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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
OlafEliason

Olaf Eliason, aged 70

hes (these were the days of genuine craftsmanship!) including one for the leader of the Mormons, Brigham Young. This had a special feature which rewound the watch each time the cover was opened and closed.

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.

Advertisement for Eliason's Wonders, Opera House, Bountiful, Utah. From the Davis County Clipper Jan.21, 1893. 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..."
eliason02-02

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,
"... the two features in which it was predicted they would make a forcible hit, were fully realized. The first was the singing which was equal to that in the best minstrel shows and way over the average. The other was Eliason's legerdemain. While the entertainments of Hermann, Decolta (sic) and Kellar are more extensive than Eliason, they are in no degree more clever, wonderful and puzzling. So far Mr.Eliason has done his work in magic with amateur companies. His proper place is with a first class specialty company in which his own part of the programme would be a prominent part."

 

 

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."
spirits2

Salt Lake Times, April 24, 1893

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.
To Mr. Harry H. Waite, Medium-by-the-gift-of-Gall:-
Dear Sir:- I accept your challenge and have deposited $200 with Mr. Charles S. Burton, manager, as follows: That I will, on next Sunday evening at the Salt Lake Theater, raise a table in the same way as Annie Eva Fay and without the aid of spirits. You to put up a like sum. If I fail the money to go to any charity Mayor Baskin shall name. If I succeed, your money goes.
OSCAR ELIASON, Medium-by-the-aid-of-tricks.

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.
OSCAR ELIASON. Medium-by-the-aid-of-Legerdemain.
Now that I am forced to 'meet your bluffs' to a 'show down,' spiritualists must not blame me if I shatter their delusions. I will so completely expose the sham, humbuggery and duplicity of all mediums and spirit manifestations that a belief in their supernatural power or production cannot find lodgement in any sensible and logical mind. I, however, do not expect to reclaim many of those who have fallen into the spiritualistic frog pond, but I do propose to stir it up so strongly that every unprejudiced eye can see just what there is in it. I never before attempted to lay bare all its shams, simply confining myself to a few of the most difficult tests performed by Miss Fay. Now I will spare nothing but will expose all mediums, mental tests, spirit photography, developing mediums, sealed letter reading, and will explain by half a dozen ways, slate writing and so plainly that any school boy can practice it. O.E.

 

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:-

Eliason Sneaks!
Dear Oscar:-You are certainly a slick catfish, and do yourself proud. I can't help but admire the twist you made by "accepting" my challenge, and then to utterly ignore it. Don't toss your curls and get mad.
First - I challenged you to come to my room yesterday and lift a table and slip a rope as you have been stuffing your religious guys that you have done and can do, or to stand a self-condemned fraud and a fakir. the committee was on hand, and the two hundred in gold did look so sweet upon the table, but Oscar, you didn't show up. Well, I did what I tried to do. I called you down, as any game man will admit, but I guess you pious push can easily comfort you. Thou "honest" exposer of frauds.
Second - I challenged you to meet me in a room with the press, with no money consideration, to determine how much you could expose. I guess that took away you breath, for you didn't gasp a word about that. Was you afraid that the meeting would spoil your fake show that you expect to give next Sunday night? Oh, you Mormon champion!
Third - I challenged you to let me produce manifestations upon you stage next Sunday night, and you to duplicate them or fail, the winner to take the gate receipts, and the loser to pay all expense. But you, like a girlie, say you have put up $200 in Burton's hands to go to charity if you lose. Now, on the Q.T. If you have put up $200 in Burton's hands, let me advise you to get it again. You know that Burton is quite clever at holding what he gets his hands on. I guess you can, but as for me, suppose I win, how could I get the $200 from him, your partner in this shake-down. How about my challenges? Will you be a man and meet me or at least own up you are outclassed? Don't try to play me for a sucker.
NEW CHALLENGE
You stated in yesterday's paper that you could produce slate writing in six different ways, and I say that you have stated a deliberate lie, and you know it, Oscar Eliason. To prove this to the men (not sissys) of this city, I will be at my rooms, 261 S.W.Temple street, at noon to-day. Come. Let a disinterested person get a slate, and if you do this, I will give you a hundred dollars in gold. You ain't a magician! You are a bluffer! A little church festival clown. Didn't I tell the public that you wouldn't walk up like a man to the scratch? Isn't it so? You and your Mormon backers can't bluff me or scare me out of town,, and if a thousand to one are against me I'll die, but I won't be bluffed. There are but few spiritualists here, and they have treated me white, and I'll stay with them to my last cent.
Shame on you. HARRY H. WAITE, a Medium by the Gift of God.
P.S - What's Eliason going to do? How will he dodge meeting this?

Oscar's reply of April 26 was, though somewhat less offensive, sarcastic and taunting:-

ELIASON COMES BACK.
    "Walk into my parlor," said the spider to the fly. The fly didn't walk, therefore the spider is angry, very angry. My challenge is to duplicate at the Salt Lake Theatre next Sunday evening all you have done - not some new gag you may spring, which may require preparation..... as to your screed, it is not necessary for me to resort to billingsgate and variety dive slang to defend my position in this community, neither would it be becoming in me to even casually infer that you, coming to our city as an entire stranger, purporting to receive and deliver messages from the spirit land, that you, an ordained minister, are, after all, but a great big tub of sausage casings. It would be ungentlemanly and unfair, for you are entitled to be accepted as a gentleman until you write yourself down in long-eared sentences.... I adjure you to ... devote yourself to the study of orthography, grammar, and moderation in the use of language and, above all, the rules which govern gentlemen in their intercourse with each other. I am done. You will hear from me Sunday night.

