THE GREAT LAFAYETTE and the SHEFFIELD MIDGETS - May 1911
THE EMPIRE PALACE THEATRE DISASTER - 9th May 1911
"The Great Lafayette was one of the most popular entertainers of the early 20th century, but his two-week season in Edinburgh in May 1911 was extraordinary even by his standards. His mystifying illusions and elaborate quick-changes were presented in the most lavish and spectacular act ever seen in the music halls. He was the highest paid entertainer in the theatre of the time".
I came across the events of the above incident when I accessed The Scotsman's Digital Archive. It does have a strong Sheffield connection but before I can relate that, it is necessary to provide some brief background on the Great Lafayette and his stage show.
The most concise and illuminating biography of The Great Lafayette appears of The Timegun website
" Lafayette was a quick change artist and illusionist, magician and world class entertainer. Much of his life was a mystery. His name was Sigmund Neuberger born in Munich in 1872.The family in search of a better life emigrated to America.
His stage début was in a vaudeville act as an expert with a bow and arrow. Vaudeville marked the beginning of popular entertainment and began to grow into big business.
Lafayette must have sensed this when he saw the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo the brilliant magician illusionist. Foo had studied Chinese magic and brought his show to America with great success. He could breath fire and smoke, pull fifteen foot ribbons from his mouth and from a seemingly flat piece of cloth a brimming bowl of water. From this bowl of water, Foo produced a small child causing a sensation that swept the country.
Armed with the spectacular illusionist effects Lafayette sensibly changed his act.
In 1900 he appeared in London transformed from Sigmund to the Great Lafayette. Audiences were transfixed by his magic talents and drama. Posters advertising his spectacular shows were now a popular sight in many cities. His specialty was the Lions Bride which included an oriental setting and a caged lion. A lady walked slowly on the stage and entered the cage with the lion. The lion roared loudly and prepared to pounce, then all of a sudden its skin dropped off to reveal the master Lafayette.
It was not long before he became the highest paid performer of the time with his shows booked ten years ahead. According to some reports he was a demanding performer expecting his assistants to salute as he passed. Some considered him to be the most hated and unpopular man ever. Arthur Setterington, who later wrote The life and Times of the Great Lafayette 1872-1911 investigating these reports found to the contrary he was well liked. Lafayette paid his company assistants above the going rate and looked after them.
He was a man who avoided personal attachments with the exception of his pit bull terrier Beauty. The terrier was a gift from the escape artist Harry Houdini. Houdini had began as a card magician later becoming an illusionist who could make an elephant and trainer vanish on a stage. Later he developed an escapist act second to none.
Lafayette’s Beauty had her own hotel suits and ate five course meals with relish. “You may drink my wine; you may eat my food; but you must respect my dog.” was on the sign nailed to his London home. On the 30th April 1911 Lafayette and Beauty wearing a diamond studied collar of gold travelled to Edinburgh in a private Pullman coach. The coach had a special room for Beauty with small sofa’s and velvet cushions. In today’s money Lafayette he was paid the equivalent of £2.7 million a year which was over £40,000 in his time. On arrival he stayed in the Caledonian Hotel and made ready to play in the Empire Theatre. Sadly, his much loved Beauty died the very next day through over eating. Lafayette placed the dog on a silk pillow surrounding it with flowers.
The body of Beauty was prepared for burial at Piershill Cemetery. The plot chosen was that of a human and therefore had to be purchased. Also he stipulated a wish to be interned in the same grave. At the time he thought his own demise was not far off.
In May 1st his show opened for a two week season of dazzling entertainment. His shoulders shook with grief as he performed each night but continued in his enviable style"
THE EVENTS OF MAY 9th 1911
On Tuesday May 9, 3000 spectators packed the Empire Theatre for Lafayette's second evening performance. Lafayette's act was the finale of the show. He entered, to a trumpet fanfare, dressed in a satin costume and proceeded to shake dozens of birds from a sequined cloth, finally producing a goat from the folds of the material. His act continued with other remarkable illusions and elaborate scenarios in which he demonstrated his habit of changing identity with his many assistants.
The finale was the 'Lion's Bride' which involved the use of tapestries,
cushions, tents and curtains to create an Oriental setting. An African lion
paced restlessly in a cage while fire-eaters, jugglers and contortionists
performed. A young woman in Oriental dress walked slowly on stage and entered
the cage. When she was inside, the lion roared and reared up ready to pounce.
