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The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Great Dante Retains His Magic Appeal
Will Bagley
Published: 10/01/2000 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

This is the conclusion of the story of the great Utah magician, Oscar Eliason.

Salt Lake City was shocked to learn on December 1, 1899, of the untimely death of what the newspapers described as "one of the most notable instances of Utah talent." A brief cable from his widow in Australia said Oscar Eliason had been shot to death. It would be almost a month before the Sydney papers arrived with details of the tragic demise of the world-famous magician, otherwise known as The Great Dante.

Utahns had been eagerly following Eliason's spectacular tour of Down Under. The Deseret Evening News reported his engagement in Australia was "the most successful ever made by a magician there." At Sydney, he played 101 nights, breaking the record for a one-man engagement at The Palace. Dante played sixty-five consecutive performances at Melbourne, where the city's newspaper announced, in feats of sleight of hand, "he far outshines any of the craft who have yet appeared."

Eliason was raking in more than $5,000 a month. According to the Salt Lake Herald, "This Utah boy and his wife were the recipients of almost royal honors from the best people in Australia." While Salt Lakers waited for the steamer Aorangi to arrive with details, the press ran wild with speculation about the cause of Eliason's death. His brother-in-law thought it was "his wonderful bullet-catching feat from which the fatality might have resulted." In this foolhardy trick, the Great Dante allowed marksmen to fire point-blank at him, and then returned the bullets that supposedly came from their guns.

Others suspected foul play. The magician had run into trouble with his manager, M. B. Curtis, who was well known in Salt Lake City as a clever actor and successful manager. But, at one point in his life, he had killed a San Francisco policeman. Eliason had caught Curtis shorting him on box-office receipts and fired him. Curtis sued, and Eliason paid $7,000 to terminate his contract. Many suspected Eliason had more than legal trouble with Curtis. But, as The Tribune sadly announced when it learned the details, The Great Dante had caught "a real bullet."

Eliason had gone hunting with friends. The small party set out to hunt kangaroos and wallabies near the small town of Dubbo. At the end of the day's hunt, the gun of George Jones, a pianist in Dante's troupe, accidentally discharged and the bullet struck Eliason in the groin. A doctor's diagnosis was that "it would only be a flesh wound." Two physicians constantly attended the star, who had lost considerable blood. He reportedly was weak and in pain. Hope for his recovery grew, but complications set in and The Great Dante died on November 29, 1899. Some 400 people braved intense heat to attend Eliason's funeral in Sydney.

His brother Frank reported: "Oscar made so many friends in Australia, and they are falling all over themselves to render any help. We have bushel baskets full of condolences from all over Australia. It is said there never was a death so universally regretted. It was necessary for an extra carriage to carry the floral offerings to the grave." Mademoiselle Edmunda, the magician's widow, rented a cottage near Sydney. A friend wrote that the widow could not bear to go home and leave his grave, which overlooked the ocean.

This Utahn may be largely forgotten in his home state, but many visiting Sydney still make pilgrimages to the grave of The Great Dante. To mark the centennial of Eliason's tragic end, a group of Sydney magicians gathered at his grave last year "again to remember Dante, 100 years on."

Bagley is a Utah historian and writer.

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