Amelia Cain - The Real Mrs. Diss Debar
This past June in my article entitled Debunking Diss Debar, I touched on the life of Joseph H. Diss Debar, creator of the West Virginia State Seal and the man responsible for settling St. Clara Colony in Doddridge County’s Cove District. I now want to tell you about Debar’s second wife, Amelia Cain, a humble Doddridge woman who “married up” only to be let down, found herself in the eye of a storm of scandal, and survived it all with her honor and dignity intact.
Born on June 11, 1825 (or 1824), Amelia Cain was the daughter of James Cain and Ruth Dotson. Amelia was raised in the Deep Valley community of Doddridge County. Most researchers agree that the Cains were of Native American descent. Amelia’s mother was the granddaughter of Richard Dotson and Amelia Miller, one of Doddridge County’s most prolific families.
In the 1850 Census, Amelia was listed as Milly Cain residing in West Union at the hotel owned by Francis M. F. Smith. It’s unclear why she was there, but most likely she was a domestic helper. At the age of 25 or 26, she could not read or write.
In that same census, J. H. Diss Debar, age 30, born in France, was residing with the Henry Wanstreet family in the St. Clara community, which was the German colony that Diss Debar had founded and named after his first wife, Clara Lavassor. His occupation was listed as land agent, and his real estate was valued at $8,500. At that time, the widowed Diss Debar had fathered only one child, Joseph Eugene Hubert Diss Debar, who had gone to live with his grandparents in Cincinnati after Clara’s death in 1849.
Amelia Marries Diss Debar
Joseph H. Diss Debar and Amelia Cain obviously met some time prior to 1853, when the unmarried Amelia gave birth to their son George. Their daughter, Frances H. Diss Debar, was born two years later. But it was not until August 5, 1858 that Joseph and Amelia were married. There is no birth record for their third child, Marie (Mary) Amelia, who was born around 1858, so I’m not sure if she was born before or after they were married.
By 1860 Joseph, Amelia and the three children were living rather comfortably in St. Clara. Diss Debar’s real estate was highly valued at $18,960 and his personal estate at $2,158. Before long, three more children joined the family, son Florent in 1861, James in 1865 and Clara in 1867. Joseph and Amelia had at least one other child. There is a headstone in the St. Johannes Lutheran Church Cemetery in St. Clara that reads “INFANT OF AMELIA AND JOSEPH H. DISS De BARR, DESIGNER OF THE STATE SEAL OF WEST VIRGINIA.”
Moves to Parkersburg
Joseph and Amelia Diss Debar left Doddridge County around 1868. By 1870 they and their six children were living, again quite comfortably, in Parkersburg. Also living in their household was Mahala, listed as a 56-year-old black domestic servant. Mahala was formerly Diss Debar’s slave while living in St. Clara.
In my previous article, I included a sentence from a newspaper article that said, “One night at 12 o’clock in June 1874 a fine looking voluptuous woman got off a train at Parkersburg and was driven to Diss Debar’s house. …” The arrival of that voluptuous woman would turn Amelia’s life upside down.
Diss Debar Abandons Family
Without going into too much detail because I still have a lot of research to do on the topic, I will briefly tell you who that woman was. Her name was Ann O’Delia Salomon, born in 1849 near Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Ann lived a very troubled life and eventually found her calling as, to put it bluntly, a professional con artist. She handpicked Diss Debar to become her willing accomplice in defrauding wealthy families into believing she was a German Princess and medium who could communicate with their deceased loved ones.
In 1874 Ann O’Delia Salomon convinced Diss Debar to move his family to Pennsylvania, where she was living. Shortly after settling Amelia and their children in Philadelphia, Joseph abandoned his family and ran off to New York with Ann O’Delia, who was now calling herself Mademoiselle Diss Debar, while Joseph himself was going by General Diss Debar.
Diss Debar Goes to Trial
In 1881, Ann and Joseph had a daughter named Juliette “Do Do” Diss Debar, born in Manhattan. According to the 1885 state census, Joseph and Ann were living in Jersey City, New Jersey with Juliette and Ann’s daughter Alice.
Over the next few years, Ann and Joseph conned several people out of large amounts of money and real estate. By 1888 they found themselves on trial, where Amelia Cain Diss Debar was called to testify that she, and not Ann O’Delia, was the real Mrs. Diss Debar.
The following excerpt from the June 6, 1888 issue of The Sun (New York, N.Y.) tells of Amelia’s testimony on the subject:
“The Princess [Ann O’Delia] half rose, but dropped back in her chair as the real Mrs. Diss Debar came forward with a timidity which vanished completely from her manner when she got her eyes on Ann O'Delia and the perfidious General. She presented a picture of sober, elderly respectability. She is slight in figure and her complexion is sallow. She wore a black straw bonnet of old-fashioned frame, a dress the ground of which was black, with a small figure in it, black mittens, and square-edged, gold-rimmed spectacles over which her eyes looked straightforwardly.