The animal skin was then suddenly ripped away to reveal The Great Lafayette who
had mysteriously changed places with the lion.
As The Great Lafayette took his bow a lamp fell amongst the scenery which instantly caught fire. A mass of flame shot over the footlights to the stalls. The audience, now accustomed to unusual effects, were slow to recognise the danger. The audience was used to his illusionary antics and thought it was part of the show. The band conductor recognising that the fire was rapidly getting out of control brought the fire curtain down to prevent the flames reaching the audience. Instantly the orchestra began to play the national anthem. In response the audience rose for the anthem and was then guided hurriedly out of the building. Behind the fire curtain the scene was very different. The back stage doors had been locked according to theatre policy. The Great Lafayette was last seen alive and on stage trying to rescue Arizona, his black stallion. Some witnesses later were certain he had escaped but hurriedly returned to rescue the stallion. It was early the next morning a body considered to be Lafayette was found in the rubble near a horse and lion.
Two other bodies behind the curtain were identified as a midget and a 15 year old girl who dressed as a mechanical teddy bear in the act. In all eleven people died in the fierce fire that took three hours to bring under control. In addition to the Edinburgh Fire Service, members of the 4th/5th Royal Scots Territorial from Forrest Hill Road ran to assist. When Lafayette’s solicitor arrived from London he noted the body assumed to be Lafayette did not have his expensive rings. The body was transported to Glasgow for cremation. Three nights later the night watchman found a papier-mâché hand on stage pointing to an undiscovered body. It was that of the Great Lafayette still wearing his decorative rings and Pasha costume.
On 9 May 1911 there was a disastrous fire on stage during a performance by The Great Lafayette. The theatre was full to its 3000 seat capacity for the performance by the popular illusionist. Disaster struck during the finale of his act, the “Lion’s Bride”, which involved the use of tapestries, cushions, tents and curtains to create an oriental setting. As The Great Lafayette took his bow a stage lamp fell and ignited a stage-drape. The audience were a bit slow to recognise the danger, being used to Lafayette’s illusions, and only evacuated the auditorium after the safety curtain was rapidly lowered, and the band struck up the National Anthem.
By all accounts there was a ferocious fire on the stage that night and needless to say the aftermath of the blaze received full coverage in The Scotsman newspaper. In its edition dated Friday 12th May 1911, it gave full coverage to the aftermath of the disaster. It is in the section marked "Other Funerals" that the Sheffield connection emerges
EMPIRE- THEATRE DISASTER . MISSING BANDSMAN STILL UNDISCOVERED.
Not withstanding vigorous researches prosecuted throughout yesterday among the ruins of the stage of the Empire Palace Theatre, no trace has been discovered of the trumpeter, Charles Richards, the only member of Lafayette's company who has not been accounted for. Practically the whole of the theatre has been turned over and searched carefully , but it has revealed nothing. The floor of the stage has now been reached and laid bare, and in the course of a day or two it will be entirely cleared. If Richards was actually on the stage during the conflagration, only one inference can be drawn from the absence of remains. His body must have been so utterly consumed in the furnace-like glow as to leave no tangible trace behind. The labours of the workmen engaged in clearing the stage included the removal yesterday of the charred carcasses' of the lion and the horse, which were burnt to death on Tuesday evening. It was a. spectacle witnessed by comparatively few people, and was depressingly suggestive of the doom which had fallen on the famous illusionist and his company.
LAFAYETTE TO BE CREMATED. Arrangements have now been practically completed for the funeral of the victims of the fire disaster. It will surprise most people to learn that the man known as Tho Great Lafayette was in reality a Jew, born in America, and of Gorman extraction. His real name on the authority of his London solicitor, was Sigmund Neuberger. His father was a Jew, and he himself was of the Jewish religion. His funeral will be conducted according to the rites of that faith. Mr Albert Nisbet, his London solicitor, and Sir Samuel Lloyd, his London manager, are in Edinburgh. and it has been decided that the remains of Lafayette shall be cremated in Glasgow and buried in Edinburgh in the grave in Piershill Cemetery where the dog "Beauty " was so recently interred. The funeral arrangements have been entrusted to Messrs W T Dunbar & Son (Limited.) The remains of the deceased illusionist will be conveyed by rail to Glasgow, where they will be cremated at the Western Necropolis . Subsequently the ashes will be brought back to Edinburgh, and the funeral will take place at three o'clock on Sunday afternoon. At present the remains lie at the private mortuary of Messrs Dunbar, enclosed in a handsome oak panel casket. A special casket of oak is being prepared for the ashes. The funeral will be conducted from the office of Messrs Dunbar, and representative music hall artists from all over the country, and even from the Continent, are expected to attend. The public will be allowed to take part in the obsequies. They will be expected to take up their position at the gate of the cemetery at 3.30 p.m., and to join the cortege when it arrives.
