The Ancient and Esoteric Order of the Jackalope

Ann O'Delia Diss Debar

Spirit Princess

one woman, thirty aliases, forty years and too many crimes to count

Today, we’re going to get a little spooky. No, we’re not going to discuss actual ghosts. (Because that would require ghosts to be an actual thing.) Instead, we’re going to talk about one of the greatest supernatural swindlers of all time, a fake medium, phony psychic, and straight-up con who left a trail of victims across the United States and Europe. Harry Houdini once described this her thus:

According to report she did not hesitate to victimize the innocent and the mentally unsound and left behind her a trail of sorrow, depleted pocketbooks, and impaired morals that has seldom been equalled… The marvelous tact with which she devoted her great powers to the purposes of self aggrandizement and profit is without parallel, and for cunning knavery, Cagliostro, by comparison, seems to have been an amateur. It is alleged that her crimes ranged from the smallest to the largest with morals as low as one can imagine in a human being while, worst of all, she flaunted this viciousness openly, making no effort whatever to cloak her degeneracy.

Houdini, A Magician Among the Spirits.

There’s so much to cover here that it’s almost impossible to know where to start. So let’s start at the beginning.

Editha Salomon

She was born Editha Salomon on February 9th, 1849 in Mercer County, Kentucky.

Her parents were “Professor” John C.F. Salomon, an inventor of some note but little success, and Eliza Salomon. The Salomon family moved around quite a bit, from Kentucky to Washington, D.C. to Baltimore to Brooklyn to Cincinnati to Louisville.

Little Editha was known as a compulsive liar, a willful child who did what she pleased without regard for others. She was unintelligent but cunning, quick-witted but lazy, plain but stylishly-dressed, charming but possessed of a mercurial mood and a volcanic temper. She would rather spend hours trying to figure out how to trick others into doing her chores or buying her the things she wanted instead of doing an honest day’s work. She was a user and an abuser, and everyone hated her.

Her own brother, George C.T. Salomon, once said:

It would be necessary for others to see her as all her family have to comprehend the depth and magnitude of her many villainies. Whenever she enters a house peace departs and with it everything portable. Nothing is safe in her hands. As an intriguer she has few equals and no superiors. I would not believe her under oath under any circumstances.

Now, George was no saint. He was a notorious gambler, a drunk, and a card sharp with a criminal record as long as his arm. It says something that even with George around, Editha was the black sheep of the family.

But wouldn’t be the Salomon family’s problem for long. Sometime in the late 1860s Editha hooked up with a young Englishman and abandoned her family to become a professional grifter. She’d check into hotels and duck the managers when they came around to collect the rent. She’d seduce young men and slowly drain their pocketbooks. She’d buy on credit and skip town without making the payments.

Small-time stuff.

Editha’s secret weapon was an abscessed molar, from which she could suck a distressing quantity of blood. By twitching a little and spitting up blood she could create the impression that she was having a tubercular fit. That would usually get her out of jail and into the infirmary, which bought her time to plan. The infirmary was also easier to escape from, and if she really lucked out she might be discharged and skip town before the police remembered she was a person of interest.

It didn’t always work out. Once, at the Beckel House in Dayton, she faked a serious hemorrhage. The hotel sent for a physician, who realized she was faking and threatened to force her to open her mouth with a hot iron. Editha jumped out of her bed, knocked over a priest and several nuns who had come to administer last rites, and managed to flee town only a few steps ahead of her creditors.

Editha had one big problem, though. No one was really inclined to extend credit to Editha Salomon, because Editha Salomon was a nobody.

If she was going to hit the big time, she needed to be someone else.

Editha Lola Montez, Countess Landsfeldt and Baroness Rosenthal

At some point, Editha decided that she bore a slight resemblance to the Lola Montez, the Irish dancer, adventuress, and mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. (Not the crazy castle guy, his grandfather.) And I do mean slight — looking at pictures of the two women, the only real similarities are that they both have dark hair and a big nose. That was it. Lola was a petite woman with a dancer’s physique, and Editha was big-boned and fleshy.

That slight resemblance was enough for Editha. In the late 1860s she started posing as “Editha Lola Gilbert” or ”Editha Lola Montez,” the illegitimate daughter of Montez and King Ludwig. She claimed that as a child she was sent by her parents to be raised in a Florentine convent, from which she had only recently been released. She also claimed the titles of Countess Landsfeldt and Baroness Rosenthal, which had been bestowed upon her “mother” by her “father.” At some point, even those titles weren’t enough for her, and she started styling herself a princess.

The Princess would travel from town to town, giving lectures about her extraordinary life and that of her parents. She had the act down, to a point. She was less like a real princess and more how the common person imagined a princess to be. Anyone with a passing knowledge of European nobility could see through her lies. More than once audience members stood up in the middle of her lectures and denounced her as a fraud. But the credulous still kept coming. 

The lectures were an easy source of money, but they were secondary to Editha’s real scam, a classic love trap. She would set her sights on some local yokel and seduce him with her personal charm and allure of European nobility. Then she would run into financial difficulties that only her swain could help with. To be fair, her financial difficulties were very real, but she’d attribute them to the incompetence of her Bavarian bankers and not to her own lavish, spendthrift lifestyle. Once she’d drained her mark’s bank account, she’d move on to the next town and the next mark.

In 1870, the Princess took her act to New York City. She made the mistake of befriending and then betraying famous Spiritualist and stockbroker Victoria Woodhull, and spent the next few months only one step ahead of her creditors and the police.

At the end of the year, the Princess trid to buy some time, faking a coughing fit and getting admitted to Hahnemann Hospital for observation. Alas, Hahnemann’s doctors were able to figure out her tooth trick. Consequently hospital security kept her under a tight watch, though they couldn’t stop her from smoking in the stairwells and sneaking into the male wards. Eventually, the Princess she set fire to a mattress, which got her sent to the psychiatric ward for observation. That bought her more time to plan. 

The plan she came up with wasn’t the greatest, but it worked. She somehow got hold of a carving knife and tried to assault her attending physician, stabbing a medical student in the process. That got her declared insane and sent to the Ward’s Island asylum. The stabbing was later determined to have been entirely premeditated, but the on-the-spot diagnosis of “insanity” got her off the hook for both the stabbing and some of her other recent activities, which was what the Princess wanted all along.

Madame Paul Noel Messant

After her “cure” and release from the asylum, the Princess surprised everyone by marrying Dr. Paul Noel Messant — the medical student she had stabbed earlier. I guess stabbing is an effective meet cute. For a few years, the newly-minted Madame Messant settled down and gave birth to her daughter Alice, who she would affectionately call “Lola” in honor of her “grandmother.”

This brief period of tranquility came to an end when Paul Messant died in 1873. Without a doctor’s income to support her, Madame Messant returned to grifting. Inspired by her former patron Victoria Woodhull, she advertised herself as a mesmerist and Spiritualist medium.

At this point in her career, Madame was a terrible hypnotist and a poor medium. She soon returned to being the illegitimate daughter of illegitimate daughter of Lola Montez. She explained her young child by claiming to have been married to a European nobleman, the Count de Fleury, who had died tragically.

The Countess de Fleury worked her scam up and down the East coast. In Baltimore, she wormed her way into the good graces of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the first wife of Napoleon’s brother Jérôme, which gave her access to a better class of gullible idiot. She managed to scam almost $250,000 out of the well-to-do, though one aggrieved party threw a hand grenade into her quarters before she was unceremoniously run out of town.

Mrs. Munnell

So she moved back to New York, now using the name “Mrs. Munnell” to hide from her creditors. She still had enough money to set herself up in a nice, lavishly-furnished house on Clinton Place, hire a few classy French servants, and gain admittance to the the upscale Grace Church. That brought her into contact with her next mark, William H. Vanderbilt.

W.H. had only recently inherited the estate of his father, railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and was at a loss as to what to do. Mrs. Munnell offered William her services as a medium, claiming she could raise the shade of his father to offer investment advice… from beyond the grave.

If it seems outlandish now, consider at the time one of the most successful investors in America was the aforementioned Victoria Woodhull, herself a prominent Spiritualist and medium, who had been initially backed in her business ventures by one Cornelius Vanderbilt.

In any case, W.H. took advantage of Mrs. Munnell’s services, and actually made a pretty penny off his dead father’s investment advice. In gratitude, he gave his new favorite medium a few pieces of art he’d purchased in Europe.

But W.H. started to get suspicious. His trades were getting less and less profitable. Someone was managing to insert themself into the middle of his trades and grab the lion’s share of the profits. He suspected rival magnate Jay Gould had a spy in his camp, so he put the Pinkertons on the case. He was surprised when they reported that responsible party was Mrs. Munnell. He’d been unknowingly buying her stocks for almost a year, and would have probably kept on doing so if she hadn’t got greedy.

W.H. cut Mrs. Munnell off abruptly. She was able to live for a while off the money she’d scammed from him, but her remaining investments were wiped out by the Panic of 1879. She tried to stay afloat by selling her art collection, only to discover most of the pieces were worthless. It turns out that W.H. had money, but no taste. She ultimately had to sell off most of her possessions and move into more modest lodgings.

At this point, Mrs. Munnell was in a bind. Her aliases were getting too well known in New York circles. If she was going to grift the upper crust, she’d need yet another new identity. And maybe a partner in crime.

Ann O’Delia Diss Debar

She got both, thanks to one man: General Joseph Hubert Diss Debar.

The General was a French artist and surveyor who emigrated to America in the 1840s and became a minor figure in West Virginia politics. At some point, General Diss Debar met Mrs. Munnell and fell head over heels in love. He abandoned his wife and child and followed her to New York. The two became partners in crime, and Mrs. Munnell adopted the General’s name as her own, becoming Ann O’Delia Diss Debar.

Now, there is some debate as to whether Ann O’Delia Diss Debart ‘s accomplice was the actual General Joseph H. Diss Debar. There’s no doubt that the two did meet, but it’s entirely possible that the “General” she lived with in New York was an impostor capitalizing on the General’s fame. 

In 1880, Ann O’Delia and the General were living on Leroy Street in New York. Well, Ann O’Delia was, at least. The General was away on business in Kansas, living Ann O’Delia at home with her 7-year-old daughter, Alice, and her newborn daughter, Juliet.

That was when the manifestations began.

Ann O’Delia felt weak, was coughing up blood and having mysterious fits. Spiritual phenomena abounded. A heavy cup and a bell were hurled across her bedroom with such force that they tore the carpet. Chandeliers swung back and forth violently, a glass toothbrush shattered, and a picture of the Virgin Mary teleported across the room. Alice saw ghostly hands crawling along the walls, and a maid was violently shoved by something invisible. A Catholic priest, Father Cammellas, was brought in to perform an emergency exorcism and claimed to see wings floating in the air near the ceiling.

These manifestations were reported in the papers, which had the intended effect. Ann O’Delia Diss Debar was now known far and wide as a Spiritualist with great power. Over the next few years she’d use her newfound reputation to defraud people up and down the east coast from Baltimore to Boston with a variety of cheap parlor tricks.

Her primary trick was cold reading, the use open-ended and general statements to elicit more specific details from a subject. During a Newport, Rhode Island seance she discovered that one sitter, a Mrs. Seymour, had a brother in China. Ann O’Delia later materialized the spirit of the brother, who announced that he had died, leaving his sister a fortune. Unfortunately, there were dozens of processing fees that would need to be paid in order to get the funds released. Fortunately, Ann O’Delia Diss Debar could help, but she disappeared in the middle of the process after accepting some $85,000 for transfer. Mrs. Seymour was ruined and lived out the rest of her days as a pauper.

With the assistance of the General, Ann O’Delia now added a new trick to her arsenal: spirit paintings and writings. A board or slate would be placed on the sitter’s head, and the spirits would be asked to produce a picture or some writing upon it. In the darkened sitting room, Ann O’Delia would would switch the board with a previously prepared one and a painting would “miraculously” appear. When she was feeling particularly bold, she would use this technique to generate posthumous works by famous writers and artists. Once, Ann O’Delia did a spirit painting for Albert Bierstadt, the famous landscape painter. Unfortunately, she was still not a very good medium and performed the sleight-of-hand in full view of a mirror. Bierstadt saw everything and knew she was a fraud. He laughed it off, though, claiming he was thankful up-and-coming artists wouldn’t have to compete with new works by Raphael and Michaelangelo.

When cold reading or spirit paintings wouldn’t do, Ann O’Delia would settle for straight up misdirection. In Philadelphia she convinced a rich matron that she was being pursued by ghostly assassins against whom Ann O’Delia alone could provide protection. One day while walking in the park, Ann O’Delia claimed the spirits were about to attack. When the matron whirled about in alarm, Ann O’Delia drew a knife from under her dress and stabbed her. With her usual sloppiness, though, Ann O’Delia had forgotten to make sure the park was free of witnesses and was forced to flee the city before charges could be pressed.

When Ann O’Delia was backed into a corner, she’d turn the tables on her accusers to buy herself time. She had her maid thrown in jail for theft to avoid paying her wages. She charged her landlady with child abuse to avoid paying the rent. And if all else failed, she’d just leave town on the midnight train to avoid the police and her creditors.

In 1887, Ann O’Delia Diss Debar was approached by a new client: Luther Rawson Marsh, one of the richest and most distinguished lawyers in the city. Marsh had retired from active practice in the late 1870s, though he was still a revered figure in legal and social circles and continued to serve on the City Parks Commission. Marsh had been recently widowed, and had lost a young daughter not long before that. He was looking to contact their spirits on the other side. 

