Unsolved Mysteries: Vera Ava’s Final Days

Whatever became of the phony swami?

We had too many mysteries to fit in the April 2013 issue–so enjoy this bonus tale.

Sure, grifters are a dime a dozen. But our town hosted one of the biggest. And she may still be here, tucked away in a pauper’s grave.

In September of 1891, a disheveled, barefoot woman attempted to lodge at the Gibson Hotel. She identified herself as “Miss Vera Ava” and claimed she’d been inexplicably transported to Cincinnati from Chicago. Obese, dramatic, and disoriented, Vera Ava cut a striking figure. But in short order police had another identity for her: the notorious Madame Diss Debar—a Kentucky-born spiritualist and major league charlatan.

Her given name seems to have been either Editha or Ann O’Delia Salomon, but as Diss Debar she’d gone to prison for defrauding an elderly New York attorney. Presumably she was planning to bring her phony séances and “spirit paintings” here until the police figured her out. Instead she moved on to England, where she called herself Swami Laura Horos and set up a “Purity League.” With a new husband in tow, she lured young women of means to London, and after tea and pleasantries, divested the girls of their money, their jewels, and their innocence.

By 1901, the two were on trial for theft and rape. In The New York Times account, a 16-year-old testified that she was seduced into sexual compliance by the couple’s promise that she would become “a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary.” Both “swami” and husband went to jail, ending the career of the woman who Harry Houdini called “one of the most extraordinary fake mediums . . . the world has ever known.”

But here’s the thing: after prison, she came back here. She was last known to be living alone in Cincinnati in 1909, once again as Vera Ava. Then she vanished from history. There’s no record of her death or where she’s buried. On his blog Unusual Kentucky, mystery writer Jeffrey Scott Holland says, “The proximity . . . nudges the imagination to supposing that she might have come back to her Kentucky.” But she just as likely could have ended her days ingratiating herself to our great-grandparents—an aged con artist looking for one last swindle.

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