Oscar Eliason - The Original ‘Dante the Great’
Chapter 1 - THE EARLY DAYS
In 1862, under the leadership of the Mormon Church, the Eliason family migrated from Malmo, Sweden, to the American state of Utah. Travelling in true pioneer fashion in covered wagons, some of the family settled in Sanpete County as farmers. Olaf and Emma Eliason remained in Salt Lake City, where Olaf set up his business as a jeweller (1) and started to raise a family of his own. The Eliasons were well known and liked in the community. In the fifty-nine years Olaf spent as a jeweller he made thirty-five watc
Olaf Larson Eliason and Emma S. Nilsson had married on June 7, 1869. Amongst the nine children born to them (2) were Oscar A. Eliason on July 8, 1869, and Franklin Eugene Eliason on January 9, 1875. From his early years Oscar showed talent as a conjuror. His first public appearance was at the Twentieth Ward Schoolhouse on March 20, 1889, with an amateur troupe, the Maltese and Hammer Minstrels. Magic became of such primary importance that Olaf had to reprove his son for paying more attention to tricks than to his apprenticeship in watchmaking. Olaf, however, was a keen amateur conjuror himself and usually ended up helping Oscar, and designing mechanisms for new effects.
Around May 1890 Oscar appeared at the Walker Opera House with another amateur organization, the Black Bird Minstrels. It was not until he saw Alexander Herrmann, however, that he started to think of a professional career. In January 1893 Oscar performed at the Opera House, Bountiful, of which the Tooele Times stated,"...a first class performance in every particular ... his mind reading elicited much applause as did also the feats of legerdemain..."
Creditable mention was also made of Mrs. Eliason. Oscar had previously met up with a young lady, Edmunda Hammer. Her full name was Juliana Edmunda Virginia Hammer, but she was known as 'Verge', and was the sister of Paul and Thorald Hammer, of the Maltese and Hammer minstrels mentioned previously. Edmunda was engaged in performing the same feats as Lulu Hurst, otherwise known as the 'Georgia Magnet', in which she would defy committees of men to lift her from the ground (making use of the principles of leverage to defeat them). Oscar was attracted, and they were married on May 21, 1892. Though they were married under the rites of the Mormon Church, Oscar appears not to have had strong associations with church in later years.
From February to April 1893, Oscar made appearances with a group talent local businessmen and performers, the Deseret Minstrels, managed by Nat Brigham of the Harvard Varsity Vocalists. The tour, starting in Ogden, included a three month season at the Salt Lake Theatre, Provo, Pocatello and Boise City, the states surrounding Utah and a return performance at the Grand Theatre, Salt Lake City. Already it was reported that Eliason had received offers to perform with other leading companies. He was assisted on the tour by his brother, Frank. Said the Ogden Standard Examiner of February 26,
Eliason Among The Spirits
On April 17, 1893, the spirit medium, Anna Eva Fay, gave a seance at the Grand Opera House. Promotions in the Ogden Standard Examiner stated that she would "present the line of manifestations as given by her before the Royal Society of England. Materializations in full gas light.... tables will float in Mid-Air, Beautiful flowers materialize, Twenty to Thirty Communications for persons in the Audience and Many Other illustrations of the remarkable power never before seen in this city."
Only days after Fay's performance, Eliason advertised an appearance at the Salt Lake Theater, where he would "perform the recent so-called Spiritual manifestations and subsequently expose them." While his advertisement made no mention of Anna Eva Fay, he was clearly jumping aboard the anti-spiritualistic wagon that others such as Kellar, Maskelyne and Houdini were to ride. Between July 21 and August 6 Eliason appeared at the "Saltair" holiday resort, billed as The Only Great Eliason the Swedish Wonder - the equal of Anna Eva Fay as a Medium.
Whether Fay was in the slightest bit concerned with this exposure is not recorded; she had already moved on, and was to return in later years. For Oscar, however, it was a significant jump in his public profile and made the public sit up and take notice of this ambitious young performer. The following year another anti-spiritualistic conflict would take matters to even greater heights.
Dr. Waite and the Challenge
The Ogden Standard Examiner of March 10 and 11, 1894, announced the arrival of Spirit Medium Harry Waite from Boston with his Great Spirit Show at the Grand Opera House on March 13. From the start, Waite's advertising adopted a blustering, hectoring tone. Not only did he proclaim himself as the 'greatest medium upon earth', assisted by his female spirit guide, 'Silver Light', he came with a deliberate challenge for all exposers to attend his show. "Honest infidels are mistaken and all exposures are cool, deliberate frauds. Spirit forms plainly seen and recognized by all. Tables rise and float and actual demonstrations of spirit power proven beyond every honest doubt."
From later letters to the press we learn that Harry Herrman Waite, the medium, was a youth of a mere twenty-two years of age, travelling with his father, Dr. Arthur Andrew Waite. They took up local residence and gave private demonstrations and readings in addition to their public performances including, among their private services, the removal of spells and curses.
The Ogden Standard Examiner of March 14 reported the Waites' appearance at the Opera House, detailing how Waite (for some reason named as 'David' Waite) allowed himself to be tied securely before musical instruments were played by the 'spirits', performing sealed envelope readings, passing on messages from the dead to loved ones, and concluding with a table-dancing exhibition. ("...and one heavy weight, in trying to keep the table to the floor, by getting on it smashed it to pieces.") The audience, it was said "in general went home quite satisfied with what they had seen and heard."
Waite continued to advertise his private readings and lectures during early April, and posted a notice, "those who are sending me threatening unsigned letters, save your stamps. I don't scare! Stop, or I will give you a "free test" by handing your name and letters to the postmaster for violation of United States postal laws. I am no woman or a long-haired dude."
To Eliason, a medium who not only proclaimed his honesty but arrogantly defied others to expose any trickery was a target too good to resist. Some intervening newspaper correspondence, or other public debate, has yet to be tracked down, but on April 24 the Salt Lake Tribune published this letter from Eliason:-
ELIASON ACCEPTS the challenge of the Medium-by-the-gift-of-Gall and goes him one better.
CHALLENGE NO. 2. I will deposit $200 with Manager Burton that I can reproduce, duplicate or expose, without the aid of angel, spirit or devil, any and all the so-called spirit manifestations produced by H.H.Waite, after I have seen them performed three times.
April 25 saw Harry H. Waite's unrestrained response, containing such derogatory remarks about the Mormons that, in the heart of Mormon Utah itself he surely made no friends:-
Oscar's reply of April 26 was, though somewhat less offensive, sarcastic and taunting:-
ELIASON COMES BACK.
Over the next few days, newspapers reported that interest in the coming exposure had risen to a 'white heat, the result of which will be a crowded house on Sunday night.' An accusation that Waite and Eliason were in cahoots, in order to make money from the controversy, was denied by Arthur Waite in a letter to the press in which he defended his good name:- "We have defrauded no man, corrupted no man or woman. Our walk has been upright, our conversation pure, our mediumship holy, our dealings conscientiously fair ... we have been wrongly accused and barred from a hearing..."
Young Harry Waite, however, was not so mild in the face of Oscar Eliason's taunts. On April 29, the Tribune published a letter which in these days would be a sure-fire recipe for a lawsuit:-
ELIASON THE COWARD. The Liar! The Bluffer!
Finally the night of Eliason's exposure arrived, and the following day the Salt Lake Tribune published a detailed report of the evening, (which can be read in full here) during which Oscar spoke on the history of spiritualism, performed a sealed envelope test, revealed personal facts about audience members, read folded billets, and performed a complex Spirit Cabinet routine with the aid of his brother, Frank. This routine would remain in the magician's repertoire in years to come.
Said the Tribune:-
As is usually the case with such controversies, the storm gradually blew out after a few more flurries. Eliason repeated his exposure on May 6 (read in full here) and again on May 12, while Waite the Medium again attempted to pre-empt his exposer with an earlier exhibition at the Auditorium Hall on Fourth South. The citizens of Salt Lake City were not about to allow an outsider to best their local boy, and the impression is left that the Waites' bluster simply faded away in the face of the success of Oscar's performances. "Eliason has come and gone - and as a result spiritualistic stock is away down below par ... Eliason has got the business down pat and can make his fortune either as a medium or an exposer."
Oscar and Frank took the opportunity to make a quick tour of the territory and Western Colorado, returning home around May 15. Aappearances are noted at the Maennerchor Hall in Laramie Wyoming, November 27, 1894, the Weston Opera House on December 2, Feeny Opera House (Boulder, Colorado) December 11, and Broadway Theatre (Denver) around December 15.
And what of the Waites?
[Salt Lake Tribune, March 25, 1895]
According to a dispatch in the San Francisco Examiner of Friday last, Dr. A.A.Waite, "medium by the grace of God," who played an engagement in this city last season, has, with his son, Harry, been preying upon the credulity of one of his misguided flock in San Jose, Cal. The dispatch, which will be read with considerable interest here, says:
[Salt Lake Tribune, April 10 , 1895]
(1) Olaf Eliason's Jewelry Establishment, established in 1862, announced on November 12, 1878, its removal to Trowbridge's Building, which appears to have been 142 Main Street. By 1888, the shop was advertising a new location at 220 South Main Street, opposite the Post Office, selling watches, clocks, jewelry, silverware, musical boxes, optical goods etc. Olaf retired in March 1892, the entire stock of his diamonds, watches, clocks, jewelry and silverware being sold by auction on March 31.
(2) From the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) genealogy site, https://familysearch.org/ we find a sad listing of children born to live for pitifully few years: