We are in Piershill Cemetery, located on Portobello Road between Edinburgh, Scotland, and Portobello Beach.
The graveyard is known for its Jewish burial grounds, located to the south, and its pet cemetery, located to the right of the entrance, but also for the grave of Sigmund Neuberger, a popular illusionist and magician better know as The Great Lafayette.
The unbelievable and tragic story of how one of the world’s most renowned illusionists and his pampered dog came to buried together in Piershill Cemetery is almost too incredible to be true.
Sigmund Neuberger was born in Munich, Germany, in 1871, and became one of the highest-paid entertainers of his time, with crowds and pay rivaling that of his contemporary and friend Harry Houdini.
It has been reported that he made an estimated 4 million dollars a year in today’s money and due to his ill-temper, he made few alliances as his fame (together with his bank account) began to grow.
Beauty was his terrier, a much-adored dog Houdini himself gifted him.
The Great Lafayette ensured Beauty’s every whim was catered to, indulging her with multi-course meals, diamond-encrusted collars, and even luxurious suites until his death, on May 5, 1911.
Distraught, the Great Lafayette stipulated his beloved companion be buried with him.
This would prove to be very prescient, as the magician succumbed to a similar fate a few days later.
It was on the night of May 9, when the Great Lafayette was performing his famous “Lion’s Bride” act at the Empire Theatre (now the Festival Theatre) in Edinburgh.
He took to the stage of the Nicolson Street venue to perform the illusion his 3,000 strong audience had been awaiting with bated-breath.
The “Lion’s Bride” told the story of Princess Pari Banu who, having survived a shipwreck, is forced to join the harem of the monarch Alep Arslan. Offered the choice of becoming the monarch’s wife or being thrown into a cage with the royal lion, she choosed the latter.
The illusion climaxed with the Princess entering a cage with a real lion, which would leap towards her, only to have its head dramatically torn away, to reveal The Great Lafayette himself.
The act had been performed many times before and should have gone without a hitch, but this time a lantern fell onto the stage, engulfing it in flames.
Because The Great Lafayette was suspicious of interlopers knowing of his conjuring secrets, he had the fire exits locked, and this prevented him and 10 stagehands from escaping the disastrous hell. Luckily, the 3,000 attendees, who at first thought the fire was part of the show, were able to escape.
Interestingly, It is because of this tragedy that we there is a law called, “The Lafayette Bill”, to ensure that, before every performance, the curtain is raised, lowered, and functioning properly. In fact, on the night of the disaster, the drapery rods malfunctioned, adding to the chaos and confusion.
Either way, a body believed to be that of the Great Lafayette was sent to Glasgow for cremation.
However, two days before the burial, work was still going on at the Palace Empire Theatre and as it did they found The Great Lafayette’s body. Again.
And it was identified as the true Great Lafayette by the rings on his fingers, while the initial corpse was that of his body double dressed.
As an act of fate, both owner and dog were buried in the same plot.
The Surgeon’s Hall Museum, which is located just across the street, was responsible for embalming Beauty and placing them in a glass coffin.
It has been reported that almost 300.000 mourners lined the streets of Edinburgh to pay their final respects to one of the world’s greatest entertainers.
But this is not the end of this story, as there are tales that the theater is still haunted by the roars of a lion that perished in the fire, as well as that of this most enigmatic figure of the magician himself. And there have been several documented sightings of a tall well dressed phantom lurking about the auditorium during non-business hours.
Images from web – Google Research