Oscar Eliason - The Original ‘Dante the Great’
Chapter 8 - Addendum
Oscar Eliason's story is just one small tale within the broad sweep of magic history. With any historical research there will always be some loose ends, supplementary details and peripheral topics of interest which, though fascinating to the researcher, may be too lengthy, or not of interest to the casual reader. Here are some of those items!
- The Salt Lake Tribune report on the Spirit Expose, published April 30,1894
- The Ogden Standard Examiner report of a further Spirit Expose, published May 7, 1894
- A letter from Frank Eliason
- A letter from Viola Pratt
- Sadie MacDonald, American actress
- Notes about Maurice Bertram Curtis, Dante and Thurston
- Jack Angus, the "Australian Dante"
[Salt Lake Tribune, April 30, 1894]
ELIASON'S GREAT SUCCESS
A tremendous crowd at the theater to greet him.
HIS EXPOSURES COMPLETE
He Did the Query and Answer Business, the Revelation About Deceased Friends, the Slate Writing Trick, and the Cabinet Changes, and Then Told All About How the Things Are Done - His Remarks Were Pointed.
A year ago Oscar Eliason made himself famous with the Salt Lake public by duplicating in sleight-of-hand what Anna Eva Fay had done as a "medium". At that time no explanation was given of his methods, except to say they were tricks. Last night Mr. Eliason took up the work palmed off more recently as "spiritualism," and duplicated it on the Theater stage, and showing to the audience how each trick was done.
A GRAND RUSH
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. Even the Press Club's closing concert, a couple of months ago, was eclipsed, though one facetious individual was heard to remark that it was strictly a "Press Club affair" - considering the amount of pressing that was done. The only mistake was holding the performance in the Theater instead of the Tabernacle, for even the capacity of the mammoth auditorium on Temple square would have been packed. The rise of the curtain revealed a carpeted stage with two cabinets (curtained closets), a number of tables and a significant collection of slates. Mr. Eliason made a
upon the history of spiritualism. He said that since his expose of Anna Eva Fay he had been frequently approached by spiritualistic believers who confided to him that they considered him an excellent physical and test medium. Eliason, however, wanted to show his audience the full humbuggery of this fraud. Spiritualism had been called a religion, and therefore, in that sense, his theme was a religious one. The originators of the so-called religion were the Fox sisters, whose phenomena were confined to rappings. They were in time exposed. Then came the Davenports, who introduced the rope-tyings, and whose methods were discovered by a coterie of Cornell students, who, by suddenly lighting the stage, showed the supposed spirits to be none other than the Davenports themselves. The Davenports went to Europe where they fooled many scientists, until the celebrated conjurer, Robert Houdin, discovered their tricks and wrote an expose of them. After these came a long list, French, German and American imposters following in the same footsteps and in turn being shown in their true colors. At present the tendency of the spiritualists was to reserve these older tricks or private sittings, and to give what they styled the "higher manifestations" - those that concerned mental phenomena - in public. They thus avoided the danger of public exposures.
QUERIES ON SLIPS
Mr. Eliason then directed his "spirit guide" to distribute five envelopes with enclosed slips to that many persons selected at random amongst the audience. Here it may be interpolated that Eliason's "spirit guide" is his own brother. Upon the slips the parties wrote queries, enclosed and sealed them. These were carried around to Eliason on a platter. Sitting down, and in turn picking up each sealed envelope, Eliason gave the answer correctly. "How do you like your new home?" was asked. "Out of sight," was the ready response, and so on through the list. Eliason explained that his "spirit guide" on passing behind the stage, quickly tore open the envelopes, wrote the questions on a slate, and substituted five other sealed envelopes. The envelopes were given Eliason on the slate, and at the table the "medium" simply read the questions and gave his answers, with the necessary palaver and mystery, rubbing his forehead and gasping for spirit power for the necessary "effect."
Mr. Eliason then proceeded to relate startling events, reciting the names of distant and departed individuals and asking if any one were in the audience who knew if the facts were true. in every instance some one, in a startled and astonished way, answered that he knew the case.
