One of my favourite stories from the beautiful and intriguing history of magic is that of a Magician who performed under the stage name ‘The Great Lafayette’. While hardly any audiences alive today will have heard of him, he was one of the most famous Magicians working during the Golden Age of Magic. Even though he may not have been the most likeable character, the story behind his death is stunning, and has elements of mystery, creativity and magic. Not only that, but fans of the film ‘The Prestige’ may also recognise something that may have inspired the fantastic Christopher Nolan, who wrote and directed it.
Born Sigmund Ignatius Neuberger in Munich, 1871, he quickly emigrated to the land of opportunity that was America as soon as he was old enough. He had quite an artistic flair and wanted to combine this with a growing interest in theatre. The esteemed magical historian Jim Steinmeyer writes that ‘when it came to performing, whatever Neuburger lacked in skills he made up for in ambition’, which suggests that in his earlier days he still had quite a lot to learn about the world of stage illusion. In 1892, he legally changed his name to ‘Lafayette’ and started to work the Dime Museum circuits with a standard run-of-the-mill magic act titled ‘Lafayette, the Man of Mystery, in Necromantic Conjuring’, in which he had an exhibition ‘Freak’ called ‘Clarence Dale’, a handsome 6 year old with curly hair, billed as the “Big Headed Boy”, who according to his marketing materials had a skull ’48 inches in circumference…the largest in the world’. Later in 1892, he travelled to Europe with a Bow and Arrow act, in which he demonstrated amazing accuracy through different trick shots, but unfortunately failed to impress the audiences there and left Berlin after a particularly awful show. He made his way to London and met a theatre impresario there named Edward Moss, to whom he pitched his Bow and Arrow act. Unfortunately for him, Moss was actually in the audience for the Berlin show and like everybody else, was less than impressed. Lafayette was forced to travel back to the States and resume touring with his Freak Show act, ‘The Big Headed Boy’, all the while working on new material and new ideas for different illusions.
In 1899 he met my all time hero, Harry Houdini, when they were both struggling magicians sharing a stage bill in Tennessee, and struck up a strong friendship. According to the historical accounts, Lafayette’s pet dog had died that week, which had him down in the dumps, so to cheer him up, Houdini took a trip to the local pound and found a cute puppy, a spaniel with a soft gray coat, and gave it to his friend as a gift. It was love at first site for Lafayette! He named her ‘Beauty’ and took her everywhere with him, as well as incorporating her into his act. The great historical Jim Steinmeyer again unearthed a brilliant fact about this, that Beauty was actually a Mongrel, which was considered a slur for dogs, and so Lafayette actually invented a sophisticated sounding pedigree for her, calling her a ‘Tennessee Hound’ or a Gheckhund, supposedly a rare breed from the nonexistent island of Gheck in the Azores. Nice try Lafayette. Nice try.
Lafayetter’s career shot to stardom when he began presenting impersonation acts of the most famous magician at that time, a Chinese performer named Chung Ling Foo. He also garnered huge notoriety for his ‘quick change’ acts, whereby he would rapidly change places with somebody else on stage. 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. The lion paced restlessly in a cage while fire-eaters, jugglers and contortionists performed. A young woman in an Oriental dress walked slowly on stage and entered the cage. When she was inside, the lion roared and reared up ready to pounce. The animal skin was then suddenly ripped away to reveal The Great Lafayette who had mysteriously changed places with the beast. This act took him from the US to London and back again. It’s reported that at one stage he was one of the highest paid Magicians in the world, if not the highest, earning the equivalent of around $2.75 million a year, with theatre bookings coming in that kept him fully booked ten years in advance. So, he hit the jackpot. However, by all accounts he was actually one of the most hated magicians around as well. He seemed to have few friends, refused alcohol, and according to his own interviews, he didn’t seek the company of female companions. It’s often difficult to tell whether his flamboyancies and eccentricities were indicative of something, or just all part of his act, because he was a marketing genius who knew how to make headlines wherever he went. Beauty was his only beloved, who used to eat the finest cuisine off of a gold plate at the dinner table, had her own bed in the hotel rooms and travelled with him no matter what the rules and regulations stated. Lafayette also routinely tacked a sign on the door of his suite of rooms which read, “You may drink my wine; you may eat my food; but you must respect my dog.”
Tragedy would strike Lafayette when he arrived in Edinburgh on the 30th of April 1911, where he was booked for a two-week run at the Empire Theatre. The next day Beauty died of a stroke, and Lafayette was inconsolable, stating that this must be a sign that his own death was not too far away. Of course he demanded that Beauty be given a human burial in a consecrated ground, and had to contractually pledge that he too would be buried there upon his own death, before they would allow the funeral for Beauty.
Through his suffering, Lafayette continued with his show, and at around 11pm the night before the funeral (May 9th), disaster struck at the Empire Theatre, which was packed to the rafters with 3,000 strong audience members. As the Lion roared during ‘The Lion’s Bride’ illusion, a faulty lantern set fire to the set, which went up in flames in a matter of moments. Audience members, who were used to seeing odd effects on stage didn’t realise that this wasn’t part of the act, and it wasn’t until the Orchestra began playing the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’, that they understood something was wrong and began evacuating. Backstage, however, was an inferno because the safety curtain had been lowered, but became jammed leaving just a small gap at the bottom, through which a deadly draught of air fanned the flames and fed the enormous fire. To make matters worse, the intensely private Lafayette had the back stage doors locked to avoid members of the public sneaking in and seeing his secret set-ups. Meanwhile, a Lion was running wild amidst this disaster, and Lafayette was last seen running through the flames trying to save his horse, a black stallion named ‘Arizona’. It took 3 hours to bring the fire under control, and eleven people died, including members of the orchestra, stage hands and two midgets called Little Joe and Alice Dale, who operated a mechanical Teddy Bear. At 5am the next morning, a charred body dressed in Lafayette’s costume was found dead next to the corpse of Arizona the Horse, and a dead Lion. Shortly afterwards, the body was moved to Glasgow for cremation in preparation for his funeral.
Three days after the fire, a workman was sifting through the rubble of the destroyed theatre, and found something incredible – a jammed trap-door underneath the stage area. After he prised it open he discovered a body – but not just any body, the Great Lafayette himself. The body that had been sent to the crematorium was that of his body double, whom nobody ever knew about. On the 14th of May the urn containing the Great Lafayette’s ashes was taken through Edinburgh, witnessed by a crowd estimated to number over 250,000, before being laid to rest in the paws of his beloved (and now stuffed) Beauty, at Piershill Cemetery.
So there you have it, one of the most interesting stories I’ve read about a Magician in a long long time. I’ll leave you with a quote about the death of The Great Lafayette, from Houdini himself:
“He fooled them in life and he fooled them in death, I envy him.”
Footage from after the fire can be seen here: