In 1889, con woman Ann O’Delia Diss Debar got out of jail for the second time. New York had been ruined for her, but the princess of charlatans had bigger plans for her future.
The last time we saw Ann O’Delia Diss Debar on this blog, she was in Blackwell’s Island Asylum after convincing a prominent New York lawyer to give her the deed to his house. This was Mrs. Diss Debar’s second time in the notorious asylum; her first arrest had occurred nearly a decade earlier, after a failed attempt at scamming the famous Claflin sisters. Both court trials had been hugely publicized, and now everyone in New York knew that Ann O’Delia Diss Debar was a fraud. But Ann O’Delia Diss Debar – formerly Edith Salomon of Kentucky – never let things like public reputation or common sense get in the way of a profitable scam.
The End of Ann O’Delia Diss Debar
As soon as Debar got out of jail, she set about trying to salvage her reputation as a Spiritualist. If Debar had been new in town this wouldn’t have been hard. After all, it was still 1889, and the Spiritualist movement was still going strong. But the incident with Luther Marsh had thoroughly ruined her in New York. In the next few years, she put on a few magic shows and tried her hand at acting. Sometimes she would take small roles in theatrical productions, hoping that her notoriety would bring her an audience. There was no such luck – New Yorkers were avoiding Diss Debar like the plague.
She and her husband finally resorted to suing the police to recover Debar’s spirit paintings, which had been confiscated during the trial. They were hoping that, due to their association with the outrageous court case, the paintings might have some value as curiosities. Again, no such luck. With very few prospects in her current guise, Ann O’Delia fell back on old habits. She disguised herself as a nun, named herself “Sister Ignatius,” and spent a few months gallivanting around Europe, using the incredibly audacious name of Mrs. Marsh. European marks proved to be quicker on the uptake than Americans, though, and soon Debar was back in America.
By 1891, it was starting to look like Debar had conned her way into a corner. In April of that year, she sent a suicide note to the newspaper announcing her intention to kill herself. The next day, she leaped off of the Staten Island Ferry and disappeared forever. The police never found her body. You might notice, however, that we are less than halfway through this article.
Eleanor Morgan and Vera P. Ava
From 1891 to 1898, America was suffering a plague of mysterious mediums. Of course, there were a lot of mediums and assorted Spiritualists running around in fin-de-siecle America, but these were a particularly dangerous breed, who lied, cheated, and robbed their clients blind. And they all bore a striking resemblance to Ann O’Delia Diss Debar. The first of these mediums was Eleanor Morgan, who came to Boston in May 1891. She quickly established herself as a talented medium and might have stayed if Boston hadn’t been so close to New York City. After a damning article appeared in the Boston Globe, Eleanor Morgan skipped town.
In August of the same year, a wealthy Englishwoman named Vera P. Ava appeared in Chicago. Debar armed herself with a veil of mystery and a tragic, glamorous backstory that could’ve come straight from a fantasy novel. She told her new colleagues that she had been part of a secret order of nuns and that she had been forced to flee from the Roman Catholic Church after developing psychic powers. The Spiritualist community in Chicago ate that up, but her attempts to garner publicity turned out to be her downfall. As her battle with the Catholic Church grew famous, a reporter from New York was sent to cover the story and immediately recognized “Vera Ava” as the woman who’d scammed Luther Marsh out of his house three years ago.
Surprisingly, this was not the end of Vera Ava. She began giving lectures about her flight from the Catholic Church and managed to make a living this way. When the novelty wore off, she went back to hosting seances until October 1892, when an accusation of theft from a customer brought her career to a screeching halt. After lying her way through another trial, Vera Ava was sent to Joliet Penitentiary in May 1893.
Mrs. McGowan and the Koreshan Unity
At the end of the 19th century, an eclectic physician named Cyrus Teed had a stunning realization: the earth didn’t revolve around the sun, and humanity was in fact living on the inside of a hollow planet. Also, the sun was a battery, and he was the Messiah. The only reasonable response to this revelation was to start a new religion. He changed his name to Koresh, the Hebrew spelling of Cyrus, and began preaching a gospel of vegetarianism, celibacy, and communal living. Soon he and his followers were forming a commune in New York. By 1888, another commune had formed in Chicago.