Among others he mentioned the name of "Minnie Roberts," said she had died in Bismarck, N.D. on a certain day and year. He added that there was in the audience a gentleman to whom she was engaged, but who was a believer in spiritualism and did not believe he (Eliason) could to the spiritualistic feats. He asked the gentleman to respond, but no one answered. He then damanded that the gentleman should arise and confess, or he would go amongst the audience and pick him out. Still getting no answer, Eliason jumped from the stage to the floor, and making strange passes over his head wandered around till he "spotted" an individual, and demanded that he should confess. Still the skeptical but plainly alarmed man refused to answer. "You have her photograph with you and have carried it in your breast pocket from the day of her death till this," exclaimed Eliason. "I will take it from you!" and with that the clever conjurer slipped his hand within the man's vest and brought out the photo. The gentleman, completely dumfounded, confessed the truth of all Eliason said midst thunders of applause.
HOW IT IS DONE.
Eliason explained that the spiritualistic media (or as colloquially known, the "medium") accomplished such tricks as these by fishing up knowledge from back numbers of newspaper files, by visiting cemeteries, thus getting data of deceased ones, by having a trust among themselves, informing each other of all they discovered concerning the friends and intimates of spiritualistic believers, and those known to incline to that belief.
DEFEATING THE MEDIUM.
Eliason then had a lady enter the stage and write a query on a piece of paper, which he answered by substituting a similar slip while he read the note, and then dextrously returning the original. She paid and thanked him with devout earnestness. Another lady, who refused to give up her folded slip after folding it, thus defeating the "medium" was told the spirits refused to answer because she was skeptical. "I have had four or five bring me the story of a similar experience with Dr. Waite during the past week," said Mr. Eliason. "In each case they took the precaution of not allowing them to give their slips up to him, thus defeating his object."
THE SLATE TRICK
Mr. Eliason then did the slate trick, which by its wonderful cleverness brought down the house. This, he said, could be done in six or eight different ways. Part were by mechanical and part were by chemical ways, Mr. Eliason mentioned the various chemicals by which writing could be placed on slates, then the writing washed out, and later brought out vividly by other chemicals. Fumes of ammonia from the hollow leg of a table was one. Two slates screwed together could be wedged apart in the cabinet and the writing done with a bent wire with a slate-pencil stub on the end.
Mr. Eliason then invited to the stage a committee composed of a representative of each daily paper, together with H. A. Fyler, to examine his cabinet tricks. A succession of these were performed. A ring was slipped over Mr. Fyler's arm by a dextrous change of the conjuror's hands. The assistant was firmly tied by the committee, and instantly freed himself, again tying himself, the same being done by the use of a peculiar knot invented by Harry Keller [sic]. Then the assistant was placed in a cabinet, where he was thrown into a trance. Here he appeared bound hand, head and foot, to the surprise of all. Then coins were placed between his fingers, water in his mouth, and yet when the cabinet was closed he would tie knots, blow horns, ring bells and play a mouth-organ. This was shown to be done by a similar tying of knots, by which he could alternately quickly release and bind himself. He blew the horn through his nose, played a trick organ by means of a bellow he sat upon, toss and ring the bells with the hand he release from his trick knots. In a similar was after being bound to a plank by the committee the assistant was released by the cord being cut with a trick knife.
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.
[Ogden Standard Examiner May 7, 1894 ]
A COMPLETE EXPOSE
The Spirits Are Not In It With Eliason.
Spiritualism Left Without A Leg to Stand On - A Clever Exhibition of Sleight-of-Hand.
Eliason has come and gone - and as a result spiritualistic stock is away down below par. His expose of the so-called supernatural manifestations was all he claimed for it and certainly ought to convince the most incredulous that the spiritualism of commerce is a fake. He introduced his expose by a spicy talk on the history of medium spiritualism incidentally referring to such famous or infamous frauds as Rochester, the Davenports, Blavatsky, Hume, Dr. Slade and Eva Fay.
At the conclusion of the talk, Mr, Eliason's assistant distributed some envelopes, with a slip of paper in each, among the audience, with the request that a question about some departed friend be written on the slips. This was done, the envelopes sealed and gathered up. While Eliason was waiting for the spirits to penetrate the envelopes, he performed the so-called miracle of turning water into wine. It was certainly done with an openness and fairness that could not be questioned, but the simple explanation took all the starch out of the miracle, when the miracle performer explained that he merely changed the color of the water by the aid of chemicals. The genius of the young magician was at once recognised, and the large audience generously applauded. By this time the envelopes containing the queries were ready and were handed to Mr. Eliason on a small slate. He immediately became under the influence which the traveling mediums assume and proceeded to answer the questions in a highly satisfactory and amusing manner. The imitation was so perfect that the disbelievers began to quake, but the explanation was so simple as to make the "manifestation" appear ridiculous. Eliason has certainly mastered the art. The envelopes had been opened back of the scenes by the assistant and their contents written on the slate and handed to Eliason, bearing the envelopes.
