Editha Lola Montez. Madame Messant. Swami Viva Ananada. These are just a few of the names that a woman we now refer to as Ann O’Delia Diss Debar went by. In fact, we don’t even really know what name she was born with. Why all the pseudonyms? Well, Miss Debar was one of the most fascinating criminals of the 20th century. In fact, no less a figure than Harry Houdini once called her “one of the most extraordinary fake mediums and mystery swindlers the world has ever known.” So, what exploits earned her such a wild characterization? Let’s dive into her story…
The Born Liar
Ann O’Delia Diss Debar didn’t just become a con woman as a victim of circumstance. By all accounts, she was a born trickster and a compulsive liar who bent the truth to get her way even as a child. Of course, these accounts come from a family she refused to acknowledge. For years, Debar claimed to be the illegitimate love child of King Ludwig of Bavaria and his lover, a dancer named Lola Montez. However, this glamorous tale couldn’t be farther from the truth.
While no specific records of her birth exist, it’s much more likely that she was Editha Salomen, a Kentucky-born daughter of an inventor and his wife. In an already-troubled family, she was undoubtedly the black sheep. She did everything she could, no matter the cost, to live her life the way she wanted, including lying, cheating, and abusing those closest to her—and this was just a dark preview of what was to come.
Debar’s family had clearly had enough of her, so she moved out and on by performing bush-league scams in order to avoid paying landlords and creditors. Whenever they or the law would catch up with her, she’d put on a grand performance to escape their wrath—usually by pretending she had tuberculosis. This life wasn’t quite enough for Debar, so that’s when she invented the story about being the daughter of King Ludwig and Lola Montez, taking on the name Editha Lola Montez…very creative.
Debar saw some success on the lecture circuit, telling a fantastical story of being spirited away after birth and raised in a convent. She would supplement this by charming men out of their money with her story, and it was all working out—at first. When she made it to New York City, she pulled her same old tricks, but this time, they got her in some serious trouble. She found her way out of it by cooking up an elaborate plot that involved stabbing a medical student. Even though it was pre-planned, in the frenzy that followed, doctors diagnosed her as insane…thereby giving her an out for all the havoc she’d wrought.
Remember the medical student that she stabbed? Well, his name was Paul Noel Messant, and he became her victim in more ways than one. If you can believe it, Messant and Debar fell in love and tied the knot. They even had a daughter together, but their tranquil life as a married couple was short-lived. Messant passed in 1873, and Debar found her widowhood strangely inspiring. She knew how grief could make a person desperate for any connection to their lost loved ones—and decided to take advantage of that desperation.
Thus, she became a “spiritualist” who performed seances for those who wanted to speak to their loved ones beyond the grave. Going back and forth between this grift and her classic “illegitimate princess” scheme, Debar was actually able to make enough to afford a nice house with servants in New York City, and then began to bilk the city’s wealthiest citizens. She collaborated with the great Robber Baron railroad magnate Jay Gould in order to swindle a Vanderbilt, but when he caught on to her, she ran out of money. She realized it was time for her next great scheme—and it would be a big one.
Debar decided that simply feeding her “clients” information as a medium wasn’t enough. She needed to put on a show. First, she picked up a married man named General Joseph Hubert Diss Debar and spirited him away from his wife and children. They set up shop in New York once again, and while the General was away, she began one of her greatest performances. The act was worthy of a horror movie, with strange, violent phenomena and objects from her home “destroyed” by phantom hands. And, coincidentally, just enough witnesses to make it seem credible. Her story made the papers, convincing many that Miss Debar had a deep connection to the spiritual world.
Debar would do readings, putting the desperate in contact with their departed loved ones. She bilked one woman out of $85,000 this way. There were also the spirit paintings, where she would pretend the specter of some great dead artist was working through her hands. Whenever someone caught onto her, she’d skip town or turn it around on them.
When it came to widowed lawyer L.R. Marsh, Debar didn’t need to worry about getting caught. He was desperate for any hint that his dearly departed wife and daughter were waiting for him in the afterlife. In his grief, he bought Debar’s scam hook, line, and sinker. Marsh was in deep. When Debar told him the spirits wanted him to sell his townhouse to her for $100, he agreed. This was a bridge too far for many, and it led to her and her husband’s eventual arrest for fraud.
Honestly, few definitive sources about Debar’s life exist. The best accounts are basically her list of arrests and her court records. An Agatha Christie novel’s worth of witnesses came out to speak against Debar at her trial. This included detectives, magicians, actresses, and Debar’s own brother. She served time, and found it impossible to go back to any of her old tricks when she got out. Despondent, she sent a note expressing her intention to take her own life to the local papers, then jumped off the Staten Island Ferry. No body was ever found, and no one heard from “Miss Debar” again…in New York City.
The Cult Leader
Next, Debar popped up in Boston, Cincinnati, and Chicago, trying to pull the same old scams. But each time, no matter how elaborate the story, people recognized her. She tried to join a cult, and then start one of her own. However, the specter of her antics in New York came back and haunt her. Taking the show on the road wasn’t cutting it, so Debar and her newest husband decided to take it across the pond.
After brief yet disastrous stays in both Paris and South Africa, Debar and her husband set themselves up as “Swami Laura Horos” and “Theodore Horos” in London. Why did she get the title and not him? Well, he was pretending to be her son, of course. Very Normal Stuff. This period was like Ann O’Delia Diss Debar’s greatest hits album. She used her “skills” as a medium to convince people to join her cult.
It worked, until one of their members noticed that the couple had stolen her personal items. She subsequently had the two of them arrested. When Debar’s picture hit newspapers stateside, people contacted Scotland Yard to let them know who they had on their hands. More of their followers came forward. The charges got even worse, with rape and “buggery” among them. Turns out, Debar oversaw—and participated in—some seriously strange practices at their “temple.”
For this, Ann O’Delia Diss Debar got her harshest sentence yet—seven years. She got out on parole after four and a half and immediately disappeared, making her a fugitive from the law. After sensational trials on both sides of the Atlantic, Debar’s number was up. She tried again to run her old scams, but wary locals immediately recognized her each time. Her last known appearance in the US was in 1909.
Although one would like to think she made her way to Canada, or California, or some other state she hadn’t hit yet to pull another scam, it seems unlikely. Think of how frequently she was spotted, or caught, or detained by law enforcement throughout her career. Debar was prolific, but she wasn’t exactly good at what she did. Regardless, Ann O’Delia Diss Debar certainly made her mark on history—and infuriated enough people that her story still survives today.