Ann O’Delia Diss Debar was a liar, a crook, and one of the stars of the American Spiritualist movement. But for most people, she was utterly ordinary.
In his memoir “A Magician Among the Spirits,” Harry Houdini castigated a popular medium of his day as “one of the most extraordinary fake mediums and mystery swindlers the world has ever known.” This woman had swindled dozens, if not hundreds of people, using every trick in the book from petty short cons to massive scams aimed at the wealthy and powerful. She left “sorrow and empty pocket-books” behind her wherever she went. She went through fake identities like they were pairs of shoes and flaunted her ill-gotten wealth. But somehow, to Houdini’s endless frustration, she was known as one of the greatest Spiritualists of her day.
Even at the height of her fame, nobody knew who this woman was for sure. She was most likely Edith Salomon or Ann O’Delia Salomon, born in 1849 to John Salomon and his wife, Eliza. However, Houdini referred to her as Ann O’Delia Diss Debar.
The nineteenth century was rife with fake Spiritualists and other breeds of con men. Diss Debar was one of the most famous, but she wasn’t the first or even the most competent by a long shot. What set her apart was her tenacity. No matter how many times she as caught, discredited, or arrested, she would always come back, armed with a new alias and an utterly outrageous scheme to rob the world blind.
Edith Salomon and the Claflin Case
As a young woman, she left home, styled herself five years younger than she actually was, and made herself a princess. Her new alter ego was the lovechild of King Ludwig of Bavaria and his notorious mistress, the Irish dancer Lola Montez. Sometimes she was Editha Gilbert Montez, a bastard abandoned in a Florentine convent; other times, she was the Countess Landsfelt. Few, if any, of her marks bothered to verify her story.
After several years of successful schemes, her luck turned in New York when she attempted to scam the Claflin sisters. Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin were the first women to open up a Wall Street Brokerage. They were also vocal advocates of women’s suffrage and of the American Spiritualist movement. In 1870, Diss Debar introduced herself to Woodhull under the guise of Editha Montez and confided that she was in trouble. Without money and without hope, the young woman was planning to either kill herself or go into prostitution. Woodhull gave her five dollars, almost a hundred dollars today.
Having made her acquaintance, Debar filed a complaint accusing the Claflins of theft. It was a bold gamble, but the resulting court case proved to be her undoing. As Debar did her best to smear the Claflins, the defense brought in a parade of individuals from across the city whom she had duped. Most of these people were rather confused to meet this “Editha Montez” character since she’d been using a variety of different names and personas. But the presence of these witnesses was enough to convince the court that Debar was lying, and the case was closed. Within a year, Debar was on her way to Blackwell Island Asylum.
Escape from Blackwell Island Asylum
How Diss Debar ended up on Blackwell Island is disputed. Some sources claim that it was after the incident with the Claflins. Houdini claims that Debar was treated for “acute nervous exhaustion” – which, according to Houdini, probably had something to do with her opium habit – when she abruptly decided to stab her doctor and attack several attendants. Debar spent a year on Blackwell Island between 1870 and 1871.
More than a decade before Nellie Bly famously infiltrated the asylum, the Blackwell Island Asylum was rampant with abusive attendants, archaic therapy methods, and generally awful conditions. It was during her year in this hellhole that Ann O’Delia Diss Debar met her first husband, a young French doctor named Paul Messant. Houdini wonders if he married her “through fear or fondness;” some versions of the story claim that Messant was the doctor she stabbed in the hospital.
Messant died within a year of their wedding; some sources claim that Debar murdered him. However, the marriage did help Debar fix her public image somewhat. In Messant’s obituary, Debar described herself as “a lecturer on the Proper Sphere of Women” and did her best to twist the narrative of the Claflin case. One would think that, since she was still living in the same city as the Claflin’s less than five years after the court case, it wouldn’t do her much good to blatantly lie about it, but Diss Debar never let caution or common sense get in her way.
Back in New York
A few years after the death of her first husband, Debar’s career was in a tight spot. While her marriage to Messant had given her some degree of respectability, the young doctor’s widow had very little money and very little leverage in the social scene of New York City. It was difficult to get acquainted with people rich enough to be worth scamming, even under the guise of Lola Montez’s bastard daughter. She needed a way to raise her status. She found a way into New York’s upper crust via her second husband, a politician named Joseph H. Diss Debar.
Having found her way in, Mrs. Debar took advantage of the latest Spiritualist trends. She tried her hand at hypnotism and held seances. She channeled great artists from beyond the grave to create “spirit paintings,” using a combination of technology and sleight of hand. Seance audiences were stunned at this trick; better yet, she managed to sell several paintings. One of her best clients was a lawyer named Luther Marsh. Marsh had come to Debar as a recent widower, and she immediately saw an opportunity. She arranged several meetings with the ghost of his wife, and soon enough the grieving widower was one of her most loyal followers.
Before long, the lawyer’s house on Madison Avenue was transformed into the Spiritualistic Temple of New York. Debar held several seances there for the benefit of wealthy and gullible New Yorkers. She also continued to channel the late Mrs. Marsh, as well as the lawyer’s daughter who had died young. When the dead girl suggested that her father should sign over the deed of his house to Debar, he agreed. Which was how Debar got caught for a second time.
Just like the first one, Debar’s second trial was highly publicized and extremely dramatic. A man named Salomen, who claimed to be Debar’s brother, testified that she had always been a dishonest and morally bankrupt person. Debar, in a fit of irony, insisted that he was simply a random man who had asked her to lend him money. Other witnesses included Carl Hertz, a professional illusionist who demonstrated the technique behind Debar’s “spirit paintings.” Debar maintained that she was a true Spiritualist throughout the trial. She even tried to defuse the situation by offering to return the deed to the house – on the basis that her spirit guardians, Cicero and the Council of Ten, demanded it.
In the end, she returned to Blackwell Island for six months. But whatever else Ann O’Delia Diss Debar may have been, she was certainly tenacious. Within months of her release from Blackwell Island, she ditched her husband, went to Europe, and upgraded herself from fake princess to false prophetess.