Then followed an imitation of a private "sitting" in which the clever performer out-Heroded Herod in producing spirit answers. His explanation made another gap in spiritualism.
In succession Eliason lifted tables and performed a series of tricks which find a place in every traveling medium's repertoire, explaining them as he proceeded.
The slate-writing marvel was performed with a dexterity and suaveness unequaled by the best commercial mediums. The fraud of double and single slate-writing was shown in a clean-cut style, amid the tumultuous applause of the audience. Eliason, as a conjuror, is strictly in it; as a juggler he knocks the mechanical part of spiritualism silly; as an independent slate-writing medium he can make spirit penmen ashamed of themselves.
Then came the cabinet manifestations. L.R. Rogers, Wm. Harcombe, Judge Boreman and Joseph Stanford were selected as a committee to examine the cabinet and parapharnalia used, and under their scrutinizing eyes the expose was continued. Under the eyes of the not-to-be-fooled committee, the assistant was placed in a cabinet and a little bag of ropes, securely tied and sealed with Stanford's signet, was dropped in. No sooner had it fallen than the curtain was jerked aside and the "medium" was found bound hand and foot to the chair. In this condition he played the guitar, tin horn, harmonica and cow bells and sleigh-bells galore. Messrs. Stanford and Rogers were detailed in turn to pull the curtain on indications of a "manifestation." Bells, horns, and banjos came out the top of the cabinet as if shot from a catapult and at each eruption the curtain would be pulled by the certain-to-catch-a-spook-gentlemen only to disclose the medium sitting demurely, tied to his chair.
The delusion consisted in a simple turn or two of the ropes which bound the hands, enabling the "medium" by a quick twist to free his hands and then produce the "manifestations." The Keller post trick was performed under the nose of the astounded committee. Mr. Eliason explained that the rope which bound the "medium" was cut in two by a knife attached to a nail which he drove in the post. Eliason has got the business down pat and can make his fortune either as a medium or an exposer.
The materialzing of spirits was illustrated with a correctness only outdone by the spirits themselves, but the explanation exploded the spook idea and dropped the believers faith down another notch.
Altogether the expose was a complete success. The audience went away thoroughly convinced that Eliason has the inside track on the best spook maker on earth.
Many people were heard to express the opinion that were the exhibition to be given again another crowded house would greet it.
Deseret Evening News [Salt Lake City] 1 January 1900,
ELIASON'S TRAGIC DEATH IN DETAIL
Letter from His Brother Tells Particulars of the Pitiful Affair.
AUSTRALIANS VERY KIND.
Rendered All Assistance While Life Lasted and Sincerely Mourned at the Death.
The subjoined letter from Frank E. Eliason, brother of Oscar Eliason, was yesterday received by Paul Hammer, and gives additional particulars of the death of the magician.
"It is with unspeakable grief that I am compelled to relate a most lamentable accident, an accident that has lost to us one who was not only loved by us but was respected by every one, and has closed a career that in a few years time would have known no bounds.
"It was just a week ago today that Oscar, Verge (Mrs. Eliason), Reeves, Jones, the pianist, and Dr. Tressider and myself made up a party to hunt kangaroos and wallabies. We left our hotel at Dubbo about noon and drove out about six miles. After unhooking the horses and turning them loose we all went out, but returned in a few hours for refreshments.
"We again went out in the evening and had all again returned and fired our last shots at some birds in a tree ahead of us, when Oscar threw up his hands and cried, 'I knew it! I knew it.' I ran to him and caught him as he was falling down. Oscar had been accidentally shot by Jones. He undid his clothes himself and we found the bullet just under the skin in the center of the abdomen. The bullet had entered just behind the hip, from which blood rushed in torrents.
"The boys immediately rushed to hitch up the horses. Verge noticed the excitement, came over and found the wagon and seeing the trouble, nearly went wild. She, however, soon calmed herself and assisted us to put Oscar into the wagon. We drove with all haste into Dubbo. When we arrived in town we summoned the best doctor to be had. He extracted the bullet and thought it would only be a flesh wound.
"Oscar suffered great pain all night, but in the early morning the pain became even more terrible, although morphia was frequently injected. He could not rest. The local doctors now feared that inflammation of the bowels had set in and they started preparations for an operation. He, however, seemed to rally and the operation was postponed.
