The World's Worst Woman

This is an overdue appreciation of an exemplary book by John B. Buescher, whose previous investigations of Spiritualist history have broken new scholarly ground. As the second work to appear from The Typhon Press, and the first original study (following the scholarly edition of Art Magic edited by Marc Demarest) Empress of Swindle sets a high standard of thorough research on its idiosyncratic, fascinating subject. To introduce her, here is the back cover copy:

Ann Odelia Diss Debar was an adventuress who operated under many aliases during America’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 as 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.”

This is the first-ever biography of Ann Odelia Salomon, alias Princess Editha Lolita, alias Madame Diss Debar, alias Swami Laura Horos, ad nauseum. (Henceforth to be referred to as Diss Debar.) In light of the voluminous press coverage she received during her lifetime, it is surprising that no previous biographer has been drawn to her bizarre career. In a bibliography of 58 densely-packed pages, 90% of the citations are to contemporary press accounts from cities all over the US as well as in England and South Africa. Buescher meticulously follows her wandering path through hundreds of sources, but ends in a mystery, as no record of her death, or her life after 1910, was turned up in his exhaustive research. Empress of Swindle is thought-provoking in a way that seems to demand a re-reading to fully absorb the book’s import. It also provokes associated feelings, not just about Diss Debar but a host of other figures who were her contemporaries in Spiritualism and Theosophy. I have been described both as a hardheaded debunker and a softhearted apologist, with equal justification. But it is impossible to find a soft spot in one’s heart for an arch criminal like Diss Debar.

The use and abuse of pseudonyms in these movements is a longstanding interest of mine, and Diss Debar’s status as the “world’s worst woman” relies entirely on crimes she committed under false names. Some 19th century contemporaries may have adopted pseudonyms with harmless or benevolent intent, out of modesty or the desire to shield family members from controversy. Others combined selfish and altruistic motives, promoting themselves through concocted alter egos, yet imagining that they were serving a greater good. But everything done pseudonymously by Ann Odelia was harmful to others and to herself. From minor frauds as Princess Editha Lolita, to major theft as Diss Debar, to rape as Swami Laura, with a few likely murders along the way, her life path was one of endless destruction. And yet in a perverse way she was endlessly creative. In his concluding remarks Buescher contemplates her psychologically but leaves the reader pondering as to what drove her life of crime: “Where was she among all these aliases, false faces, invented and twisted lies?”