Ann O’Delia was only too happy to take advantage of Marsh’s fragile mental state. She soothed his sorrowful soul with comforting messages from his dead wife and daughter and then launched into her other tricks. The spirits filled stacks of cardboard with portraits of Marsh’s dead friends and family members, poorly copied from engravings and photographs in Marsh’s own library. When Marsh accepted those without question, the spirits stepped up their game and started producing new works by Raphael and Rembrandt.

By April, Marsh was completely in Diss Debar’s thrall. Ann O’Delia, the General, her two children and a handful of assistants moved into the Marsh house at 166 Madison Avenue, and converted it into a Spiritualist “Temple of Truth.” Marsh enthusiastically recommended her services to his friends and relatives, who began to distance themselves from him.

Marsh was perhaps too enthusiastic about Ann O’Delia’s supernatural powers. In March 1888 he held an exhibition of her spirit paintings, without her consent, and invited reporters and the general public. During the reception he put her on the spot, but without advance preparation she could not manage a single manifestation. When the art critic of the New York Sun dismissed the works on display as second-rate copies, Ann O’Delia made a cryptic threat:

It is nothing to the press what I am. If I am a fraud I must stand the exposure. I can be a very charming woman or I can be a Lady MacBeth.

Marsh revealed a number of surprising facts that weekend. He showed off a large block of Italian marble he had purchased, in the hopes that it would be carved by the spirit of Phidias. But he also revealed that he no longer owned the house. On the advice of the spirits, Marsh had sold the house to the Diss Debars for a paltry sum.

Well, that got the attention of the press. They did some digging and discovered that after paying only $100 for the house, Ann O’Delia had immediately turned around and mortgaged it for $11,000.

They also discovered that Ann O’Delia charged between $100 and $5000 for a sitting, had a history of stiffing her creditors, and was in debt another $1,800 over and above the mortgage.

They also discovered employees of a local chemical company, who claimed to have sold the General photo developing chemicals that could be used to gradually reveal images over time. 

New York’s high society was aghast. City officials wondered out loud if Marsh had gone mad, and considered removing him from the Parks Commission. His relatives filed a lawsuit trying to invalidate the sale of the house.

The revelations also drew the ire of New York’s magicians. If you know anything about magicians, you should know that while they love mystery, and would love for magic to be real, they cannot stand it when someone tries to pass off a simple trick as genuine magic.

The first to get in on the act was the famous Professor Alexander Herrmann, who offered to donate $1,000 to charity if he was unable to replicate Diss Debar’s tricks on stage. Which, of course, he could and did. Marsh doubled down, giving a lecture at Checkering Hall in defense of his medium. Ann O’Delia also decided to present a series of lectures in her own defense, but rather than rent a hall with her own money she decided to engage the services of theatrical agent J.W. Randolph. But she soon realized that she might make more money working a double act with Professor Herrmann, and broke her contract with Randolph to sign with Herrmann’s agent.

That turned out to be a big mistake. An aggrieved Randolph went to the police and swore out a complaint, claiming “I tell you, that woman is a damn fraud. She is working old Marsh for all he is worth.” He alleged Ann O’Delia had revealed all of her tricks to him, and he was more than willing to share them with the courts.

Randolph’s complaint was joined by one from Ann O’Delia’s brother, George C.T. Salomon, who came out of the woodwork to make sure everyone knew about his sister’s true character. “She is a stranger to every decent element that constitutes humanity… During the years she was a member of our family we lived in a state of continual fear and turmoil.”

Based on the strength of those two affidavits, the police arrested the Diss Debars and charged them with conspiracy to defraud. The police initially intended to treat Ann O’Delia like a lady, setting her up in a small private room off of the Inspector’s office, but she made such a nuisance of herself they were forced to lock her up in a jail cell. The newspapers were delighted by the thought of the “200 pound enchantress” being locked up like a common criminal.

Realizing that she was in a pickle, Ann O’Delia started backpedaling. She announced that she had consulted with the spirits of “Cicero and his colleagues in the Council of Ten” (whoever that is) and had been advised to return the deed to Marsh. While that might have stopped a civil suit, it wasn’t going to stop a criminal prosecution. Her trial date was set for late May.

Though Marsh was the victim in the case, he was also paying out of pocket for the Diss Debar’s defense. Before the trial, when Marsh offered her a choice between two lawyers, Ann O’Delia asked not only about their abilities but also about their age and looks. She ultimately went with the younger, better-looking of the two, who also happened to be John D. Townsend, who had previously defended spirit photographer William H. Mumler from similar charges.

The prosecution, led by a former New York City mayor, presented a wide variety of witnesses.

They had police inspectors, of course, who revealed all they evidence they had gathered.

Her brother George testified to her general character and criminal tendencies. He produced letters she’d written tugging on familial heartstrings and begging for money. Ann O’Delia denied even  knowing him at all, claiming he was just a con man with a vendetta. Except she also told police inspectors and reporters that he was her brother, and that she had enough blackmail material on him to prevent him from saying anything truly damaging. When those conversations were brought up in court, she denied them.

J.W. Randolph testified about his brief association with the Diss Debars. Of special interest was his one visit to the Marsh house, when Ann O’Delia showed him around and accidentally allowed him to view the General in his studio painting fake spirit pictures.

Magician Carl Hertz recreated all of Ann O’Delia’s tricks in the courtroom. From her position on the bench she did everything possible to break Hertz’s concentration and force him into a mistake. But Hertz was too seasoned a performer, and was able to execute his tricks flawlessly. Ann O’Delia could do nothing but turn beet red and swear, “I rest my honor upon its all being done by Spiritual power when I do it.”

Actress Kate Sadesbury testified that she had been approached by the Diss Debars to play a spirit during seances, but had refused. Art critic Augustus Maurice Friedlander dismissed the spirit paintings as worthless. Photographer David Carvalho demonstrated how it was possible to chemically treat images so that they would be slowly revealed over time. 

The General was called to the stand and was forced to admit that he was not married to Ann O’Delia, though he was the father of her youngest child, and had abandoned his legal wife and child to follow her to New York. He insisted that the paintings were produced by the spirits, which elicited claps of joy from Ann O’Delia, but when asked what had happened to the painting supplies he’d purchased he could not provide a satisfactory explanation.

Ann O’Delia’s testimony was rambling and obtuse. She once again claimed to be the daughter of Lola Montez and King Ludwig, but the story had become more elaborate. Now she had been held captive by nuns in Bavaria when her spiritual powers were discovered, only to be liberated from the convent with the help of Paul Messant. This had nothing to do with the case, and her decision to bring it up was baffling. (Perhaps she was trying to lay groundwork for an insanity defense?)

While the prosecution’s case was weak and circumstantial, the Diss Debar’s defense was weaker still. They had no evidence and no friendly witnesses. All they could do was hope that the jury believed they had genuine spiritual powers.