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!
The following letter was taken to Eliason Saturday by a committee. Read!
(Salt Lake, Utah, April 28, 1894) Mr Oscar Eliason. Sir:- Will you permit me to put up my cabinet alongside of yours next Sunday night, and a hundred dollars, and will you agree to duplicate my mediumship by trickery and expose me as a fraud as you said you could? I agree to forfeit the hundred dollars o the Industrial army if you do; but if you don't you to do the same. The winner to take the gate receipts and the loser to pay all expenses. A simple yes or no over your name will suffice, and I will be on hand. Money up with the bearer.
    HARRY H.WAITE, Medium by the gift of God, 261 S.W. Temple.

ANSWER.
No! I propose to be alone at my expose tomorrow evening. ELIASON.
POSTED!
Was there ever a dirtier coward or a more contemptible liar than this "challenger?" As such I post him before all game men and all fair-minded citizens and all sensible women in Salt Lake. Excuse plain language, for the fact is plain that I have been foully slandered and have stood alone, with every church against me, misjudged, falsified, far and near. I ask you if I have been a man! I am challenged and called a fraud, and then, after accepting, barred out of the house on pain of arrest. HARRY H.WAITE
Dr. Waite's announcement. Free! Free! Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. Shell's Auditorium Hall, corner Fourth South and Second West. Subject: "Eliason's Fake Expose of Anna Eva Fay Exposed." Also explanations of every known "fake" test as I did in three tests last Sunday; also everything that Eliason expects to do done and honestly explained. Free! Free! Also, at 8 o'clock in the evening, in same hall, "The Real vs. The Counterfeiters". Admission 10 cents. Harry Waite in genuine tests. Dr. Waite in a bible lecture.
Moral: Don't pull an empty gun on a game man. HARRY WAITE.

The Exposure
eliason12may1894

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:-
    "The sight at the Theater about 8 o'clock was a remarkable one. The lobby was a compressed cake of humanity, the wide and high flight of steps together with the platform was a crush, and the sidewalk overflowed into the street with the people. The attaches of the Theater said they had never seen such a sight.... The whole performance was carried out with skill, grace and a sarcasm extremely enjoyable. The audience cheered and applauded from beginning to end, and Eliason was voted a "medium" of equal ability to any that have ever visited the city. Eliason has invented and discovered his conjuring business in this city. His work in this line has been done at odd moments, snatched from his regular vocation. Few of his tricks have been purchased, few given to him, about half "caught" from witnessing other "wizards," while the rest are his original devices and inventions."

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. In later years their version of the Spirit Cabinet, named the "Sim-La Seance" would borrow the name of Waites' spirit guide, Silver Light.

And what of the Waites?

[Salt Lake Tribune, March 25, 1895]
GRACE-OF-GOD WAITE. HOW HE DEMATERIALIZED A DIAMOND RING.
Trance Medium Who Played an Engagement in Zion Is Missing From San Jose

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:
Some weeks ago, Harry Waite, the alleged trance medium, and his father, Dr. A.A.Waite, who posed as a hypnotist, exhibited in this city for a month. Today A.S.McWilliams reported to the police that during his stagy here Mrs. McWilliams visited Waite and was induced to part with a diamond ring worth $100, for information as to a number in a lottery that would draw $5000. The ring, he said, must be given as a sacrifice, and as evidence he juggled it out of sight, and Mrs. McWilliams though it had dematerialized. The lottery number did not win, and today a warrant for Mr. Waite's arrest was issued. He is thought to be on his way East now. Some others are said to be losers through his work. It is not likely that Waite will find time to visit any of his parishioners in Zion on his way eastward, nor that he will permit himself to intentionally run across Eliason's pathway.

[Salt Lake Tribune, April 10 , 1895]
Denver, Colo. April 9. - Harry Waite, alias Frank Hamilton, was arrested today by the city detectives on a telegram received from the Chief of Police of San Jose, Cal. He is said to be wanted for obtaining $500 under fraudulent representations from a woman.
Hamilton is a clairvoyant and a spiritualist, and since he has been in Denver he has had an office on Welton Street, near Seventeenth. He claims that a certain band of spiritualists are trying to drum him out of town, and that the charge has been made against him to attain this end. Hamilton is only 23 years of age, but he is an old companion of Jules Wallace, the spiritualistic medium who gained so much notoriety here and elsewhere.

References

(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 162 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.

(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:
Laura 1885-1938 53 years
Lilly 1881-1888 7 years
Matilda 1878-1878 1 year or less
Franklin Eugene 1875- [death marked as ‘before 1940’] Up to 65 years
Emmaline (Emily) Elanora 1873-1875 2 years
Hannah 1871-1873 2 years
Oscar A. 1869-1899  30 years
Emile L. 1867-1868 1 year
Otto Laurence 1865-1867 2 years