Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

Oscar Eliason, Utah's Homegrown Magician

Oscar Eliason.jpg

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Oscar Eliason, Utah's Homegrown Magician


In 1899, the Utah illusionist known as “Dante the Great” died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen in the tiny Australian town of Dubbo.

Born Oscar Eliason to Swedish immigrant parents, the magician began his career at the age of twenty with a performance at a Salt Lake LDS ward. Soon he was touring Utah, expanding his travels to surrounding states and the rest of the country as word of his magic spread. Like other magicians of the age, including the illustrious Harry Houdini, Eliason was especially interested in exposing what he believed were the fake supernatural tricks of spiritualist mediums. At one popular performance in Salt Lake, he was able to duplicate and pick apart the supposedly mystical marvels of Anna Eva Fay, one of the nation’s most admired mediums.

As Eliason’s star rose in the United States, he also began receiving requests to appear on stages in Canada, Mexico, and even Cuba. Later, in 1898, he decided to travel to New Zealand and Australia where he played to packed houses. In Sydney, he actually broke the record for consecutive nights performed by one man. But Eliason wasn’t satisfied with just playing just the big cities Down Under. He also decided to hit some of the small towns in Australia’s rough interior. It was here, while on a kangaroo hunt, that he was accidentally shot by one of his friends. Doctors initially thought it was only a flesh wound, but within days Dante the Great was dead. Ironically, one of the feats that made him popular was “The Bullet Catch” where he would allow a ring of men to fire loaded guns at him at point blank range. Audiences were amazed when the smoke cleared and Eliason was still standing, holding a handful of bullets. Eliason was buried in Australia where magicians still make pilgrimages to his grave.


Brandon Johnson for Utah Humanities © 2006


Image: Souvenir Dante's 50th performance in Melbourne, June 2nd, 1899. Oscar Eliason and his wife, Juliana Edmunda Hammer. After touring Utah 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 exposing fraudulent mediums. Courtesy of State Library Victoria. 

See news reports on Eliason’s career and death in the following editions of the Salt Lake Tribune: April 24, 1894; April 26, 1894; April 30, 1894; May 1, 1894; May 18, 1894; October 24, 1894; December 18, 1894; April 8, 1895; November 30, 1899; December 1, 1899; December 2, 1899; and December 29, 1899.  Also see Will Bagley’s pair of articles for the Salt Lake Tribune on Eliason.  They were printed respectively on September 24 and October 1, 2000.  (The articles may be accessed on Utah History to Go. See also Brandon Johnson, “To Lay Bare All of Spiritualism’s Shams: Harry Waite and Oscar Eliason’s Anti-Medium Crusade,” Utah Historical Quarterly, vol 77, no 4, p 316.


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org