The jury did not. Or rather, one juror did, but ultimately agreed to vote for conviction provided the other jurors recommended clemency. In the end, the Diss Debars were sentenced to six months of imprisonment on Blackwell’s island.

Astonishingly, the verdict did not diminish Luther Marsh’s belief in Spiritualism. It did shatter his belief in the Diss Debars. He wasn’t upset that they had swindled him out of tens of thousands of dollars and his home. But he was upset that they weren’t married. Apparently he would rather be a fool than to admit people of low character into his home.

By January 1889 Ann O’Delia was free once again, though her weight had ballooned to 295 pounds. The state took away her children, since by cohabiting with a man outside the bounds of wedlock she’d proved to be an unfit mother. 

Over the next few years, Ann O’Delia tried to make a living in the theater. She did a few magic shows where she “competed” with Professor Herrmann. She took a few minor roles offered by theater companies desperate for publicity, even negative publicity. But theatergoers chose to stay away in droves.

The Diss Debars were reduced to suing the the police to reclaim possession of the spirit paintings that had been confiscated during the trial. They hoped to sell the paintings to curiosity seekers or to put them on display for a fee. No dice.

At one point she fled the country by putting on a nun’s habit and pretending to be “Sister Ignatius.” She spent a few months galavanting around Europe under the name of “Mrs. Marsh” but European hotel keepers had little patience for her scams and she was soon deported back to America.

In the end, though, Ann O’Delia’s notoriety made it impossible for her to make a living in New York. On April 14, 1891 she wrote a rambling note to the papers announcing her intention to commit suicide. The next day, she leaped off a Staten Island ferry and disappeared beneath the waves. The police searched the river in van, and no body was ever found.

Nothing was heard from Ann O’Delia Diss Debar ever again.

Miss Eleanor Morgan

In May 1891 a new medium, Miss Eleanor Morgan, made her first appearance in Boston. Her past was shrouded in mystery, but her spiritual talents could not be denied. In a few short weeks she managed to make a number of well-to-do friends in the Spiritualist community and was trying join Boston’s branch of the Theosophical Society.

Reporters had a number of questions about this mysterious new medium, chief among them, “Hey, aren’t you Ann O’Delia Diss Debar?”

Unsurprisingly Ann O’Delia Diss Debar’s “suicide” had been a stunt. She’d swum to safety underwater, donned her “Sister Ignatius” disguise and hopped on the first train out of town. She’d set up shop in Boston, and somehow thought she could disguise her identity with a terrible blonde wig.

Unfortunately for her, Boston was too close to New York and and she was recognized almost immediately. In August the Boston Globe published an expose of her activities, and that very day she was spotted leaving town.

Nothing was heard from Miss Eleanor Morgan ever again.

“The Veiled Prophetess” Vera P. Ava

In August 1891 the name of Vera P. Ava was on the lips of everyone in Chicago. She was a wealthy Englishwoman, a true philanthropist who had come to uplift the poor of the Windy City’s slums.

Miss Vera’s stay in Chicago did not have an auspicious beginning. Due to a bank error, she was unable to pay her bill at the Wellington Hotel and was turned out onto the streets. Fortunately a fellow Englishman, Mr. Mingay, came to her rescue and graciously allowed her to sublet the second floor of his rented house.

Miss Vera had a mysterious past which she would share only with her close confidantes. (Well, close confidantes and people in Chicago who she’d only known for a few weeks.) She had been a member of a secret order of nuns, but had to flee the convent when she began to develop spiritual powers. She was being pursued and persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church and its most sinister agents, the Society of Jesus. Even now, she was receiving letters sent by the Jesuits threatening to assassinate her… or worse.

On September 9th, Miss Vera P. Ava visited a Jesuit college on West 12th Street to speak with the priests about those letters. She received a ride from a friend, Mrs. Bolton, but when Bolton returned later to collect her there was no sign of Miss Vera. She and her driver conducted a brief search and then ran to the police, suspecting foul play.

The police spoke with the priest, Father Kelly, who said that a woman had entered the church shortly after 6:40 PM and had asked to be left alone in the vestry to pray. When he returned later, she was gone. The police believed his story, but Miss Vera’s friends knew it was a lie. Ava was now a prisoner of the minions of St. Ignatius Loyola. 

A few days later, Miss Vera P. Ava was found in Cincinnati, wandering the streets in a daze and babbling incoherently. Cincinnati’s chief of police wired his counterpart in Chicago, asking what he wanted to do with her. Chicago’s reply was brief: “Release her, we don’t want her.”

According to Miss Vera, as she entered the church she was confronted by Father Kelly and Archbishop Feehan, who forced her into a chair and tried to get her to sign a paper recanting her stories. When she refused, a hood was thrown over her head and she remembered nothing more until she came to in Cincinnati.

It was a troubling story and reporters had a lot of questions, chief among them, “Hey, aren’t you Ann O’Delia Diss Debar?”

It turns out a New York reporter sent to cover the developing story had recognized “Miss Vera P. Ava” almost immediately and gone to the police, who found it entirely plausible. Their weird, clearly made-up backstories had a lot of similarities and there was a strong physical resemblance.

Miss Vera denied being Diss Debar, of course, and even offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could find the notorious Diss Debar so she could finally prove they weren’t one and the same. No one was buying it. Mrs. Bolton and her other friends quickly abandoned her, and the Mingays sued her for the back rent she owed them.

Desperate to raise funds, Miss Vera gave daily lectures at Kohl & Middleton’s Clark Street Museum on the South Side, detailing her harrowing experiences for 10 cents a pop. Kohl & Middleton didn’t shy away from the controversy, declaring in their advertisements that Vera P. Ava and Ann O’Delia Diss Debar were one and the same. 

The novelty soon wore off, and Miss Vera was forced to use her spiritual powers to earn a living by conducting seances. She advertised herself as “The Veiled Prophetess” and claimed to be a former Dominican Provincial and Roman Astrologer for the Vatican. She was assisted in her work by Father Francis, an ex-Franciscan monk (In actuality, Father Frank was “Professor” Charles Orchardson, another Spiritualist con man.) The pair took their show on the road and kept a low profile.

But in October 1892 Miss Vera P. Ava was arrested. She had been conducting seances in Elgin, IL for Mrs. Irene J. Mitchell, whose husband had committed suicide. Mrs. Mitchell and Miss Vera were counting money around the kitchen table when Mrs. Mitchell was called away for a few moments. When she returned, Miss Vera was missing… and so was most of the money.

Miss Vera claimed these were trumped up charges, part of a revenge plot concocted by Orchardson, was was still secretly working for the Vatican. The Professor angrily denied these allegations and insisted Miss Vera was the real villain, sending hypnotized priests to assassinate him.

The police didn’t care who was hypnotically trying to murder whom, and indicted them both for larceny, embezzlement, and obtaining money under false pretenses.

When the case went to trial, the state’s arguments were blissfully short. When Vera P. Ava had arrived in Elgin she was penniless. A month later, when she left town in a hurry, she was wearing expensive clothes and living well above her means.

