The Great Lafayette: The Magician Who Tricked Death

The Great Lafayette: The Magician Who Tricked Death

We all enjoy a bit of magic every now and then. Even though we know it’s all sleight of hand, smoke & mirrors, there is always an acceptable amount of suspension of disbelief from the audience, enough to allow us to sink into the fantasy and accept the illusion we see before us as something whimsical and mysterious. Today we are going to look at a famous magician with an amazing story to share.

His name was Sigmund Neuberger aka The Great Lafayette. Nowadays he doesn’t really enjoy the same level of fame as some of his contemporaries (Houdini, for example) but, in his day, he was the most successful stage performer (of any kind) in the world. Audiences went crazy for his illusions. Quick change acts were his specialty and he perfected his signature illusion called The Lion’s Bride which was, in of itself, a 25-minute spectacle where Lafayette would take the place of a lion.

lion's bride

The set of the “Lion’s Bride”. Photo Credit: Edinburgh Library

Obviously, with so much success comes envy. Lafayette was reportedly hated by many of his contemporaries and even by his owns staff for being extremely demanding. This may or may not be true. One person who did like him, however, was the aforementioned Harry Houdini. In fact, one time, Houdini gave Lafayette a present in the form of a dog. Lafayette fell instantly in love with the dog he named Beauty. The two became inseparable and Lafayette spoiled her to the point of extreme. In fact, Beauty lived a life of luxury most humans never get to experience. Wherever Lafayette performed, Beauty had her own suite; she rode in a private coach everywhere she went; she wore a diamond-studded collar; she dined on 5-course meals every day.

The problem was that all that sitting and eating wasn’t extremely healthy for her and, unsurprisingly, Beauty died of a stroke on April 30 1911. Lafayette was the saddest man on the planet. Completely inconsolable, one story (probably apocryphal) says that, in a prophetic moment, Lafayette even said that his own death would not be far away.

He wanted to give Beauty a proper sendoff and this included a human funeral and a burial in a human cemetery. Initially, his request was refused, but it was eventually accepted under the condition that he would also be buried in the same lot (not immediately, of course). Despite his grief, Lafayette had just begun a 2-week run at the Empire Theatre in Edinburgh so, as the saying goes, “the show must go on”. And it did…but not for very long.

Just four days after Beauty died, Lafayette was performing his standard routine at the Empire Theatre. He was doing the big finale, The Lion’s Bride, when a faulty stage lamp caused a fire. The audience managed to make it out in one piece, but the performers weren’t so lucky. Standard procedure involved securing the side-doors because the act did involve a lion, after all. When it was all said and done, 11 stage members died in the fire and Lafayette was among them. If you’re interested, you can watch a 100-year old film with the aftermath of the fire here.

Lafayette actually made it out of the fire initially. However, he went back to try and save a horse and got trapped by the flames. His body was found the day after. Although the remains were too charred to be identified, Lafayette was recognized by the elaborate costume he wore during the performance (which was that of a Turkish pasha). His body was sent to the cemetery in order to make burial preparations.

However, a few days later, while people were digging through the rubble, they found another body. This one had Lafayette’s expensive rings he liked to wear. Although it was completely unintentional, Lafayette pulled off one final trick – he switched places with his body double who was also wearing the same costume. Obviously, the mistake was fixed and the actual Lafayette’s remains were then brought to the cemetery to be buried next to Beauty.