Ann O’Delia Diss Debar – ‘of many names, a number of husbands, and several prison terms’, as the newspapers put it – was one of America’s greatest con-artists. All across America, in the nineteenth century, she ‘left behind her a trail of sorrow, depleted pocket-books, and impaired morals that has seldom been equaled.’
There was a marriage-scam in Baltimore. There were spiritualist experiments in New York. In Detroit, she called herself ‘Queen of the Flying Rollers’. ‘She was feigning death in Dayton with the candles around her, and the priest administering extreme unction. In order to satisfy himself, he talked about placing a red-hot iron to her face. Immediately on hearing this, Anna, who up to that time pretended to be in a trance, jumped up and knocked down two of the priests, overturned two or three of the Sisters of Charity and escaped to the street. That was the last of her there.’
In the mid-1890s, she came to London – calling herself Swami Laura, this time – and set up a ‘Purity League’. It was here she came to grief. Her accomplice was a nervy, ratty man who called himself Jackson. They called their league the Order of the Golden Dawn (sometimes the Order of the Golden Door – even Swami Laura was never quite sure which). The scam went something like this:
Jackson would place in advertisement in a newspaper, seeking a wife. Young women who responded would be invited to London – where Swami Laura would pose as Jackson’s mother. (She cut – the picture is of her – quite a figure, in diamonds and flowing robes.) Tea would be poured. ‘In due course the young women were invited to come and stay with his “mother” at her house.’
There, they would be swiftly parted from their money and jewels. From one young woman, Swami Laura extracted ‘a diamond pendant, a pair of diamond and sapphire earrings, and a diamond and emerald marquise ring’, from another, only ‘a sum of £3 and some fish knives and forks’. The fish-knives joined the diamonds in a pawnbroker’s shop in the Strand.
Then, unwisely, Jackson tried to get the ‘brides’ into bed. One evening, oaths to the ‘Golden Dawn’ were sworn. Incense was waved around the room. Then the lady was told ‘that she would bring forth the birth of the motherhood of God by submitting to the man… The man told her that… he was the only perfect man in the world.’
More than a little disgusted – and very far from convinced – the lady called the police instead. The ‘perfect man’ got fifteen years – and Diss Debar seven.