The Great Lafayette – Forgotten Illusionist
Sigmund Neuberger was born in Munich in 1871 and, just as with the trade he worked in, details of his life are a bit of a mystery. His family emigrated to the United States in 1889 where he became a vaudeville entertainer with a sharp shooting bow-and-arrow act. He also worked with a quick-change artist and perfected his techniques that he later made part of his own performances.
From Neuberger to Lafayette
By the late 1890s, he was in Britain and billing himself as “The Great Lafayette.”
He had watched a show put on by the magician Chung Ling Soo, whose real name was William Ellsworth Robinson of New York City.
Soo’s performance was billed as “The World’s Greatest Magician, in a Performance of Oriental Splendor and Weird Mysticism” and it inspired Neuberger to become a grand illusionist.
He created many tricks in which he would appear, disappear, and reappear elsewhere in a theatre. His signature illusion was called the Lion’s Bride. It was a 25-minute drama involving a beautiful female assistant, a horse, a real lion, and several actors.
The dramatic climax came as Lafayette jumped off his horse just as the woman was about to be thrown into the cage with the lion and assumed the bride’s character complete with costume. As Lafayette, wearing a veil, was about to be devoured by the big cat the animal shed its skin to reveal the illusionist himself where moments before a real lion had been.
The staging of this illusion was so convincing that many of those watching believed they had witnessed real magic.
Tricks such as this left audiences stunned and The Great Lafayette was booked for engagements ten years in advance. At the height of his fame he was making the equivalent of $3 million a year in today’s money.
An Illusionist’s Best Friend
Lafayette was a bit of a loner, with few friends. In the late 19th century, as he was struggling to make a name for himself in the music halls he palled up with another impoverished magician called Erik Weisz.
Weisz gave Lafayette a dog for companionship. Lafayette called the animal Beauty and became absolutely devoted to her. One evening, she broke loose from her handlers in the wings and ran on stage. The audience thought it was part of the act and Lafayette was quick to see the potential. Beauty was taught to do tricks that became part of The Great Lafayette’s routine.
As Lafayette began to earn vast amounts of money he lavished every luxury on Beauty. She wore a diamond-studded collar, stayed in the best rooms in top hotels where she slept on velvet cushions, and ate at the finest restaurants.
He had a plaque put on the outside of his London home that must have been disconcerting to visitors. It read “The more I see of people, the more I love my dog.” Inside, there was another notice that gave visitors advice on how to comport themselves: “You may eat my food, you may command my servants, but you must respect my dog.”
Erik Weisz went on to fame and fortune himself under the stage name Harry Houdini.
The Great Lafayette’s Last Performance
Lafayette was booked for a two-week run at the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh in May 1911. The shows were sold out in a venue that held 3,000. But, four days into the run Beauty died; a combination of a diet too rich for a dog and age.
Lafayette was devastated by the loss of his best friend. But, the show must go on. His biographer, Arthur Setterington, wrote “He was shattered by her death and performed each evening with his shoulders shaking with grief. He announced that his own death could not be far away.” A prophetic utterance.
The evening performance on May 9, 1911 was coming to its triumphant close. Lafayette was about to put on the lion costume when an oriental lantern set fire to some drapery. The flames spread quickly and the fire curtain was lowered. The audience evacuated safely, but those backstage were not so lucky and ten perished. Lafayette did get out but went back into the building to try and save his horse.
The next day, charred remains wearing a Turkish costume were found in the wreckage next to a dead horse. Arrangements were made for Lafayette's cremation and burial alongside his beloved Beauty. But, the illusionist had one final trick up his sleeve. His lawyer arrived from London and wanted to know why Lafayette’s rings were not on his body.
Three days later, a workman poking through the rubble found a body with rings on its hands. It was identified as Lafayette and the earlier body turned out to be one of the doubles used in his show.
The burial as previously arranged went ahead.
Silent Film of the Theatre Wreckage
- Harry Houdini is still famous today, but almost nobody has heard of The Great Lafayette. This probably has to do with the fact that Houdini lived into the beginnings of the early mass media of film and radio and he learned how to exploit it, while Lafayette was aloof and reclusive.
- Chung Ling Soo, who inspired The Great Lafayette, was an occasional performer of the startling bullet-catching trick. A member of the audience selects a bullet, marks it, and loads it into the gun. An assistant then fires the gun and the magician spits out the bullet he has caught between his teeth. The trick works because the gun is modified to fire a blank while the marked bullet is switched by sleight of hand. On the night of March 23, 1918, Chung Ling Soo was coming to the end of his show at the Wood Green Empire in north London. On this evening he decided to end his act with the bullet-catching trick. The command to fire was given and two shots were fired. The gun had malfunctioned and, in addition to discharging the fake bullet, had also discharged a real one. Chung Ling Soo was hit in the lung and died the following day in hospital.
- For very sound reasons, many illusionists believe the bullet-catching trick to be cursed.
One Way in which the Bullet-Catching Trick is Performed (Scantily Clad Young Female Assistants are Essential).
- “The Magician whose Greatest Illusion was Death.” The Scotsman, September 8, 2005.
- “The Dead Magician’s Final Trick.” Debra Kelly, Knowledge Nuts, October 16, 2014.
- “The World’s most Famous, Forgotten Illusionist.” Ian Robertson, The Heretic Magazine, July 4, 2015.
- “How not to Catch a Bullet.” Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, June 9, 2006.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor