Looking for Lafayette

Mar 23 2010 | By More

By Thom Dibdin

Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre is to mark the centenary of the death of the illusionist The Great Lafayette, who died in a fire at the old Empire Theatre, on which the current building is built, on 9 May 1911.

Lafayette’s death is surrounded by myth, rumour and wild speculation and the theatre is keen to hear from people who have information on the tragedy.

Born in Munich in 1872 as Sigmund Neuberger, Lafayette was one of the highest earning stars of his time, with a reported income of £40,000 a year. He lived your bona-fide eccentric celebrity lifestyle, keeping his dog Beauty – a gift from Houdini – in total luxury. It had its own rooms and was fed five course meals.

What is certain of Lafayette’s death is that he was playing to a capacity house of 3,000 people when, during his big signature illusion in the finale of the second evening performance, a stage lamp fell over and ignited part of the elaborate stage set. Under the illusion is was all part of the act, the audience did not evacuate the theatre until the orchestra were signalled to play God Save the King and the safety curtain was lowered.

While the whole audience survived the fire, which took three hours to bring under control, Lafayette and eleven members of his company did not. It is said he perished while attempting to save a stallion.

The big complication comes from the fact that the illusions required different performers to dress in the same outfits. An assistant was initially cremated and interred in Lafayette’s place. The mistake was realised when it was noted that the body had not been wearing the illusionist’s diamond rings. A body with the requisite jewellery was later  found amidst the rubble.

Ironically, Lafayette was still in mourning for Beauty, who had died of overeating, just after their arrival in Edinburgh a few days before. The embalmed body of Beauty was to have been buried in Piershill Cemetery on the 10th. In the event, Lafayette’s funeral was a huge public spectacle with crowds lining Princes Street to watch the cortege pass.

A series of events and exhibitions is planned to mark the centenary and the theatre is asking anyone with information on The Great Lafayette or any of the other victims who lost their lives on that tragic night to contact the theatre. Suggestions on how this date should be celebrated, or any information on the Great Lafayette, should be emailed to: kim.mckenna@eft.co.uk


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