Dante the Great: Utah’s Homegrown Magician

The episode originally aired on KCPW December 1, 2006.
This episode’s audio file may be found at http://www.utahhumanities.org/BeehiveArchive.htm.
© 2006 Utah Humanities Council

The Script (modified):

One hundred and seven years ago this week, the Utah illusionist known as “Dante the Great” died in the tiny Australian town of Dubbo of a gunshot wound to the abdomen .  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 meetinghouse.  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 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 Eliason’s wound was minor, 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.

The Rest of the Story:

According to historian Will Bagley, some observers suspected that Eliason’s death was the result of foul play.   At the time of his Australian tour, the magician was making more than $5,000 a month, a hefty sum for the time.  But as Eliason found out later, not all of that money was making it into his pocket.  It seems his manager, M. B. Curtis, had been dipping into the illusionist’s ticket receipts to feather his own nest.  Eliason fired the manager, though he eventually paid Curtis $7,000 when the manager sued.

As appealing as this conspiracy theory may have been to some, it’s extremely unlikely Curtis was behind Eliason’s death.  The man who fired the fatal shot was one of Eliason’s friends—his pianist, George Jones.  Add to that the fact that the doctor who examined him pronounced the gunshot a flesh wound—hardly the likely result of a planned assassination.

Sources:

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 the Utah History to Go website at www.historytogo.utah.gov.)

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