Was It He The Great Lafayette?

The Great Lafayette

The Great Lafayette was a popular celebrity. His shows were sophisticated and he often used two assistants dressed exactly like himself.

Lafayette was a quick change artist and illusionist, magician and world class entertainer.Much of his life was a mystery. His name was Sigmund Neuberger born in Munich in 1872.The family in search of a better life emigrated to America.

His stage début was in a vaudeville act as an expert with a bow and arrow. Vaudeville marked the beginning of popular entertainment and began to grow into big business. 

Lafayette must have sensed this when he saw the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo the brilliant magician illusionist.Foo had studied Chinese magic and brought his show to America with great success. He could breath fire and smoke, pull fifteen foot ribbons from his mouth and from a seemingly flat piece of cloth a brimming bowl of water. From this bowl of water Foo produced a small child causing a sensation that swept the country.

 Armed with the spectacular illusionist effects Lafayette sensibly changed his act.

In 1900 he appeared in London transformed from Sigmund to the Great Lafayette. Audiences were transfixed by his magic talents and drama. Posters advertising his spectacular shows were now a popular sight in many cities. His specialty was the Lions Bride which included an oriental setting and a caged lion. A lady walked slowly on the stage and entered the cage with the lion. The lion roared loudly and prepared to pounce, then all of a sudden its skin dropped off to reveal the master Lafayette.

It was not long before he became the highest paid performer of the time with his shows booked ten years ahead.  According to some reports he was a demanding performer expecting his assistants to salute as he passed. Some considered him to be the most hated and unpopular man ever. Arthur Setterington who later wrote The life and Times of the Great Lafayette 1872-1911 investigating these reports found to the contrary he was well liked. Lafayette paid his company assistants above the going rate and looked after them.

He was a man who avoided personal attachments with the exception of his pit bull terrier Beauty. The terrier was a gift from the escape artist  Harry Houdini. Houdini had began as a card magician later becoming an illusionist who could make an elephant and trainer vanish on a stage. Later he developed an escapist act second to none.

Lafayette’s Beauty had her own hotel suits and ate five course meals with relish. “You may drink my wine; you may eat my food; but you must respect my dog.” was on the sign nailed to his London home. On the 30th April 1911 Lafayette and Beauty wearing a diamond studied collar of gold travelled to Edinburgh in a private Pullman coach. The coach had a special room for Beauty with small sofa’s and velvet cushions. In today’s money Lafayette he was paid the equivalent of £2.7 million a year  which was over £40,000 in his time. On arrival he stayed in the Caledonian Hotel and made ready to play in the Empire Theatre. Sadly, his much loved Beauty died the very next day through over eating. Lafayette placed the dog on a silk pillow surrounding it with flowers.

The body of Beauty was prepared for  burial at Piershill Cemetery. The plot chosen was that of a human  and therefore had to be purchased. Also he stipulated a wish to be interned in the same grave. At the time he thought his own demise was not far off. 

 In May 1st his show opened for a two week season of dazzling entertainment. His shoulders shook with grief as he performed each night but continued in his enviable style.

 On a Tuesday at 11pm he was nearing the end of the performance in front of a crowd of 3,000 admirers. Lafayette was dressed in flamboyant style about to chance into the lion skin for the climax of the Lions Bride. An oriental lantern somehow caught fire and spread flames around the stage. Smoke and flames billowed out to the audience.

The audience was used to his illusionary antics and thought it was part of the show.

A quick thinking band conductor brought the fire curtain down to prevent the flames reaching the audience. Instantly the orchestra began to play the national anthem. In response the audience rose for the anthem and was then guided hurriedly out of the building.

 Behind the fire curtain the scene was very different. The back stage doors had been locked according to theatre policy.

The Great Lafayette was last seen alive and on stage trying to rescue Arizona, his black stallion. Some witnesses later were certain he had escaped but hurriedly returned to rescue the stallion. It was early the next morning a body considered to be Lafayette was found in the rubble near a horse and lion.. Two other bodies behind the curtain were identified as a midget and a 15 year old girl who dressed as a mechanical teddy bear in the act.  In all 11 people died in the fierce fire that took three hours to bring under control. In addition to the Fire Service, member of the 4th/5th Royal Scots Territorial from Forrest hill Road ran to assist. 

When Lafayette’s solicitor arrived from London he noted the body assumed to be Lafayette did not have his expensive rings.The body was transported to Glasgow for cremation.

Three nights later the night watchman found a papier-mâché hand on stage pointing to an undiscovered body. It was that of the Great Lafayette still wearing his decorative rings and Pasha costume.

Lafayette's tomb

A funeral procession was held, this time with the real Lafayette. Hugh crowds packed the streets to see four Belgium horses carry his coffin, followed by a long procession of coaches. Then came the now familiar car with his dog Mabel decorated with a black bow. No less than 450 constables were in the vicinity of Piershill of those 130 protected the cemetery. The Jewish pastor realising the dog would be buried with his master in  holy ground refused the rites. Which were carried out by the Reverent D. Findley.

 It looked for all its worth as if Lafayette had carried out his greatest illusion having two funerals. A large floral tribute in white flowers imposed “The Last Act.“

A newspaper reported “One felt a tinge of regret that Lafayette, a man who lived in an atmosphere of advertisement, was not here to see it. Bizarrely, many thought he was. 

Lafayette’s assistants were dressed the same for the act. What happened to the second assistant?

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