Orchardson testified for the state in exchange for immunity, but couldn’t add much. He just knew that on September 19 Miss Vera P. Ava was broke, and on September 20 she was flush with cash.

Miss Vera’s defense was incoherent. She swore that she was not Ann O’Delia Diss Debar, even though that had no bearing on the matter at hand. She spoke at length about her convoluted history and added a few extra flourishes, claiming to have learned the mysteries of Theosophy from mahatmas in India after having escaped from a nunnery in France. She once again claimed that the Jesuits were trying to kill her, and Orchardson was their agent. And the money? Why, it was either a gift from a friend in Indianapolis or repayment of a loan she had made years ago in France, depending on which day she was testifying.

Needless to say, the jury didn’t buy it. The judge and jury sentenced her to two years in prison. On March 25, 1893 she started serving her term in Joliet.

While she was in prison, Orchardson hypnotized a rich widow into marrying him. There was a scandal when she died two years later and it was discovered that Orchardson had helped write her will… from beyond the grave during a seance. But that’s a story for another day.

Nothing was heard from Miss Vera P. Ava ever again.

Mrs. William J. McGowan

In May 1895, Miss Phoebe Love of Wisconsin brought a lawsuit suit against Mrs. William J. McGowan of Chicago. Miss Love and her father had been living in an an apartment on West Harrison Street when Mrs. McGowan forced her way into their residence, locked them out, and threatened to kill them if they tried to enter. 

Mrs. McGowan counter-sued, claiming that Miss Love was a former housekeeper who had stolen away Mr. McGowan’s affections. Just to make matters really weird, Miss Love’s father (who she’d been living with) and Mr. McGowan (who she had seduced)… were actually the same person.

Needless to say, reporters had a lot of questions, chief among them, “Hey, aren’t you Ann O’Delia Diss Debar?”

Yes, it turns out Mrs. McGowan was our old friend, fresh out of jail and already up to no good. When asked point blank who she was, Mrs. McGowan responded that she was, “No longer Vera Ava or Ann O’Delia Diss Debar,” which, you will note, is not a denial.

The case was thrown out of court, with a stern admonishment to all parties to get their act together. After all, Jerry Springer wouldn’t even be born for another 49 years.

For Mrs. McGowan, getting her act together meant finding religion. 

That religion was the Koreshan Unity, a cult who had a lot of crazy beliefs. They believed that a doctor named Cyrus Reed Teed was the Messiah, that communal living and celibacy were the way to eternal life, that the Earth was hollow and we all lived on the inside, and that men and women were equal. (Like I said, crazy stuff.)

The Koreshans had a large commune called “Beth-Ophrah” in Chicago’s College Park neighborhood, and Mrs. McGowan petitioned to become a member. The leaders of the commune knew who she was and confronted her. Mrs. McGowan claimed she was trying to repent for her past misdeeds, so they took pity on her and made her a provisional member.

They immediately regretted it. Mrs. McGowan was clearly only there to sponge off everyone else. She was frequently drunk, which was against the rules, and the chief suspect in the theft of a diamond ring and a gold necklace. The necklace was eventually found at a local pawn shop, and the ticket had McGowan’s name on it. She was drummed out of the commune in disgrace.

Nothing was heard from Mrs. William J. McGowan ever again.

Ann O’Delia Diss Debar (Again)

That was because Mr. McGowan had died in January 1897. After an attempt to claim what was left of McGowan’s estate, Mrs. McGowan left Illinois for good.

Ann O’Delia Diss Debar briefly resurfaced in Boston in October 1897 claiming to have inherited the spiritual mantle of the late Madame Helena Blavatsky. She lent her support to Henry B. Foulke in his attempts to seize control of the Theosophical Society of America.

Her timing could have been worse. On November 1, Foulke was arrested for what was described as “the most heinous crime known among men” and was tried and convicted for molesting two young boys. Diss Debar decided that discretion was the better part of valor and got the hell out of town.

Nothing was heard from Ann O’Delia Diss Debar ever again (again).

Editha Loleta Jackson

That was because she’d fled to New Orleans, and set up show as a medium named “Mrs. Howard.” She soon realized that no one in New Orleans was wise to her old tricks, and soon Princess Editha Lolita was making the rounds once again.

And then the most incredible thing happened: the 49-year-old Princess Editha Loleta found love.

On November 13th, 1898 she married Frank Dutton Jackson, a real estate developer from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. It was apparently love at first sight, and the two became partners in life… and in crime.

The Loleta/Jackson marriage was announced in all the papers, where the couple giddily talked about their plans for the future. They would travel to India to explore occultism and true religion, with an eye of founding a new religion of their own, “the Order of the Crystal Sea.” The initiates of this order would live celibate, communal lives so they perfect the world and form an anthropostic battery, through the instrumentality of which they would materialize the godhead itself. They would do this through a Biblically-inspired fruitarian diet, which would allow them to live forever.

Now, that paragraph may seem like pure gibberish… and it is. But it’s not original gibberish. It was plagiarized, lock stock and barrel, from the teachings of Cyrus Teed’s Koreshan Unity. The only twist the Jacksons put on the doctrine was adding fruitarianism into the mix.

Needless to say, the city fathers of New Orleans might have tolerated a small-time medium and con woman, but they drew the line at someone founding a whackadoo new religion in their city. On May 7, 1899 Editha Loleta Jackson was forcibly expelled from the city for being a “suspicious character,” which is selling her short. Editha decided to flaunt the order, and was thrown into the slammer for 30 days. The Jacksons got the message. The Order of the Crystal Sea set sail for for Florida, where they set up a commune on some land Frank owned in Lee County, just outside of Fort Myers.

You know who else had a commune on some land in Lee County, just outside of Fort Myers? The Koreshan Unity. The Jacksons aggressively targeted the Koreshans, attacking them viciously in the press while privately trying to poach members. 

To recap: in one of her low moments, fresh from prison, Mrs. McGowan had gone to the Koreshans for sanctuary and repaid their hospitality by stealing their property. Then, Editha Loleta Jackson stole their doctrine to set up her own religion, and then set up shop in their backyard and actively tried to steal their members.

Such gratitude.

Fortunately, the Koreshans had a pretty good defense: “Y’all know that’s Ann O’Delia Diss Debar, right?” Once the Jackson’s unsavory past came out, it was all over. By the end of 1899 they abandoned Lee County for good.

Nothing was heard from Editha Loleta Jackson ever again.

“Swami” Viva Ananda

…because Mrs. Jackson decided to take her act over the pond to London. Posing as “Swami” Viva Ananda, she tried to ingratiate herself into England’s Spiritualist and Theosophical worlds. She wrote numerous leading figures, including W.T. Stead, but never managed to get any sort of financial support, only tepid encouragement. So she left.

Nothing was heard from Swami Viva Ananda ever again.

