In A Nutshell
In the early 1900s, London was taken by storm by a magician billed as “The Great Lafayette.” Booked 10 years in advance, getting to see him in person was a massive thrill—except for those who attended a fateful show on May 9, 1911. A fire broke out in the theater and ultimately killed several people, including the magician. His body was recovered and prepared for burial alongside his beloved dog, until workmen clearing through the rubble of the fire found him . . . again. The second body was really Lafayette, while the first was that of one of his many doubles used during the show.
The Whole Bushel
Today, when we think of history’s great magicians, we rarely—strangely—add The Great Lafayette to the list. The German-born magician began as a set designer before setting out for America and changing his name from Sigmund Neuberger to the much more magical “The Great Lafayette.” He was so successful that he even garnered the attention of Harry Houdini, who presented him with the gift of a dog named Beauty.
The Great Lafayette didn’t associate with many people, but he was deeply devoted to his dog. A pit bull that lived up to her name, Beauty wore gold and diamond collars and was treated to five meals a day. Tragically, five meals a day isn’t good for anyone, and it led to her early death.
Beauty died in Edinburgh on May 1, 1911. The Great Lafayette was inconsolable, but like all great performers, he knew that the show must go on. He had Beauty embalmed and buried in Pierfield Cemetery, with the express wish that he would be buried beside her one day.
That day was sooner than he thought.
Much of his magic had to do with large-scale sleight-of-hand, where he would seem to appear, disappear, and reappear throughout the theater. And that meant the use of a number of different doubles, which, it turns out, can make things pretty confusing for those sorting through a wreckage.
The main act that he was to be performing on May 9, 1911, was called The Lion’s Bride. A beautiful girl was to walk up on the stage and enter a cage with a real lion. The lion would seem about ready to devour the girl, when its skin would be shed to reveal it was really The Great Lafayette. Ambitious magic was the reason he was so popular; in fact, throughout his career he would make today’s equivalent of around $2.75 million a year.
Unfortunately, the show also included a number of oil lamps set around the stage, and when one of them caught fire, many of the 3,000 people in attendance thought it was part of the act. The fire quickly spread across the whole stage and the band’s conductor, realizing that it wasn’t part of the act and 3,000 lives could depend on him, ordered his band to start playing the national anthem to signal the end of the show. The 3,000 audience members got to their feet and proceeded to the exits in a surprisingly orderly fashion.
All the stage doors were locked, though, and the last reports of The Great Lafayette were of the man trying to save the horse that he shared the stage with. The fire was put out, and nine people were missing—including the magician.
The magician was found in the rubble, and was taken to Glasgow for cremation. Preparations were made to bury him next to his beloved dog, but the magician’s lawyer was concerned. There were rings missing from the body, and no one seemed to be able to explain where they’d gone.
The answer was simple: They were still on his body. Three days later, the body of the real The Great Lafayette was found by workmen who were still sorting through the ruined theater. The body originally thought to be The Great Lafayette was that of one of his doubles, making his last magic trick a bit of sleight-of-hand from beyond the grave.
Ultimately, it was the real magician that was cremated and laid to rest as he wished—between the paws of his beloved dog.