MJ STEEL COLLINS tells how a ghostly magician came to haunt an Edinburgh theatre
A strange shade is said to haunt the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. Staff have been unnerved on occasion by a six foot tall shadow figure seen in various places round the theatre, from just outside the wardrobe room to the upper circle. The apparition has also been blamed for lights flickering and various cold spots around the building. It’s believed that this is the ghost of the Great Lafayette, an Edwardian illusionist who was the David Blaine of his day. An eccentric figure, the story of how he died is a suitably dramatic one.
The Greatest Edwardian Illusionist
The Great Lafayette was born as Sigmund Neuberger in Munich in 1872, immigrating to America as a teenager, where he was introduced to the world of magic and illusion upon seeing a show by Chinese illusionist Ching Ling Foo. Neuberger started appearing as The Great Lafayette in the 1900s and became a sensation. He was the highest paid performer of the era, earning £44,000 per year, £3.6 million in today’s money.
He was best known act was The Lion Bride, involving the rather grand scene of a stage filled with jugglers and exotic dancers. A lion sat in a cage in the centre of the stage, and a young woman dressed in a bridal gown, crossed the stage, into the cage, where the Lion proceeded to terrify her. At the crucial moment, the ‘lion’ cast its skin aside to reveal The Great Lafayette. Audiences loved it. The switch occurred when the bride had the audience’s attention and other performers obscured their view of the lion’s cage. The lion was led out of the cage and replaced by The Great Lafayette, who wore a lion skin.
The love of The Great Lafayette’s life, however, was his pet terrier, Beauty, who had been a gift from Harry Houdini. The pooch was spoiled rotten, getting sumptuous meals, and having her own bath tub in The Great Lafayette’s home in London. Beauty went everywhere with him, and formed part of his act.
The Death Of Man’s Best Friend
In May 1911, The Great Lafayette arrived in Edinburgh for a two week run at The Empire Palace Theatre, which stood where the Edinburgh Festival Theatre now stands. Things took a tragic turn, when a few days into his stint, The Great Lafayette was devastated when Beauty died in her sleep of stroke. No expenses were spared in marking the dog’s passing. She was embalmed at The Royal College of Surgeons and placed in a glass topped, oak coffin.
The Great Lafayette wanted her buried in Piershill Cemetery in Edinburgh, but was only granted permission after he agreed to be laid to rest there too after his own death. He paid £60 for a marble vaulted spot below a Weeping Elm. He was inconsolable at Beauty’s death (and visiting her at the local undertakers on a twice daily basis), it was show business and The Great Lafayette continued to wow the Edinburgh audiences.
Disaster struck the show on the 9th of May, the night before Beauty was due to be laid to rest. A lamp caused the set to go on fire during the Lion’s Bride illusion and everything went up in flames instantly. The audience escaped unharmed, whilst the iron fire curtain was lowered on stage. Confusion reigned backstage. The Great Lafayette initially escaped, but returned, either to rescue his horse or ordered back to shoot the lion, which had been seen running about with its mane on fire. The illusionist didn’t get out a second time and died with other performers and the animals. It took three hours to contain the fire, which was caused by an electrical fault.
Two Bodies, One Great Lafayette
A charred body, wearing The Great Lafayette’s sword was promptly identified as his, and sent to Glasgow for cremation, as Edinburgh had no crematoriums at the time. That seemed to be that, but that night another body was located under the burned stage, and was identified as The Great Lafayette by the illusionist’s solicitor due to the gold rings on its hands, which The Great Lafayette was renowned to wear. A mix up had occurred. The first body sent for cremation was actually that of The Great Lafayette’s stunt double, C E Richards.
Beauty, meanwhile, was laid to rest as planned on 10 May, but a lot of wrangling took place to make sure the right body was present at The Great Lafayette’s funeral on 14 May. It was quite a grand affair, with the horse drawn hearse being followed by the illusionist’s private car, sole occupant, his Dalmatian dog, Mabel. Much of Edinburgh turned out to witness the event. The urn containing The Great Lafayette’s ashes was placed in Beauty’s coffin, between her front legs and the tomb closed.
The grave can still be seen today at Piershill Cemetery. The Empire Palace Theatre, carried on after repairs, and the current Edinburgh Festival Theatre opened in 1994, after extensive renovations of the original theatre.