In my historical research into Aleister Crowley, the Golden Dawn, and Western esotericism, one figure keeps turning up like the proverbial bad penny, a horrible car-crash from which you just can’t look away: Ann Odelia Diss Debar. From her spook art swindles to claiming to be a Theosophist to her Orphan Black double Ava Vera to opportunistically converting to fruititarianism to pulling the wool over the eyes of SL MacGregor Mathers, her exploits are notorious. I have an entire file cabinet drawer devoted to documenting her tawdry trail, and mention her in several of my talks. I’ve always said that someone needs to write her life story, and I’m very relieved that that someone doesn’t have to be me. 😉 John Buescher has done an excellent job with his Empress of Swindle: The Life of Ann Odelia Diss Debar (CreateSpace, 2014). Every spiritual or religious movement has its dark side–the swindlers and con-men who prey upon the credulous–and for the era that Joscelyn Godwin called “the Theosophical Enlightenment,” there is no better exemplar of the confidence trickster than Diss Debar.
According to Amazon.com,
Ann Odelia Diss Debar was an adventuress who operated under many aliases during American’s Gilded Age. At one time or another, she was pursued by police on at least three continents. Often incarcerated, but never reformed, she made her name a newspaper synonym for fraud carried out under the pretense of Spiritualist and occult powers. Her scandalous and bizarre career of con artistry intersected with those of Victoria Woodhull, the Vanderbilt family, Leland Stanford, Helena Blavatsky, and a host of other rich and powerful people. Her brazen exploits provided newspapers around the world with sensational copy for almost four decades, from 1870 to 1910, and earned for her the title of “the world’s worst woman.”
“Often incarcerated, but never reformed”…indeed!