In April 1888, "the noted and notorious Ann O’Delia Diss Debar, of many aliases, a number of husbands, and several prison terms," as the New York Times stated, went to court in New York. She did not arrive shyly, nor with discretion. "She wore a gorgeous black brocaded cloak which enveloped her massive form, and on her head was perched a bonnet, a wonderful combination of velvet and feathers in dark green and terra-cotta. She seated herself at a table, and proceeded unconcernedly to read the account of her apprehension," the Evening World reported on April 12. It seemed as if all of the city was crowding around to watch as thousands of New Yorkers jostled for admittance.
Diss Debar had swindled Luther R. Marsh, one of the city’s wealthiest lawyers, not just out of a few hundred dollars (a major victory for a con artist at the time), but out of his mansion on Madison Avenue, along with everything inside it.
She had approached Marsh claiming to be able to communicate with the dead. Séances were all the rage in 1880s New York: mediums plied their trade up and down Fifth Avenue, and spiritualism claimed over a million believers across the United States.
But Diss Debar did not just offer Marsh messages from the dead – she offered pictures from beyond the grave as well. The spirits of the great artists of the past, at her command, turned blank canvases into finished masterpieces before Marsh’s very eyes. His house gradually filled with these remarkable works.
As the New York Tribune stated on March 28, 1888: "The history of two medallion groups was thus given by Mr. Marsh: Apelles, the Court painter to Alexander of Macedon, said in a communication [via Diss Debar]: ‘I shall paint you medallions of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras and Archimedes.' All five of them came out together. There they are."
These "spook pictures," as the press dubbed them, fascinated New York. Crowds of both believers and scoffers besieged Marsh’s house, hoping to catch a glimpse of them. Those who were admitted looked and wondered, and some noticed the badness of the brushwork. "The ordinary man with a knowledge of art," one is cited in The Sun as murmuring, "might wish that the spirits would paint in a less degree like the works that are sold on Vesey street, frame and all, for $1.75."
The "spirit paintings" – like many of the most successful cons of the time – relied upon a combination of sleight of hand and the latest technology. In court, Diss Debar’s mystical powers were debunked not by priests, but by magicians and scientists. The climax of the trial would have done credit to any stage. The Evening World on April 26, 1888 reported the following scene:
The prosecutor, Howe, called his last witness, David Carvalho:
"Mr. Carvalho,” said Mr. Howe, “have you a piece of paper in your hand?"
“Yes,” and the witness produced a roll of blank paper about 25 by 30 inches.
“Now,” continued Mr. Howe, “in what way can a picture be instantaneously produced on that paper?”
“By one touch with a wet sponge,” was the reply. “It is merely a chemical change. It is no trick.”
Mr. Carvalho took the wet sponge in his hand, passed it lightly over the surface of the paper, and, amid intense excitement, a clearly defined and excellent portrait appeared on the virgin surface of the paper. The audience burst into loud applause, which all the vigor of the court officers could not suppress for some moments.
Diss Debar was convicted of fraud, and sent to prison for six months. And one after the other, New York’s spirit painters came to grief. James Sauter, an "astrologer and palmist," branched out into "spook pictures" – but his client list was thin and his canvases did not impress; believing that the spirit of Rubens signed his name "Reubens" (as in the sandwich) did not help his cause.
Many of the spirit-paintings themselves have been lost – including the dubious masterpieces of Diss Debar – but a surprising number have been preserved, in one of New York State’s most remarkable places. The spiritualist community of Lily Dale lies about fifty miles south of Buffalo. There, amidst carefully-maintained Victorian buildings, is the Lily Dale Museum, with its collection of Precipitated Spirit Paintings. The works of the spirits line the walls, and are approached by visitors with reverence.
THE SPIRIT PAINTERS: LILY DALE SPIRITUALIST COMMUNITY, Lily Dale, New York
For more information on the spirit painters of old New York, see Edmund Richardson's article "Nothing's Lost Forever" in the Arion.