Countess Anna Sprengel

…because the Swami had moved to Paris. 

Somehow, she managed to make the acquaintance of Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, one of the notorious founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Somehow, she managed to convince him that she was Countess Anna Sprengel, the Order’s legendary — and entirely fictional — founder. You think Mathers would have known better, but apparently not. During their brief acquaintance, “Sprengel” managed to steal several books detailing the Golden Dawn’s beliefs and rituals.

Paris was becoming too hot for comfort, though. Before leaving the United States, the Order of the Crystal Sea had managed to brainwash one Dr. Mary Evelyn Bower Adams under the pretense of providing her “spiritual lessons.” Adams’s sister Emma Barnett learned that she was in Paris and wrote a letter to the chief of police claiming her sister had been hypnotized. Wary of increased scrutiny from the gendarmes, the Countess decided to split town.

Nothing was heard from Countess Anna Sprengel ever again.

Madame Helena Horos

…because she’d relocated to Cape Town, South Africa. She was now “Helena Horos” and Frank was “Theodore Horos.”

(It should be noticed that “Horos” is yet another term stolen from the Koreshans, a mangling of the name of hawk-headed Egyptian god Horus, of whom Cyrus Teed was supposedly the reincarnation.)

The Horoses lectured on Spiritualism and Theosophy and held performances of mediumship, animal magnetism, and fortunetelling. They opened a so-called College of Occult Science, where she handed out worthless degrees to gullible students. 

By the end of the year she was gone, presumably because papers were about to out her as Ann O’Delia Diss Debar. In her haste to get out of Dodge, she’d left a number of her followers stranded in Cape Town with no way to follow her. Among those so abandoned was Dr. Adams.

Nothing was heard from Madame Helena Horos ever again.

Laura Horos

….because she’d moved back to London and was living as “Laura Horos.” Astoundingly, Frank was still going by “Theo,” probably because he liked the symbolism of the name, but now he was pretending to be her son and not her husband.

In October 1900 they set up a College of Life and Occult Sciences that taught mental and magnetic therapeutics, psychology, clairvoyance, mediumship, materialization, thaumaturgy, and divine healing. The college was mostly a front to recruit for their new religion: “The Theocratic Unity and Purity League.” 

The Unity’s tenets were a strange mash-up of doctrines and rituals stolen from the Koreshan Unity and the Golden Dawn, incoherently smushed together to put a veneer of respectability on a straightforward cult of personality. The Unity taught that Laura was the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, and her “son” Theo was the reincarnation of Jesus. Initiates were conscripted into “The Army of the Lord” and were expected to do the Lord’s bidding without question. 

Their preferred initiates were beautiful young ladies from wealthy families with passing interests in Spiritualism and Theosophy, unresolved daddy issues, a mild rebellious streak, and no guile or real knowledge of how the world worked. The women would be lured in with the promise of spiritual powers and then swept off their feet by Theo’s manliness. Theo would convince them to move into the commune, isolating them from their friends and families and slowly draining their pocketbooks. Eventually the girls would be convinced to sever all ties with the world outside, and from that point on they were the Horos’s slaves.

For about a year, it worked.

Then, in September 1901, the Horoses were arrested, brought to the Marlborough street police court, and accused of theft. One of their initiates, young Miss Vera Croysdale, had noticed that a number of her possessions had gone missing while she was living with the Theocratic Unity, namely a golden broach, a golden matchbox, a silver clock and a diamond ornament. She’d pressed charges. The case made all the papers.

It even made international news. Magician Carl Hertz, who had testified against Ann O’Delia Diss Debar over a decade earlier, saw Laura Horos’s picture in the paper and recognized her immediately. He wrote Scotland Yard to inform them the person they had in custody was the notorious Diss Debar.

Hertz wasn’t the only one looking at the papers. Members of the Koreshan Unity noticed one of the rings Theodore was wearing. It was the one Mrs. McGowan had stolen back in Chicago, which had never been recovered. (Theodore eventually pawned it to raise money to pay for his legal defense.)

The Horoses returned to court in October for the formal filing of charges. In the interim, some of Vera Croysdale’s items had mysterious reappeared. Apparently, the Horoses thought that might convince her to drop the charges. They were wrong. 

The police charged them under their real names — well, as real as names get for these two — Frank and Laura Jackson. Detective Inspector Kane, who was leading the charge against them, announced: “I have a criminal record for the woman from Chicago, and I produce her photograph and the particulars of her dimensions. These show that she is a convicted thief, a swindler, and a fortune teller.”

There were also new charges: the rape of Daisy Pollex Adams.

One of the Theocratic Unity’s more unusual recruiting methods involved taking out matrimonial advertisements in the newspapers. When some trusting innocent girl replied, Frank would introduce himself, bring them back to the Unity, introduce Laura as his “mother” and announce that he and his new woman were to be wed. He’d use a combination of high pressure tactics and hypnosis to seduce them, while at the same time relieving them of all their valuables, like rings, broaches, etc. 

Daisy Pollex Adams was one so swindled. But she would not yield to Frank’s demands, so Laura held Daisy down while Theo raped her.

Daisy was only sixteen, which made her underage. (Ironically, the age of consent had been raised years earlier through the tireless efforts of W.T. Stead, whose favor the Horses had tried to curry on their first trip to London.)

Well, that caused an uproar. Frank tried to shut down the charges immediately, claiming that an accident had left him a virtual eunuch, unable to perform. He demanded a medical examination to clear his good name. The authorities called his bluff.

The full trial began at the end of November.

Vera Croysdale testified about her strange initiation ceremony. She had been tied with a rope, and passes were made over her with a lamp, water, and a saw. Frank Jackson told her he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. She swore an oath that no one else was allowed to hypnotize her, and that she would keep all the secrets of the Unity under penalty of being “blasted by lightning.” From the witness box, Laura Jackson looked like she was trying to conjure all the lightning she could muster.

Laura Faulkner testified that Frank had made a number of inappropriate overtures. He’d called her his “little wife” and proclaimed himself to be her “spiritual husband.” She also testified Frank had told them he was the Lord, and that since obeying his commands was obeying the will of the Lord, then sleeping with him was not a sin. Of course, when pressured to turn the spiritual marriage into an actual marriage, Frank always found a way to change the subject. The Jacksons were none too fond of Faulkner’s testimony, either.

Daisy Adams and her mother testified about her own seduction and violation.

Mrs. Lewis, their landlady, claimed the prisoners had represented themselves as “mental scientists” — sort of a combination of hypnosis, faith healing, and positive thinking that we’ll get into more next series. Once Mrs. Lewis realized they were just grifters, she tried to turn them out.

Dr. James Scott, who’d conduced the physical examination of Frank Jackson, testified that his equipment was in good working order.