OTHER, FUNERALS, In the case of other members of the Lafayette company, the expense of burial are being- borne out of the estate of the late principal, where necessary . The bodies of Alice Dale (15), Hammond Street, Sheffield, and of Joseph Coates (13), Owlerton, Sheffield—the two midgets were last night conveyed to Sheffield by the 9.5 train from Edinburgh, and it is understood that they will be interred in Sheffield on Mon-day. The remains of James Edward Baines, Hackney, London, a musician in Lafayette' s company, were conveyed by the same train to Wakefield, where they will be interred. The body of Walter E, Scott, another musician member of the company, will be removed to London in the course of the next day or two for burial in the Metropolis. In the case of John Whelan, a third musician member of the company, he will be buried tomorrow in Edinburgh, and Alexander Rae Ross, a " fly " man at the Empire Theatre, who resided, at 357 High Street Edinburgh, will be buried on Sunday in Warristan Cemetery Edinburgh . James Watt, scene shifter who resided at I15 Arthur Street, Edinburgh, will be interred in Newington Cemetery on a date not yet definitely fixed. A number of the relatives of the deceased arrived in Edinburgh yesterday, and called at the City mortuary, where they formally confirmed the identification which had already been established. Some pathetic scenes were witnessed, especially in the case of the " midgets," Alice Dale and Joseph Coats. Generous treatment is being meted out to the members of the Lafayette- company. They have all been paid two weeks' salary, and their expenses are being' paid to London. In addition they have been handed the bank-books originally opened for them by Lafayette. As these in some cases contain handsome sums the members of the company suffer no material loss in the meantime at any rate. In the case of relatives of deceased members of the company who have come to Edinburgh for the purposes of identification, travelling- expenses have been paid
PUBLIC INQUIRY TO TAKE PLACE. It is understood that arrangements are being made in official circles for a public inquiry under the Fatal Accidents Inquiry Act. "Until complete reports of the disaster have been presented, no date can, however, be fixed. Among' the visitors to the scene yesterday were Mr R.V. Renton, S.S.C. Procurator-Fiscal who was shown over the theatre by Mr Fountaine, the acting manager. During the day an unofficial visit was paid by the Lord Dean of Guild cf Edinburgh.
LETTER OF SYMPATHY FROM EARL OF MINTO. Tho Earl of. Minto, the youngest burgess of the city of Edinburgh has forwarded the following letter to Lord Provost Brown : —
May 10 1911 9 Audley Square London. My Dear Lord Provost,—I must write to tell you how deeply grieved I am at the terrible fire in Edinburgh of which I have just read in this evening's papers, and how very deeply I sympathise with the sorrow which I know must oppress the whole city. Believe me, yours very truly, Minto. It may be mentioned that the Lord Provost has acknowledged the telegram of sympathy sent by Lord Rosebery.
EMPIRE MANAGEMENT SECURE THEATRE ROYAL. A private-meeting-of directors of
Moss's Empires (Limited) was held in Edinburgh yesterday. Sir Edward Moss
presided, and all the directors were present. Before proceeding to the business
of the meeting, it was resolved to record the deep sympathy of the directors
with the relatives of those who lost their lives in the disastrous fire at the
Empire Theatre on Tuesday, and also with those who suffered in person or
property on that night.
The directors also resolved to record their high appreciation of the manner in which the theatre staff discharged their duties on the occasion as undoubtedly their promptitude and resource, combined with the coolness of the audience, prevented results which might have been much more serious than those which unfortunately occurred. The conduct of the orchestra in remaining at their posts in face of imminent danger was also most praiseworthy. It has been resolved to retain the whole permanent resident staff of the theatre at full wages during; the reconstruction. Arrangements have been made with Howard & Wyndham (Limited) for the business of the Empire Theatre being carried on at the Theatre-Royal This arrangement will probably take place in about a fortnight's time. Mr Matcham, architect. London, who built the Empire, has arrived in Edinburgh and the preparation of the plans for the reconstruction will be proceeded with at once. The directors have received very many expressions of sympathy from all quarters and they desire through the Press to convey their grateful thanks to those who have offered sympathy and assistance at this time. Sir Edward Moss left Edinburgh yesterday afternoon for London.
