Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tragedy of the Sheffield 'Teddy Bear Midgets' and the Great Lafayette

When two youngsters were plucked from obscurity in the slums of Sheffield to tour the country and perform alongside one of the greatest magicians of the time over a century ago, no-one could have foreseen that this exciting promise of adventure would ultimately end in tragedy and their premature deaths (alongside the magician himself) in an Edinburgh Theatre in May 1911.

The tragic tale has come to light following a research request from a customer at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library.

The German-born magician and illusionist Sigmund Neuberger (1872 - 1911), more commonly known by his stage-name ‘The Great Lafayette’, was one of the best-known and best-paid international stage performers of his day. His dramatic demise is the stuff of legend - he was killed on stage at the finale of his show on 9 May 1911 at the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh before a sell-out crowd of 2,500 people, just after performing his spectacular illusion the 'Lions’s Bride' (where, to amazed audiences, he would mysteriously swap places with a roaring African lion before their very eyes). Lafayette’s death was caused by a fire which engulfed the stage when a lamp plunged from the scenery above him just as he was taking his final bow. Less well known is how two Sheffield teenagers perished with him in the fatal fire. The teenagers in question were fifteen-year-old Alice Dale, who was employed to operate a mechanical teddy bear as part of one of Lafayette’s acts and thirteen-year-old Joseph Coates (affectionately known in Sheffield as 'Little Joe') who was employed as the teddy bear understudy. The youngsters were trapped backstage in the burning building after the theatre’s iron-safety curtain descended.

Both Alice and Joseph came from very humble backgrounds, growing up in back-to-back houses in crowded courtyards in Sheffield’s slum quarters. Alice lived at 22 Court Hammond Street in the densely populated St Philip’s District of Sheffield whilst Joseph lived at Court 1 House 2 Park View Road, Hillsborough. What brought Alice and Joseph to the attention of the Great Lafayette was their unusually small statures, which he recognised he could usefully employ to his advantage in his stage shows. Both Alice and Joseph were described at the time as ‘midgets’ - they presumably had the modern day medical condition known as dwarfism.

Following the theatre fire in Edinburgh, the bodies of Alice Dale and Joseph Coates were repatriated to Sheffield in 'oak- polished coffins with silver mountings'. The death and burials of the two little 'teddy bear midgets' generated much interest in the town. Their distinctively diminutive statures and dramatic ascent from the Sheffield slums to the stage accorded both Alice and Joseph the status of local heroes and they were both evidently affectionately regarded. Astonishingly, according to local newspaper reports at the time, estimated crowds of 20,000 people are said to have thronged the streets in Sheffield to greet the funeral cortege for the returning home-town heroes on 15 May 1911.

The fire was reported in the Sheffield Telegraph newspaper (available on microfilm at Sheffield Local Studies Library) on 11 May 1911 (p.7) with the same paper giving a detailed account of the funerals of both Alice and Joseph on 16 May 1911 (p.9). The Sheffield Telegraph report on the fire reveals how, at first, the audience, 'accustomed to expect the unexpected in Lafayette’s shows', assumed the fire was part of the act. The stage manager then instructed the orchestra to play the national anthem as the fire raged to allay the audience’s fears and prompt them to stand and file out of the theatre to safety in an orderly manner. No members of the audience were killed, but, in the light of the role played by the orchestra, it is interesting to note how, amongst the victims of the fire, there were several musicians (including a ‘trombone player’, a ‘double bass player’ and ‘cornet player’). The African lion (who formed part of Lafayette’s final illusion) and a horse (who had appeared earlier in the show) were also killed.
Alice Dale was buried at City Road Cemetery, Sheffield, with her burial register entry recording the additional note 'burnt in Empire Theatre, Edinburgh' (Sheffield Archives: Microfilm A448). Joseph Coates was buried at Wadsley Churchyard. The Wadsley Church burial register entry for Joseph poignantly records his abode as the place where he died: ‘Empire Theatre, Edinburgh’ (Sheffield Archives: PR78/36). Sheffield Archives also holds Joseph Coates’ record of admission to the Lancasterian Special School in Pitsmoor. The school admission register (Sheffield Archives: CA745/S2/1) records how Joseph came to the school on 25 November 1907 and left on 2 December 1910 with the cause of him leaving given as 'to Lafayette’s show', alongside which is the stark remark 'burnt to death, 1911'.

Sources: Sheffield Telegraph newspaper reports, 11 May 1911 (p.7) and 16 May 1911 (p.9)
(Sheffield Local Studies Library: Newspaper Collection); Wadsley Church burial register entry for Joseph Coates, 15 May 1911 (Sheffield Archives: PR78/36); Lancasterian Special School, Pitsmoor admission register entry for Joseph Coates recording his leaving school on 2 Dec 1910 and subsequent demise in 1911 (Sheffield Archives: CA745/S2/1).

See Chris Hobbs' excellent Sheffield history website for more information on the story of The Great Lafayette: https://www.chrishobbs.com/sheffield/greatlafayette.htm