With excitement approaching Olympic proportions in Sydney, Utahns should know one of our native sons lies buried in a city grave celebrated as part of Waverley Cemetery's "Walk Through History" tour. Alas, the promise of this bright young "Mormon Wizard" was cut short in a tragic sporting accident.
Oscar Eliason was born in 1869 in Salt Lake City, the son of a clockmaker and jeweler. As a schoolboy at St. Mark's (now Rowland Hall), he loved to perform sleight-of-hand tricks for friends. Rather than spend his life "watching wheels go round" as a clockmaker, young Oscar carefully studied magic acts at The Salt Lake Theater. Soon there were few tricks that he could not duplicate. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Eliason's debut performance (for the benefit of the Young Ladies' Aid Society at the Twentieth Ward) "created a furor" in March 1889.
After touring the state and dazzling audiences at Saltair, Eliason turned pro in 1893 and began playing throughout the West. As "Dante the Great," he was celebrated for his innovative tricks and magical techniques, and like another famous magician of his time, Harry Houdini, he exposed fraudulent mediums.
Spiritualism was as popular in the 1890s as the "New Age" movement is today. When Anna Eva Fay created a sensation with an exhibition of "spiritual phenomena" at The Salt Lake Theater, Eliason immediately duplicated her feats at the same house and exposed them for what they were. The ridiculous light he cast on the conjuring of spiritualists Dr. White and Harry White sent the two noted "fakirs from the East" packing, reported The Tribune.
The Great Dante's act included "The Mahatma Miracles," "Escape From the Gallows" and "The Japanese Trunk Mystery." He created his most popular prestidigitation, the "wonderful bullet-catching feat," in his hometown. Before a live audience, six soldiers from Fort Douglas loaded their guns and fired point blank at the young wizard. When the smoke cleared, Eliason held the bullets in his hand. "How he received them was a mystery to all but himself," said the paper. The bullet-catching feat became even more popular when a New York magician died attempting it.
Eliason married Juliana Edmunda Virginia Hammer, daughter of a Salt Lake theatrical family. As Mademoiselle Edmunda, she distinguished herself as an illusionary dancer. One of her "novel feats" was the bicycle illusion: in midair she pedaled a wheel and turned a somersault. The Great Dante devised a spectacular act of legerdemain for Mademoiselle Edmunda. Clothed in "a mean attire," she was locked in a cage, which was then set on fire. The promotions said Edmunda is consumed by flames "and from her ashes springs a new and more beautiful edition of Mademoiselle, corrected and amended by 'Dante.'"
The couple soon launched a touring career. Beginning in Cuba and appearing throughout the United States, the young performers "scored triumphs everywhere." Critics hailed Eliason as "one of the foremost exponents of the meromaveen art." After appearing in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, the Great Dante sailed from Victoria, British Columbia, in October 1898 for the Far East. After three weeks in Honolulu, Eliason performed in New Zealand, where he played the southernmost theater in the world.
Eliason toured with an entourage of twelve people, including his brother, wife and seven-year-old daughter. He planned to visit India, China and Japan before heading for Europe. He longed to return to Salt Lake City, but as long as dollars were there for the asking, he felt it his duty "to pick them up."
Next Week: The rest of the story.
The author is a Utah historian.