In May 1895, our heroine – who was going by Mrs. McGowan – found refuge at the Chicago commune. The leader of the commune was suspicious at first, but Mrs. McGowan seemed sincere. She had lived an evil and decadent life, she said, and she wanted to redeem herself under the guidance of Koresh. You may notice that this article isn’t quite done yet. While the Koreshans took pity on her, their generosity was poorly repaid: Mrs. McGowan flouted the rules of the commune and leeched off of other members. When she stole and pawned another member’s jewelry, the Koreshans decided they’d had enough. And so Mrs. Debar, alias Mrs. McGowan, found herself getting kicked out of yet another city. She reappeared in New Orleans, which was far south enough that nobody knew who she was. (Oh for the days before the internet…)
Assuming she was safe, Debar revived her old favorite alias: Princess Editha Loleta, daughter of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, and the dancer Lola Montez. During her time in New Orleans, she met a young real estate developer named Frank Dutton Jackson and got married for the third time at the age of 49. Now she had everything she needed: a couple of unearned royal titles, a husband more than twenty years her junior, and a willing accomplice. Her luck started to turn around again when the Jacksons announced that they would be starting a new religion, the Order of the Crystal Sea. The tenets of this new religion included vegetarianism (which was apparently the key to immortality), celibacy, and communal living. If this sounds like a ripoff of Koresh’s ideas, that’s because it was. At any rate, the people of New Orleans drew the line at letting a fraudulent medium create a new religion in their city. So, Editha Loleta Jackson decided to head back to Europe, this time without the nun disguise.
Anna Sprengel and the Golden Dawn
After a brief and unsuccessful stint in London, she and her husband moved to Paris, where she began what might have been the crowning achievement of her career. At the time Paris was home to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society. After making the acquaintance of Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, one of the founders of the Golden Dawn, she convinced him that she was Countess Anna Sprengel, the society’s mysterious leader. This was a bold move, mostly because a) Anna Sprengel wasn’t a real person and b) Mathers himself had made her up.
One has to wonder what combination of dumb luck, con artistry, and Spiritualist quackery was employed to convince Mathers that his own invention was real, but it worked. Sprengel and her husband lived in Paris for a brief time, during which the “Countess” managed to steal several books, ideas, and rituals from the Order she had supposedly founded. As she had done with Koreshanity, Debar would later recycle this sacred knowledge for her own ends.
When the Jacksons skipped town, their next destination was Cape Town, South Africa. They renamed themselves Helena and Theodore Horos, and began putting all their stolen occult knowledge to use. They founded a College of Occult Science, which handed out worthless degrees to easily duped Spiritualist. Madame Horos lectured on Spiritualism and Theosophy. She also began doing seances again. However, the College only last about a year before the Horoses returned to Europe. South Africa had been a rehearsal; the real show was about to start in London.
Laura Horos and the Theocratic Unity
In October 1900, the College of Life and Occult Sciences was founded in London. Its founders were Laura Horos and her alleged son, Theodore Horos. The Horoses taught clairvoyance, thaumaturgy, and divine healing, among other things. However, the College was basically a front for Ann O’Delia Diss Debar’s latest and greatest con – a new religion known as the Theocratic Unity and Purity League. Their beliefs were a mishmash of Koreshanity and the Golden Dawn, but at its core, the Theocratic Unity was a cult of personality. They taught that Laura Horos was a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary and that the aptly-named Theo was a reincarnation of Jesus. Recruits were expected to show total obedience to them.
It almost goes without saying that this power would be abused, and it was. Their preferred victims were wealthy, gullible young ladies with interests in Spiritualism. The Horoses would lure them in with the promise of spiritual powers and forbidden knowledge. From there, they applied typical cult tactics; they convinced the girls to move to a commune, demanded increasing obedience and submission from them, and gradually cut them off from the outside world. Meanwhile, they drained their marks’ pocketbooks. More than once, Mrs. Horos would flat-out steal from them. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
One of the Theocratic Unity’s greatest marketing tactics was seduction. Theodore Horos took ads out in the papers asking for a bride, and several young women had unfortunately replied. Theo would bring a girl home to his mother and announce that he was going to marry her. Then he would take advantage of her, in every sense of the word. Several young women were hypnotized, raped, and robbed blind before the charges came up. In September 1901, the Horoses were tried for rape and fraud. Theodore Horos insisted that the charges against him were false; he was a man of God, and besides, an accident had left him unable to do such things even if he had wanted to. (A medical examiner proved that this was not the case.) Meanwhile, Laura Horos gave her usual outlandish defense, but to no avail. Things only got worse when she was identified as the notorious American criminal, Ann O’Delia Diss Debar.
In the end, Theodore Horos received fifteen years, while his mother received seven. Frank Jackson, alias Theodore, would go on to be arrested for bigamy after marrying and swindling an elderly woman. As for Ann O’Delia Diss Debar, alleged daughter of Lola Montez and the king of Bavaria, her story gets hard to follow after this point. The general consensus is that she kept conning people and rotating through disguises up until the end of her life. Where or when that was, nobody knows for sure.