The incredible and tragic story of how one of the world’s most renowned illusionists and his pampered pooch came to buried together in this cemetery in the outskirts of Edinburgh is almost too unbelievable to be true.
“The Great Lafayette” was born Sigmund Neuberger in Berlin, Germany, in 1871. He became one of the highest-paid entertainers of his generation, 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 (2020). Due to his ill-temper, the Great Lafayette made few alliances as his fame—along with his bank account—began to grow. Enter Beauty the terrier, a much-adored dog Houdini gifted Neuberger.
The Great Lafayette ensured Beauty’s every whim was catered to, indulging her with multi-course meals, diamond-encrusted collars, and separate suites. Sadly, Beauty died on May 5, 1911. Distraught, the Great Lafayette stipulated his treasured companion be buried with him. This would prove to be very prescient, as the entertainer succumbed to a similar fate a few days later.
On the night of May 9, the Great Lafayette was performing his famous “Lion’s Bride” act at the Empire Theatre (now the Festival Theatre) in Edinburgh. During the course of this quick-change magic act, 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. This prevented him and 10 stagehands from escaping the disastrous inferno. Luckily, the 3,000 attendees, who at first thought the fire was part of the act, were able to escape the inferno.
It is because of this tragedy that we now have a law called, “The Lafayette Bill”. This is is to ensure that before every performance the curtain is raised, lowered, and functioning properly. As on the night of the disaster, the drapery rods malfunctioned, adding to the chaos and confusion.
A body believed to be that of the Great Lafayette was sent to Glasgow for cremation. However, another body was recovered and identified as the true Great Lafayette by the rings on his fingers. The initial corpse was that of his body double dressed.
As an act of fate, both owner and domesticated animal were buried in the same plot. In fact, 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 an estimated 250,000 mourners lined the streets of Edinburgh to pay their final respects to one of the world’s greatest entertainers.
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. There have been several documented sightings of a tall well dressed phantom lurking about the auditorium during non-business hours.
Know Before You Go
Piershill Cemetery is located on Portobello Road between Edinburgh and Portobello Beach. The gravesite is easily recognized. You can spot the white marble headstone directly across from the entrance.
Piershill Cemetery is also known for its Jewish burial grounds, located to the south, and its pet cemetery, located to the right of the entrance.