Dr. Mary Evelyn Bower Adams testified, and accused Laura Jackson of poisoning her husband. Frank yelled she was a murderess and liar, and had to be silenced. (Amazingly, no one ever seems to have followed up on Dr. Adams’ testimony…)

Detective Inspector Kane brought a mountain of evidence. There were account books and unpaid bills. There were personal effects stolen from Vera Croysdale and another initiate, Olga Rawson. There was a book of rituals stolen from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. There were multiple publications by the Koreshan Unity, where the word “Koreshan” had been crossed out and replaced with “Theocratic.” There were letters written to the Swami from “King Solomon, the leader of the Army of the Lord, residing in Arregosebah,” trying to convince Laura to be his “Queen of Sheba.” There were letters of encouragement from W.T. Stead and other prominent spiritualists. There were indecent photos of Unity initiates in various states of undress. And there were mug shots of Miss Vera P. Ava from her stint in Joliet State Prison.

Amazingly, the Jacksons chose to defend themselves. They were, as usual, terrible advocates and witnesses. Frank would hiss at the crowd in the courtroom, demanding that they keep quiet and give him a fair shake. Laura would try to control the pace of the trial, shouting at witnesses she didn’t like and trying to silence them.

Laura professed complete and total innocence. She denied being Vera P. Ava or Ann O’Delia Diss Debar. She was not leading a cult, and the girls were not initiates, students or slaves. They were just household servants, who had been corrupted by her most ancient foe — the landlady, Mrs. Lewis, who was a secret Jesuit. She claimed all the charges were pure fiction.

As usual, she also introduced a number of facts which had no bearing on the matter at hand. Most notably, she claimed to be the “real” founder of Koreshanity, which she established in 1866. (Which was about three years too early, but how would the British police know? Or why would they care?)

Frank did cop to being Frank Dutton Jackson. Interestingly, he also claimed he was not Laura’s husband, but her adopted son. He said he had never claimed to be God, had never violated anyone, and in fact lived a completely celibate lifestyle because of that unfortunate, unspecified accident. Whenever he testified in a way that pleased Laura, she praised him as a “good boy” from the bench like he was a clever pet.

In the end, the jury was presented a choice between a mountain of meticulously gathered evidence, and blanket denials from two people who changed their story every five minutes. They took only five minutes to find the Jacksons guilty. Frank received 15 years in prison, and Laura received 7. They were carted away to Aylesworth to serve their sentences.

Laura would be behind bars for only four and a half years. On August 13, 1906 she was released early due to good behavior.

Nothing was heard from Laura Jackson ever again.

“The New Eve” Reverend Mother Elinor T. Mason

In 1907 Detroit was in an uproar over the notorious Michael K. Mills, the self-proclaimed “prince” of the cult variously known as the House of Israel, the Flying Rollers, or the Jezreelites. Mills had been been convicted of sexually assaulting young women, and when he was released from prison in 1892 it was made clear that his release was conditional on his leaving the country and never returning.

But returned he had. In January 1907 Mills was caught trying to sneak over the border from Windsor, Ontario and was detained.

Mills had his defenders, though. They were led by a mysterious new figure, identified as the Reverend Mother Elinor T. Mason. Mason claimed to be the new head of the House of Israel in the United States, sent from England to set up a new colony on the banks of Lake St. Clair. She stayed on the Canadian side of the border, orchestrating the affairs of the cult and providing the funds for Mills’ legal defense.

The Reverend Mother was an imposing figure, who dressed in purple silks bedecked by gold and jewels and was compared by one reporter to the Queen of Sheba. She traveled in a luxurious yacht and claimed to have $50 million of assets at her command. This was a stark contrast to the rest of the Flying Rollers, who were known for their austerity and poverty. In interviews, she claimed to be an ageless immortal nearly 100 years old, totally free from all sin, and to have been recognized as “the new Eve” by Pope Pius IX.

Needless to say, reporters had a lot of questions, chief among them, “Hey, aren’t you Ann O’Delia Diss Debar?”

Yes, apparently after her release from prison our old friend Ann O’Delia had ingratiated herself with the English branch of the House of Israel. It was there that she became acquainted with Mills and encouraged him to return to America, apparently with the thought that an introduction from him would help her take over the sect there, and then he could be turned over to the law to get him out of her hair.

Before leaving she had also stolen over £400 from the English branch, along with numerous pieces of jewelry owned by the family of John Swinden, their solicitor. The same jewels that were now prominently featured in photos of Elinor T. Mason and which were quickly identified by the Swindens.

Needless to say, both English and American authorities were very interested in speaking with the Reverend Mother, but she’d vanished. Shortly after the papers outed her she’d converted everything the sect owned into cash and fled with Mills’ secretary David Livingston Mackay.

Nothing was heard from Elinor T. Mason ever again.

“The White Mahatma” Adiva Veedya

In 1909 New Yorkers couldn’t stop talking about what was going on at the Mahatma Temple on 33rd Street. A new teacher, Adiva Veedya, had begun teaching the secrets of physical immortality and initiating her students into the “Order of the White Robe.” Veedya was a white woman, who claimed to have learned the secrets of yoga in India, where the fakirs had christened her “The White Mahatma.”

I think you know where I’m going to go with this, so say it along with me. Reporters had a lot of questions, chief among them, “Hey, aren’t you Ann O’Delia Diss Debar?”

I don’t know why Ann O’Delia Diss Debar thought she could get away with setting up shop in New York again. Perhaps she’d thought twenty years was enough time for the city to forget. In any case, she was wrong. Her identity was soon discovered by reporters and she was kicked out of the Mahatma Temple.

Astoundingly, even after she was outed the credulous continued to flock to her for her spiritual knowledge. The scheme only fell apart when her accomplice and “spiritual son” David Livingston Mackay was deported. Apparently he’d been convicted in Canada of selling obscene literature (actually Jezreelite religious pamphlets) and lied about it on his entry forms. For some reason, that was enough to bring things toppling to the ground.

After the collapse Ann O’Delia fell back on another classic: she went on a lecture tour, where she claimed to be Mackay’s innocent dupe. She was booked for one week at Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater… and flopped, hard. The public no longer found her escapades charming and had decided to stop giving money to a convicted rapist. She didn’t even make it to the end of the engagement before skipping town.

Nothing was heard from “The White Mahatma” Adiva Veedya ever again.

The End?

