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Thursday 02 December 2004
James Morton looks back over the life of property swindler and fake medium,the swami horos, culminating in a trial for rape and fraud
One of the cases to shock and entertain le tout London in the autumn of 1901 was the trial for rape and fraud of the Swami Horos and her putative husband Theodore Horos (more prosaically named Frank Jackson Dutton), founders of the Theocratic Unity Temple near Regents Park in London.
It was not the first time the Swami had been in court. But who was she? Swami claimed that she was born in Italy in 1854, the illegitimate daughter of the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria and the dancer Lola Montez, and was sent to a cruel foster family, the Salomons, in 1855. She also went by the names of Editha Lola Montez, Della Ann OSullivan or Solomon and more often as Diss Debar. She could also be found under the names of Vera Ava as well as Messant and McGoon, both of which seem to have been the products of brief marriages. Swami was, wrote the magician Harry Houdini admiringly, one of the most extraordinary fake mediums and mystery swindlers the world has ever known.
The 1860s-70s were the years when the Fox, and later the Claflin sisters, Victoria and Tennessee whom Diss Debar once inadvisedly sued had popularised spiritualism. Many of the supposed adherents were charlatans and Editha (aka Swami), who seems to have been associated with the Claflins in 1870 and was a disciple of another charlatan, Madame Blavatsky, certainly was a fraud.
Throughout her life she appeared regularly in the US courts. Working with her then husband General Joseph Diss Debar and producing so-called spirit paintings by old masters, she managed to ensnare the elderly lawyer Luther Marsh into handing over to her his Madison Avenue townhouse. During the trial for this fraud, she announced that her guiding spirits, Cicero and the Council of Ten, had advised her to return the deeds and this she did. It was wise advice and possibly reduced her sentence, because in June 1888 she received a mere six months. The phrase theres nothing like an old fool applied. Luther does not seem to have learned his lesson because he was swindled again by another spiritualist in the early 1900s.
After her release, Swami collected a further two years imprisonment in Illinois, again for fraud under the name Vera P Ava. In May 1899, she was expelled from New Orleans for swindling and, later that month, she was sentenced to 30 days for a similar offence.
It is difficult to know how many marriage ceremonies Swami actually underwent. But she certainly married Jackson in a ceremony in 1889 in Louisiana, giving her title as Princess Editha Lolita and her parents as King Ludwig and Lola Montez.
In the middle 1890s, the Jacksons came to England to set up a Purity League. Now they called themselves Swami Laura Horos and Theodore Horos and earned their living telling fortunes and divining for lost property. Horos also advertised for a wife in The People with some success, and in the Western Morning Advertiser with none. However, one way or another, several young women were recruited to the temple.
In September 1901, the pair was arrested in Birkenhead where they had been lecturing, and brought to London to face charges of obtaining property by false pretences to which, as the weeks went on, were added charges of rape and buggery.
Free love seems to have been very much the order of the day in the temple, with the young women sharing a bed with the Swami and then Theo turning up in the middle of night to tell them they were his spiritual brides, even though no formal ceremony had taken place. Apparently, the victims did not seem to have minded the rape as much as the fact that their property was being pawned by the Swami for they wrote friendly, even loving, letters to her after the alleged incidents had taken place.
In a fiery trial, they defended themselves and she rather than he produced a bombshell. Theo was a castrato and, therefore, incapable of rape. Doctors were called and they found that, although he was indeed minus one testicle, the other was small but perfectly formed. Swami was still sticking to her story that her father was German and her mother Spanish and she seems to have stood up well to the cross-examination of prosecuting counsel, scoring points off him.
It did them no good. Jackson was sentenced to 15 years and Swami to seven. Curiously, she appears to have been a good influence in prison, calming some of the more recalcitrant inmates at Aylesbury, and was, therefore, released on licence in July 1906 with two years and 126 days of her sentence remaining.
Swami was last heard of in Cincinnati in 1909, again under the name Vera Ava after which she disappeared completely. In 1915, Jackson, by now head of the Philadelphian Order of the Crystal Circle, was charged with bigamously marrying a 70-year-old woman in Buffalo and swindling her.
For those interested in the technicalities of Swamis spirit paintings, Mr Houdini reveals in A Magician Among the Spirits how the trick was worked.
James Morton is a former criminal law specialist solicitor and now a freelance journalist
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