"The doctor stated that if any entrails were cut, as he felt sure was the case, there was the hope that they would stick to the walls on either side, nature growing a gelatine film over as a substitute. If things were in this condition and an operation were performed no good would result and probably a lot of harm.
"Ten o'clock Sunday, with no improvement, an operation was decided on. There were three doctors, two nurses and myself present. An opening was made just above the groin and a lot of matter taken out. A huge abscess had formed on the entrails, and after carefully examining the track of the bullet the doctors said there was no hope.
"Gauze drains were placed through the abdominal cavity from the wound, and we were advised to send to Sydney for Dr. McCormick, supposed to be the best surgeon in Australia.
"The special train, due in six hours, was delayed on account of hot boxes, and did not arrive till 10 o'clock Monday night with Dr. McCormick.
"After examining Oscar, Dr. McCormick advised to let the operation go over till morning, as Oscar was feeling easier. At 1 o'clock he was worse again and the operation was made Tuesday morning.
"After coming to from the operation, he felt much relieved. It was then we had Oscar make his will, he exclaiming, 'You mean to kill me, don't you! But I am going to live anyway.' The doctors had given him only a few hours to live.
"After this he lived till 12 o'clock Wednesday afternoon. When told there was no hope of his recovery, he said, 'Well, that's too bad,' and would not believe it, talking to the very last of continuing the tour in a week or so.
"We had the will drawn up, turning everything over to his wife. He said it was all right and that he knew she would provide for Ethel, their little girl. When Verge asked him if he had anything to say, he said, 'No, but I think we understand each other perfectly, and that is all that is necessary.' When asked if he desired her to go home, Oscar said he would leave it all to Verge, but thought we ought to continue the show.
"Verge was very hysterical before his death and for some time after, constantly requiring watching. She bore up bravely at the funeral and has done so since.
"Viola Pratt is a constant caller and is a great comfort to Verge.
"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. The street was blocked with people at the funeral. As the hearse passed, everyone, from the lowest vagabond to royalty in carriages, respectfully raised their hats. Schools were drawn up in bodies along the line of march to pay their last respects to the beloved 'Dante.'
"When we left Dubbo with the remains to go to Sydney, every shop in the town was closed, and it was necessary for us to go out of the hotel the back way to avoid the crush. At the station the crowd was so great the funeral train was delayed fifteen minutes in leaving, and during the whole night's ride every station we passed was crowded to see the train that was taking 'Dante' on his last journey.
"Verge does not feel that she can come home until affairs are straightened out. I wish I could divert her mind from the tragic incident. She has eaten nothing yet, but is feeling a little more cheerful tonight. Ethel wept very bitterly and felt the shock keenly at first.
"Well, Paul, I don't know what the foregoing letter is like, but I have done my best. It is the hardest piece of work I have ever done, and may God grant that there will never be another occasion for writing another such letter. Kindly read the letter to father and tell him that everything science and money could do was done to save Oscar."
Deseret Evening News [Salt Lake City] 20 January 1900
VIOLA PRATT'S AUSTRALIAN HIT
[Viola Pratt was a native of Utah]
"Viola Pratt (Gillette) whose face is here shown, has just made a great success in Australia in the production there of "Robin Hood." ...
Speaking of Oscar Eliason she says: "wasn't it sad about Oscar Eliason? He was making such a big success out here, and everybody liked him so much. His brother Frank, his wife and his little 6-year-old daughter were with him; they all dined with me at Adelaide. As soon as Mrs. Eliason arrived in Sydney with the body I had her with me all the time. I was the only woman she knew, and I can't tell you how pitiful it was when her husband was buried. I held her up on one side and his brother was on the other. The cemetery at Sydney is a way out by the ocean and his grave is overlooking the sea with the waves washing up against it. She has taken a little cottage near Sydney and says she can't bear to go home and leave his grave, so I suppose she will stay in Australia for some time now." ...
SADIE MACDONALD - American Actress
At the time of Eliason’s death, American newspapers drew attention to the 1896 death in Sydney, of rising young actress, Sadie MacDonald. A mere twenty-three years old, MacDonald (born in Kentucky) had several successful shows to her credit, and had appeared in a popular show, ”A Trip to Chinatown” with the Hoyt and McKee company, and just commenced performing in “A Milk White Flag” at Her Majesty’s Theatre. U.S. newspapers, as they did with Eliason, initially speculated about foul play or scandal, but MacDonald apparently died as the result of a spinal injury worsened by over-exertion on the stage. Coincidentally she also died on November 29.
