Empress of Swindle: The Life of Ann Odelia Diss Debar

Empress of Swindle: The Life of Ann Odelia Diss Debar

Forest Grove, Oregon: Typhon Press, 2014. 346 pp., paper, $19.99.

Ann Odelia Diss Debar (1849-1911?), the subject of this highly readable new biography, is one of the most notorious figures of the late nineteenth century – and oddly, someone almost unknown today. Born of humble origins in Kentucky, she developed pretensions of grandeur while still a teenager, and by the time she reached adulthood was already representing herself as the abandoned daughter of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and Lola Montez, a theatrical performer of the era.

What she really was — over the span of the next forty years — was an incorrigible con artist of the first order, given to impersonating at various times an European princess, a spiritualist medium, a Theosophical successor to H.P. Blavatsky, a swami, an ex-Catholic target of Jesuit perfidy, and a charitable reformer of fallen women (the last while apparently running brothels in Chicago).

She was married numerous times to men who were either accomplices in her endless schemes or wealthy “marks” – sometimes found dead under suspicious circumstances. By all accounts she seemingly had a strange charisma: the capacity to exhibit absolute conviction while brazenly lying, a crucial talent for someone who weighed in at 300 pounds and sported a succession of outlandish wardrobes.

Ann Odelia, as we’ll call her for short, practiced her trade in an era when it was still possible to jump from boarding house to boarding house without paying one’s bills and to blow town one step ahead of the arrival of police. However, with telegraphy firmly in place, and with the common practice of newspapers across the U.S. rapidly reprinting each other’s sensational reports of scandals and criminal escapades, she began to develop a national reputation that necessitated her constantly changing identities and locales.

John Benedict Buescher acknowledges that sources on Ann Odelia’s doings are largely confined to press reports of the era – an archive that he has thoroughly mined, witness fifty pages of newspaper and journal sources in the book’s bibliography. Given the tendency toward sensationalism in the press of that era, the reader should keep in mind that distortions can creep into any published report, but cumulatively the journalistic evidence is damning. Ann Odelia was a con artist preying upon sincere believers in spiritualism, Theosophy, Eastern philosophies, and self-improvement. But she would have had little success if her target audience hadn’t let its hunger for miracles and religious certainty sway its judgment. From her perspective, she merely gave them what they wanted, admittedly while emptying their bank accounts at the same time.

What Empress of Swindle makes clear, without dwelling upon the point, is that the modern history of esoteric interests has a much shadier back story than is usually acknowledged in official histories. Sincere seekers were repeatedly taken to the cleaners by unscrupulous mediums and “adepts” whose exploits were chronicled in the popular press, but rarely made it into historical summaries published by respectable esoteric organizations.

Hence Ann Odelia’s obscurity today. She was thoroughly enmeshed in overlapping spiritualist, Theosophist, and Eastern seeker circles, running scams and exploiting the trusting and gullible to such an extent that after she was repeatedly unmasked she was largely expunged from the esoteric record as an embarrassment to one and all. In light of this, Buescher’s biography serves as a refreshing tonic that provides some historical balance and, to its credit, is marvelously entertaining as well.

Two episodes that may be of special interest to readers of Quest involve Ann Odelia’s brushes with Theosophy and with the magical Order of the Golden Dawn.

Following the death of Mme. Blavatsky in 1891, Ann Odelia claimed to have attended HPB on her deathbed. According to Buescher, she “displayed a ring with a huge blue stone in it that she said Blavatsky had given her to signify the bequest of her spirit. Sometimes she told them [i.e. Theosophists] that she was so fat because she had ingested Madame Blavatsky’s astral body upon her death.”

Several years later, following other, more successful scams and a stint in prison, Ann Odelia became a partner with Henry B. Foulke in his efforts to assume leadership of the Aryan Branch of the TS following the death of William Q. Judge in 1896. Needless to say, they were not successful, though they did briefly receive support from Aryan Branch members opposed to Katherine Tingley’s assuming leadership.

A couple of years later, she rubbed shoulders in Paris with S.L. MacGregor Mathers, then head of the Golden Dawn. Over the course of several visits, she managed to convince him that she was in fact the legendary Anna Sprengel, the ostensible source of the original correspondence leading to the order’s founding. Shortly thereafter Mathers concluded that he had been hoodwinked, but not before she made off with a satchel containing manuscripts and documents describing the order’s rituals. Unsurprisingly, it was never returned. Subsequently, she was off to Cape Town, South Africa as “Madame Swami Viva Ananda.” She would later incorporate elements of the Golden Dawn rituals into further cults of her creation. In the end – perhaps fittingly – she simply disappeared from view. As much as we might like a neat resolution to her story, whatever transpired did so out of sight.

By the final page of Empress of Swindle, after reading of a never-ending stream of dozens of identities and ploys ranging over decades, I could only conclude that Ann Odelia Diss Debar was the Energizer Bunny of spiritual and occult scams. It is obvious that she has long deserved a full-length biography, and John Buescher has delivered one that I could hardly put down. Highly recommended.

Jay Kinney was founder and publisher of Gnosis magazine, published from 1985 to 1999. His article “Playing Those Mind Games: The Psychedelic Revolution Reconsidered” appeared in Quest, Winter 2015.