“She said her name was Amelia Diss Debar, and that she lived at 815 Norris street, Philadelphia, and that she is the wife of J.H. Diss Debar, male defendant. She had never been divorced. She had three children by him, who were still living. She objected to giving their names because she said they did not want their names to appear in connection with the case. They were all married.”
“...’I won’t answer any of her questions,’ exclaimed the old lady indignantly. ‘She better keep quiet.’ And as she passes Ann O’Delia’s chair, her fiery regard caused the medium to lower her eyes.”
Amelia further testified that after he abandoned the family, Joseph would occasionally visit her and their children, but he never gave them any financial support.
The outcome of the trial was that both Diss Debar and Ann O’Delia Salomon were found guilty of conspiracy with intent to defraud. They were sentenced to six months in the New York Penitentiary at Blackwell’s Island. Upon his release in December 1888, the 68-year-old Diss Debar weighed 149 pounds, having gained six pounds during his incarceration. Ann O’Delia, on the other hand, whose description as “voluptuous” could more accurately be termed “stylishly portly,” had lost 23 pounds.
Three Children Die Young
At the time of the trial in 1888, only three of Joseph and Amelia’s children were still living: Frances (married to Charles Walker Wells), Florent (wife unknown) and Clara (married to Millard Fillmore Magee).
Daughter Marie Amelia married William H. Carleton and died in Philadelphia in 1880 at the age of 22. She is buried at the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
Son George died in 1881 and is also buried at West Laurel Hill Cemetery. The following article appeared in the August 26, 1881 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer:
“Fatal Accident - Yesterday afternoon George Debar, twenty-eight years of age, living at No. 1613 Hutchinson street, and employed by the Reading Railroad Company, was run over and killed at Ninth and Wallace streets, by a shifting engine. He attempted to uncouple cars while they were in motion, and falling under the wheels was completely cut in two. The body was removed to his late home and the Coroner notified.”
I lost track of son James after the 1880 census, but according to Amelia’s testimony, he had already died before the 1888 trial.
Deaths of Joseph & Amelia
Incredibly, after all that had transpired, it appears that Joseph and Amelia came to some sort of reconciliation. In the 1900 Census, they were found living together in Philadelphia with their son Florent. Perhaps love really does conquer all.
Joseph Hubert Diss Debar died in Philadelphia on January 13, 1905, at the age of 84. When Amelia died four year later, the following death announcement appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer:
“DEBAR. On June 22. 1909. AMELIA, wife of the late Joseph H Debar, aged 84 years. The relatives and friends of the family are respectfully invited to attend the funeral on Friday, at 1 o'clock, at her late residence. 2624 Glenwood ave. Interment at West Laurel Hill Cemetery.”
In 2015 I contacted a fellow Find-A-Grave contributor who lives in Philadelphia. At my request, he located Joseph Diss Debar’s headstone at West Laurel Hill Cemetery and took a photograph of it for me. Amelia was buried in the same cemetery, but has no grave marker. Diss Debar’s small unpretentious stone marks the grave of a brilliant and complicated man who still defies a convenient label. He was, among other things, an artist, a scholar, a politician, a pioneer, an adventurer, a criminal and a scoundrel, but above all he was a key figure in our history. I can’t decide if Amelia was lucky or cursed to have married such a man. Perhaps it was both.
The Strength of Amelia Cain
Although I had intended my focus here to be on Amelia Cain, the real Mrs. Diss Debar, her story becomes overshadowed by the larger-than-life characters surrounding her. She was an illiterate country girl when she met the sophisticated and educated Frenchman, but they became a most unlikely couple, first in the backwoods of early Doddridge County and eventually in a major East Coast city. Together they had a family and endured bizarre domestic, legal and financial turbulence.
Amelia surely suffered much emotional pain and other hardships in her marriage to Diss Debar, but in the eyes of someone who knew her, she was actually the stronger of the two. Many years later, when West Virginia historian Boyd B. Stutler consulted Eugene Diss Debar, Joseph’s son by his first wife Clara, Eugene had only good things to say about his stepmother. He told Stutler not to say anything bad about Amelia, that she was “a good woman” and his father’s “helpmate,” and that if not for her, the dapper Diss Debar would not have survived the primitive conditions of life in the St. Clara wilderness. So next time you see the West Virginia State Seal, rather than thanking Diss Debar for designing it, perhaps you should thank Amelia Cain for making it possible.