heard previously. The story concerned one Sigmund Neuberger – better known by his stage name ‘The Great Lafayette’.
The Great Lafayette with ‘Beauty’
The Great Lafayette, a German who’s family moved to the USA when he was a youngster, was the highest paid magician and illusionist of his day. A great admirer of his was non other than his friend Harry Houdini who presented him with a cross-bred terrier puppy who Neuberger promptly named ‘Beauty’.
Beauty led a five-star life of luxury with his eccentric bachelor owner with its own suite of rooms and wore a personalised diamond and gold collar. Lafayette’s home and also his own private railway carriage had such luxuries as special rooms with terrier-sized sofas and porcelain baths. Even the highly-paid illusionist’s limousine featured a metal statuette of the dog on its bonnet. It was also said that when on tour in Edinburgh, Neruberger would not only rent himself a room at the city’s expensive Caledonian Hotel but also one for his pet dog.
Whilst on one visit to Edinburgh The Great Lafayette’s dog passed away and the distraught magician insisted that his pet should be buried in the city’s Piershill Cemetary – something the city fathers strongly objected to. They eventually relented when Lafayette agreed to be buried there himself upon his death.
Only four days after Beauty’s burial, Neuberger was performing in Edinburgh during his two-week run at the Empire Theatre of Varieties in Nicholson Street when a terrible calamity occurred. An electrical fault resulted
in a fire in the theatre and the set burst into huge flames in only minutes. The audience did not evacuate as they believed it to be part of the show and only when ‘God Save the King’ was played by the orchestra did they alight the building.
Ten of the stage players were burnt to death and the body of The Great Lafayette was discovered and transported to Glasgow for cremation. A wicked twist to the story occurred two days later when workmen found another body dressed identically to Lafayette. It was soon realised that the original body of ‘Lafayette’ in the crematorium was that of a body double used in his stage performance. Stories vary here as some claim that there were several bodies found – all dressed as Lafayette.
The great illusionist was subsequently cremated and his ashes buried along with his beloved terrier at Piershill after his courtage on May 14th, 1911, had travelled through a crowd of some fifteen thousand in Edinburgh’s streets. So ended the story of the magician whose greatest illusion was death itself.