BENEFIT PERFORMANCE FOE THE SUFFERERS Messrs Howard &. Wyndham have kindly offered the use of the Lyceum Theatre for a matinee benefit on behalf of the sufferers. The date has not yet been fixed.
PUBLIC INTEREST IN THE CALAMITY. Rarely has a theatrical catastrophe aroused such intense public interest and sympathy. During- the past few days the officials of Edinburgh Post Office have been overwhelmed with the mass of telegraphic matter which has passed through their hands relating more or less directly to the affair. The number of private messages of inquiry and sympathy havoc been enormous and the amount of Press matter dispatched has been very great. London and provincial papers have printed daily long accounts of the occurrence and of developments arising there from. In Edinburgh the keenest interest is still being shown. Throughout yesterday the scene of the catastrophe was again visited- by largo numbers of people. Only privileged persons are allowed within the precincts of the building. A number of the public who were in the vicinity yesterday brought field glasses with them, with which they scanned the visible parts of the building, which had suffered from the conflagration
THE STAGE EXITS AT THE THEATRE. Mr Pordage, chief of the Edinburgh Fire
Brigade, seen yesterday in reference to the question. Of the available exits
from the stage of the theatre, gave it as his opinion that these were by no
means insufficient, and it was his belief that had the performers kept their
heads the loss of life would not have been so great. Almost immediately behind
the stage there is a door wide enough to admit the largest pieces of scenery
employed on the stage. By this door the majority of the stage hands and several
members of Lafayette's company made their escape and it was by this same door
that the theatre fireman went out backwards with the hose, in his hands playing
upon the fire. . Even those who went upstairs in the direction -of the
dressing-rooms must have got clear away had they not lingered, possibly in the
hope of saving some of their belongings. The death of Baines Mr Pordage,
attributes to a gallant effort-to rescue the two midgets from the dressing room
and to this courageous fellow, who thus sacrificed .his life in order to save
those of others, - nothing but the utmost praise is due. The position of -the
bodies of Lafayette and his assistant suggested that-they had waited on the
stage until it was too late to cross it and had turned for escape, to the iron,
doorway leading from the right-hand corner to the balcony o£ the dress circle,
only to find it locked as usual. But that was not their only means of escape.
Had they turned round, they would have seen an exit, immediately at the rear of
the stage, in a direct line backwards from the point at which they stood. This,
however, is a small exit, and possibly its existence was unknown to Lafayette.
PROTESTANT WOMEN'S SYMPATHY. . Mrs Colville, president of the Scottish Women's Protestant Union, referred at the annual meeting of the Union, in Edinburgh yesterday, to the terrible disaster that had occurred in the city. They had she said, been thrilled by what they had heard of that disaster and she was sure that they would all desire to take that opportunity of expressing to the relatives and friends of those who had been so suddenly cut off , and to offer their deep, true sympathy.
The last section of the report can be found on the next page
On May 14, 1911 the streets of Edinburgh were
thronged with spectators to see Lafayette's ashes moved from a funeral parlour
in Morrison Street to Piershill Cemetery. The funeral was described as 'one of
the most extraordinary internments of modern times'. The first car in the long
cortege was Lafayette's silver-grey Mercedes, the sole passenger being a
Dalmatian hound. There was great ceremonial at the Cemetery, as Beauty's coffin
was opened and Lafayette's ashes placed beside the dog. Harry Houdini sent a
floral representation of Beauty to the funeral.
The grave, with memorial stones to Beauty and The Great Lafayette, can be seen on a grassy mound just inside the Portobello Road entrance to Piershill Cemetery.
The Timegun website adds the following
"A funeral procession was held, this time with the real
Lafayette. Hugh crowds packed the streets to see four Belgium horses carry his
coffin, followed by a long procession of coaches. Then came the now familiar car
with his dog Mabel decorated with a black bow. No less than 450 constables were
in the vicinity of Piershill, of those 130 protected the cemetery. The Jewish
pastor realising the dog would be buried with his master in holy ground refused
the rites which were carried out by the Reverent D. Findley."
The Scotsman - May 12th 1911
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