And this time, I actually mean it. That was apparently the end of 

  • Editha Salomon, 
  • alias Annie Solomon, 
  • alias Editha Lola Gilbert Montez, 
  • alias Baroness Rosenthal and Countess Landsfeldt,
  • alias Princess Lola of Bavaria,
  • alias Mrs. Paul Noel Messant,
  • alias the Countess de Fleury, 
  • alias Angel Anna, 
  • alias Blanche Solomon,
  • alias Claudia D’Arvie, 
  • alias Ellora,
  • alias Madame Cagliostro,
  • alias Mrs. Munnell,
  • alias Edith Diss Debar,
  • alias Ann O’Delia Diss Debar,
  • alias Della Ann O’Sullivan,
  • alias Sister Ignatius, 
  • alias Mrs. Marsh,
  • alias Miss Eleanor Morgan,
  • alias “The Veiled Prophetess” Miss Vera P. Ava,
  • alias Mrs. William J. McGowan,
  • alias Mrs. Howard,
  • alias Countess Anna Sprengel,
  • alias “Princess” Editha Loleta Jackson,
  • alias Laura Jackson,
  • alias “Swami” Viva Ananda,
  • alias “Swami” Helena Horos,
  • alias “Swami” Laura Horos,
  • alias Edith T. Murray,
  • alias “The New Eve” Reverend Mother Elinor T. Mason,
  • alias “The White Mahatma” Adiva Vidya.

Frank Dutton Jackson was released from prison in 1912. He immediately made headlines by hypnotizing a woman at Niagara Falls, marrying her, and then fleeing with over $40,000 of her money. He claimed in interviews that his lovely bride had made a promise to meet him in Chicago, but she never appeared. He continued to get into trouble throughout the teens and twenties, and also vanished.

By the 1930s Ann O’Delia Diss Debar was missing, presumed dead. Memories of her 40-year-long crime spree began to fade, and before long she was forgotten by the general public.

That’s how I know she was really dead. If she had still been alive, she would have popped back up the moment we’d all forgotten about her, ready to pull another scam.


(All corrections from the errata have been incorporated into this article, but not into the published audio.)


The Vanderbilts were surprisingly easy marks for fraudulent mediums — and one distant cousin event married one (“A Good Thing to Die By”).

Ann O’Delia faked automatic writing and painting for her own nefarious ends. Dr. John Ballou Newbrough also used automatic writing to produce The Oahspe, a new Bible transmitted directly from the mind of god and which Newbrough used to form his own religion (“Suffer Little Children”). 

Diss Debar’s lawyer, John D. Townshend, had risen to prominence with his successful defense of spirit photographer William H. Mumler (“What Joy to the Troubled Heart!”).

Vera P. Ava wasn’t the only one pretending to be a fake nun and staging her kidnapping; In fact, she pales next to the most famous fake nun of all, Maria Monk (“The Awful Disclosures”).

Ann O’Delia Diss Debar briefly tried to join Dr. Cyrus Reed Teed’s Koreshan Unity (“We Live Inside”), and later opened her own copy commune right down the street and tried to compete with them.

When Princess Editha Lolita was setting up the Order of the Crystal Sea, she stole one more play from the Koreshan Unity’s book and wrote to the Harmony Society in Pittsburgh (“Hold Fast What Thou Hast” and “That No Man Take Thy Crown”) asking for financial assistance. Trustee John S. Duss, who had been burned by his earlier association with Teed, respectfully declined.

Elinor T. Mason made her return to America in 1907 by scamming “Prince” Michael K. Mills, leader of the House of Israel (“Exceeding Great”).

Freeman Bernstein, who booked Ann O’Delia Diss Debar into Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater for her final lecture tour, also tried to profit off of Laura Biggar’s legal problems (“Pleadings from Asbury Park”) by offering her bail in exchange for future services. In later life, Bernstein also ran scams out of Hollywood’s Garden of Allah hotel (“The Garden of Oblivion”).

For the story of another grifter who constantly changed their identity, backstory, and M.O. check out the story of Dwight York, the founder of the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors (“Space is the Place”).


  • “Ann O’Delia Diss Debar.” Wikipedia. Accessed 10/1/2019.
  • Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924.
  • Melton, J. Gordon (ed). Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology (4th ed). Detroit: Gale Research, 1996.
  • Millner, Lyn. The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2015.
  • Mulholland, John. Beware Familiar Spirits. New York: Scribner, 1938.
  • Richardson, Edmund. “Nothing’s Lost Forever.” Arion. Accessed 10/1/2019.
  • Shapiro, Walter. Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer. New York: Blue Rider Press, 2016.
  • “The Princess Editha.” New York Daily Herald, 8 Jun 1870.
  • “The royal pretender.” New York Herald, 24 Jun 1870.
  • “Old Mother Shipton’s.” Memphis Daily Appeal, 25 Mar 1880.
  • “The mediumship of the daughter of Lola Montez.” The Spiritualist Newspaper, 12 Aug 1881.
  • “Various topics.” Detroit Free Press, 25 Nov 1882.
  • “The Princess.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 30 Aug 1884.
  • “Spirit power in art.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 22 Aug 1885.
  • “Extraordinary manifestations at Onset.” Facts, Vol. 5 No. 9, Sept. 1886.
  • “A new fashion in ghosts.” New York Sun, 29 Mar 1888.
  • “Materialization costs money.” Chicago Tribune, 3 Apr 1888.
  • “A remarkable career.” Cincinnati Enquirer, 7 Apr 1888.
  • “Like a meteor.” Boston Globe, 02 Aug 1891.
  • “Vera the prophetess.” Chicago Inter-Ocean, 23 Nov 1891.
  • “Madam Vera Ava: Her career has temporarily ended in the penitentiary.” The Progressive Thinker, 8 Apr 1893.
  • “Foulke’s idol.” Boston Globe, 15 Oct 1897.
  • “An impostor unmasked.” The Theosophist, 09 Jun 1898.
  • “An interesting woman.” New Orleans Times-Democrat, 15 Nov 1898.
  • Teed, Cyrus R. “A notorious criminal attacks Koreshanity.” Flaming Sword, 16 Dec 1898.
  • “Extraordinary charge of conspiracy.” Times of London, 11 Oct 1901.
  • “Mental science lecturers.” London Observer, 13 Oct 1901.
  • “The charge of conspiracy.” London Times, 8 Nov 1901.
  • “The Horos case.” London Observer, 17 Nov 1901.
  • “The charge of conspiracy.” London Times, 22 Nov 1901.
  • “The Horos case: Mrs. Stead and the Swami.” London Observer, 24 Nov 1901.
  • “The charge of conspiracy.” London Times, 25 Nov 1901
  • “The Horos case: committal for trial.” London Observer, 1 Dec 1901.
  • “Central criminal court.” Times of London, 21 Dec 1901.
  • Teed, Cyrus. “Encouraging success of the Koreshan Unity.” The Flaming Sword, 10 Jan 1902.
  • “New Eve sits in splendor”, Detroit Free Press, 20 Jan 1907
  • “‘Mother Elinor’ Mason alleged ex-convict”, Detroit Free Press, 29 Mar 1907.
  • “Dis Debar founds a new wult here.” New York Times, 26 Aug 1909.
  • “Houdini analyzes spiritualism.” Des Moines Register, 4 Jan 1925.





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Artist. Lover. Social Media Unfluencer. Acknowledged authority on lucrative bogs. Dave "The Knave" White is all this and more. But most days he's a web developer, graphic designer, and cartoonist. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife, his two cats, and his crippling obsession with strange trivia.

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