Many careless people of prior centuries have been of a mind to believe that clairvoyants were innocuous swindlers whose only victims were the harebrained girls who consulted them on questions of love. Those who heard stories of famous mediums often shrugged and cited the old maxim about the high birth rate of suckers. But a far more insidious species of spiritualist occasionally made herself plainly known, and none were more criminal or more infamous than Madame Dis De Bar, as she occasionally called herself. In every city it was remarked, as in the Atlanta Constitution, that “nobody knew from whence she came and nobody knew whither she departed when she did depart. But while she was here the people saw and heard a great deal of her.” In cities throughout North America and from London to Cape Town, the world-renowned Madame of Many Names popped up like a bad strain of flu, corrupting the morals and wallets of the many dupes to be found there.
The headlines date back to at least 1879, when the principal city of Georgia was in the midst of a religious revival, and “a magnificent looking woman of the brunette type of beauty” who called herself “Princess Editha” and claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of King Ludwig of Bavaria expressed her brilliant mind in lectures about spiritualism and the dangers of Catholicism. She made regular demonstrations of her gift of prophecy, predicting on many occasions that she was soon to come into a fortune, which was generally the case, though the purpose of sharing this news was to beat her bills, and she eventually disappeared from Atlanta altogether.
She next appeared as “Madame Messout” in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Cincinnati, Ohio, where she repeated her speeches and swindles with the usual effect. In 1893, as “Vera Ava,” she set up her practice in Geneva, Illinois, where she was unmolested by policemen or conscience until found guilty of defrauding one victim of $750.
But nowhere did she make as grand a presentation as in New York City, where she adopted the name “Anne O’Delia Dis De Bar,” and where, with the assistance of an artiste named Mr. Dis De Bar of equally dubious origin she set up a business of “materialization” called the “Mahatma Institute.” She also unscrupulously exposed the other charlatans in the business, once remarking, “I have attended the seances of this man Archer, and they are the cheapest kind of a fraud. The spirits that he produces in his dark séances are no other than himself togged out in raiment smeared with phosphorous.” Among her wealthy New York clients were many society matrons and one particularly gullible elderly lawyer. The law caught up to her again in the Big Apple, where she served six months for swindling in 1888, and many prominent persons were embarrassed to be associated with the psychic who took the lawyer for a reported $300,000.
From New York she went to New Orleans, where, as “Editha Loleta Jackson,” she was expelled by authorities in 1899 after being accused of “procuring young girls ostensibly for her fantastic religion but really for the purpose of their ruin.” The Madame next made an appearance in London, where she opened the “New Era” sect in Kent and reportedly made off with 400 pounds.
The hard-hearted skeptics of Scotland Yard exposed her “religion” for what it truly was to spectacular tabloid effect. Haled to the Old Bailey, the “Swamie, Princess of Theocratic Unity” or “Laura Jackson” (perhaps her true name) and her husband Theodore (perhaps his) were made to answer to charges of fraud and immoral practices. The former involved wealthy older clients, while the latter involved young and beautiful women, and it seems that the Swamie acted as procuress for the ravenous appetite of her supposed husband. The newspapers couldn’t quite bring themselves to describe these corrupting practices carried on by both defendants acting in concert, though the judge provided hints in labeling them “revolting,” “abominable,” “filthy acts” and “unspeakable offenses” performed “under the cloak of religion.” When one reads between the lines one might be reminded of a scene from Candy; those who don’t know the reference will have to use their imaginations. The jury found them guilty in less than five minutes and they both served prison terms.
South Africa was her next home, where she dubbed herself “Helena Horos” of the “College of Occult Sciences,” and where she converted young ladies into hands-on healers for the wealthy clients of the institute. After a customarily brief stay, she opened a “fruitarian colony” in Florida, performing similar occult cures. Then she made a whirlwind tour of Windsor and Detroit in 1907, where she was known as “Mother Elinor,” or Mrs. Elinor L. Mason, or “Queen of the House of Israel of Windsor and Detroit,” or the “Queen of the Flying Rollers.” She was also known as the possessor of certain items of jewelry that did not belong to her.
Similar stories were heard from Montreal, Quebec, Paris, and many cities between, but the common refrain grows wearisome in repetition. Suffice it to say that she passed to the other side during World War I—and hopefully remains firmly installed there.
“Princess Editha; How Mme. Dis De Bar Figured in Atlanta. A Handsome Adventuress—The Bills She Left Behind Her—The Great New York Spiritualist,” Atlanta Constitution, April 13, 1888.
“Dis De Bar in New Role. The Notorious Woman Swindler as ‘Queen of the House of Israel’ Disappears from Detroit,” Oskosh Daily Northwestern, March 29, 1907.
“The Dis De Bar Trial,” Lincoln Evening News, March 23, 1893.
“Spook Priestess Breaks Suddenly Into High Society; Discovery of Black Sheep in Their Midst Causes Commotion in Gathering,” Correctionville News, May 5, 1910.
“Diss de Bar Guilty; A Verdict Rendered at Noon Today,” Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 16, 1888.
“Dis de Bar in Cape Town; Practicing ‘Occultism’ on the Unsuspecting in South Africa,” Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Herald, Nov. 30, 1900
“Herald vs. Spiritualists,” Middletown Daily Press, Feb. 2-1891
“The Spirit Picture Painter’s Victim,”Olean (New York) Democrat, May 10, 1888.
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