She is mentioned in Eliason’s funeral notices as being buried “close to” Dante’s grave, but it was only in 2016 that her burial site was discovered. To locate the grave of Sadie MacDonald (in section 8 of Waverley Cemetery), walk down the same path from Eliason’s grave about 200 metres. On the steepest part of the path leading down to the ocean walkway, two graves in on the left-hand side, MacDonald’s tomb may be found, in poor repair but with the text visible: - “In loving Remembrance of / Sadie MacDonald / from her friends who loved her / Sweet little angel rest in perfect peace / Born in Kentucky, America / 1873 / Died in Sydney, 29 Nov. 1896 / Aged 23 years / Good bye Baby.”
MAURICE BERTRAM CURTIS
M. B. Curtis, the 'villain' of the Eliason story, figures in other reports equally unfavourable to his reputation. He was the cause of Thurston being flat broke upon his arrival in Australia, as will be seen from the following extract from Thurston's autobiography, "My Life In Magic". There is also an ominous note from the Salt Lake "Tribune" of December 1, 1899, before the true cause of Oscar's death became known:-
"But there came a day when he [Eliason] fell into company unfortunate for him. M. B. Curtis of "Sam'l of Posen" fame, and who once killed a policeman in San Francisco, met the Utah boy and succeeded in becoming his manager .... There are those who, knowing the disposition of Curtis, suspect that Eliason may have had other than legal trouble with him. The part Curtis played in the San Francisco tragedy is still fresh in the minds of many."
The story of Curtis' legal problems was drawn out and controversial. Police in San Francisco had heard a pistol shot and, running outside they discovered Officer Grant dead of a bullet wound to the head. Curtis was seen running away and was found to have Grant's handcuffs on his wrists, though he denied shooting Grant. Despite the testimony of two witnesses and the fact that Curtis was affected by liquor at the time, he was eventually, in 1893, found not guilty following four trials, two hung juries and a procedural dismissal. However by this time his career was in virtual ruin. His death in 1920 found him a pauper.
HOWARD THURSTON ON CURTIS
On New Year's Day, 1905, I met Mr C----, who had just returned from managing a successful Australian tour of a magician known as "Dante the Great". As Dante had been accidentally shot while hunting, C---- was in New York looking for a new star to take to the Antipodes. In the circumstances it was an easy matter for us to come to terms, C---- agreeing to pay all expenses and manage the tour for an equal division of the profits.
So early in February I packed my baggage in a freight car and consigned it to C----, who had gone to San Francisco to make arrangements for sailing. He was to pay freight charges and send us transportation to San Francisco.
We waited three weeks, each day expecting a letter that never came. After much telegraphing, which brought no response from my new manager, I bought tickets for myself and George [White] and arrived in San Francisco only to discover that C---- had put my baggage in pawn with the management of Fisher's Theatre, a vaudeville house, and had signed contracts for me, as my manager, for five weeks at Fisher's at three hundred and fifty dollars a week. He had drawn a large amount of money on the contract, leaving my baggage as security.
C---- met me on arrival and flattering and threatening in turn, sought to induce me to accept the terms he had arranged, explaining that he expected to pay back the money he had borrowed on my contract. But from what I had been told about C---- in San Francisco, I believed it best that we separate. This left me in a precarious position. Not only was I without money, but I was unable to redeem my baggage. As the contract C---- had made was binding, I decided to play out the engagement.
We played to more than sixty thousand people during the five weeks. C---- took advantage of the contract I had signed in New York and entered suit against me for half my salary and secured an attachment on my baggage. The trial was set for three months later, demanding a bond of one thousand dollars. I was virtually a stranger in San Francisco, and the reduced salary made it impossible for me even to pay back the money C---- had drawn in advance. For three weeks I tried every expedient to raise the bond money. Finally I was introduced to James E. Duffy, passenger agent of the Santa Fe Railroad, one of the finest and biggest hearted men I have ever known. He listened to my story thoughtfully; and then took me to the judge's office and signed my bond. We hadn't known each other thirty minutes! But he did know C----!
Jack Angus, the "Australian Dante"
During his Australian tour in the 1930's Harry "Dante" Jansen had a legal battle with a fellow who also billed himself as Dante. John/Jack Angus claimed to have worked with Oscar Eliason and to have purchased his show, thereby entitling him to use the name.
The Angus story can be found Here