Debunking Diss Debar
I went to Charleston this week to attend the 155th anniversary celebration of West Virginia’s statehood on June 20th. A large crowd was in attendance in the Great Room of the Culture Center, including Governor Jim Justice, and highlighted by a chorus of students singing the state’s two official songs, “Those West Virginia Hills” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
It was an enjoyable event that got me thinking about the prominent role that Doddridge County played in the formation of our state, including our own Joseph H. Diss Debar being commissioned to design the state seal. And that in turn got me thinking about some major misconceptions that many of us have heard about Diss Debar. The traditional story of Joseph H. Diss Debar, as related to me several years ago, goes something like this:
While still living in his native France, Diss Debar met and fell in love with the beautiful Clara Levassor. But Clara’s wealthy father, Eugene, did not like Diss Debar. So Eugene packed the family up, sailed across the ocean and moved to Parkersburg to get away from Diss Debar’s designs on his daughter. But the lovestruck suitor followed Clara all the way to America, where her father finally relented and let his daughter marry Diss Debar.
Another Version of the Story
Romantic and heartwarming as that story may be, it is not true. The following excerpt about Diss Debar is from a New York newspaper, the April 15, 1888 issue of The Sun, and it paints a much different picture, one that I have found to be highly accurate:
“This man has an interesting history, which explains much that is now a mystery, and clearly shows up even the claim of the alleged Princess to the name of Diss Debar to be fraudulent. "Gen. John H. Diss Debar was born in sight of Strasbourg, France, in 1818, and christened John H. Diss. Up to the age of 12 he spoke both the German and French languages with equal fluency. At that age he was sent by his parents to an English school in Paris, where he soon acquired the English language, and, strange to say, spoke it without a particle of French or German accent.
“He came to this country on the same ship which brought Charles Dickens on his first visit to this country. In 184? he settled in Cincinnati and led a fast life. He was handsome, sang exquisitely, performed on a number of musical instruments to perfection, and danced well. He was a great favorite with the ladies, of whom he was very fond. He met a fine old French gentleman named Eugene Lavassor, and was engaged to marry his daughter Clara, but Diss Debar had to leave town for passing forged checks to which the name of Mr. Lavassor was signed. Diss Debar turned up in Parkersburg, W. Va., where he made a livelihood as a civil engineer. He was gifted, educated, talented, of plausible make-up, and rather social nature. He soon wormed himself into the best society of the place among the talented, educated people. He was a member of several social societies, and frequently took prominent positions as a debater of abstruse and metaphysical subjects. With his great literary talent he had one other talent with which he used to astonish and often dumbfound his many acquaintances - that of an artist. He would often, while sitting at a table in company of others, pick up a pen and with a few almost imperceptible movements, transform a blank piece of paper into an excellent portrait.
“After be had been in Parkersburg some time, Mr. Lavassor's daughter Clara, to whom Diss Debar had been engaged, was taken sick and was given up as lost, when a learned physician was called in, who, after diagnosing the case, told the old gentleman, who idolized his child, that her disease was not that of the body, but of the mind; that if the cause could not be removed she would die. Mr. Lavassor, doubtless through his great love for his child, concluded to save his child’s life by permitting her to become Diss Debar’s wife. The Lavassors moved to Parkersburg. where Diss Debar was permitted to renew his attentions, and finally married Clara Lavassor. She died on April 29, 1849, and was buried at Riverview [Cemetery].
“After his wife's death, Diss Debar dabbled in the land business: was made State Immigration Agent, and was appointed by the Legislature to make the State seal when West Virginia became a state. By this time nobody had any confidence in him, and no one would trust him. Later on he removed to Doddridge county, where he started a vineyard. While on his farm he had as a housekeeper a woman by whom he had several children, and whom he afterward married. Sometime after his second marriage he removed his family back to Parkersburg.
“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. …”
I will leave that last paragraph alone for the time being. My focus for now is on Diss Debar’s life prior to that night in June 1874.
Since I had only ever heard the one version of Diss Debar and Clara’s courtship and marriage, I was shocked when I found this article. Although it contains a few inaccuracies, most of it has proved to be true.
Forges Future Father-in-Law’s Name
Joseph H. Diss Debar was not his real name. He was born Hubert Diss in 1820 in Alsace, France. The ship manifest where he came to America in 1842 also lists his name as Hubert Diss. The following article, again calling him Hubert Diss, appeared in the April 8, 1846 issue of The North Carolina Star:
“A young merchant of Cincinnati named Hubert Diss has been detected in forgeries to the amount of $7000. He is said to have wealthy connexions and was on the eve of marriage to the daughter of one of the most opulent merchants of Cincinnati. …”
That opulent merchant was Eugene Levassor, born in 1791 in Chartres, France. Eugene had come to America prior to 1830 when he was living in Cincinnati with his wife Sophia and their children, including Clara. So Diss Debar did not chase his love across the ocean in 1842, because the 13-year-old Clara had already been in America at least a dozen years by then.
Arrival in Doddridge County
Hubert Diss must have left Cincinnati immediately after the forgery incident and headed for (West) Virginia, because according to his own memoirs, he first set foot in Lewisport, Doddridge County, on April 15, 1846 while traveling on business. It was about then that he changed his name from Hubert Diss to Joseph Hubert Diss Debar. Could the name change have been prompted by the recent forgery charge against him as Hubert Diss? A condition of Eugene Levassor’s consent to Clara and Diss Debar’s marriage in May 1848 was the signing of a prenuptial agreement. Could that also have been prompted by distrust stemming from the forgery incident?
Diss Debar remained a resident of Parkersburg until soon after Clara’s death there in April 1849. In the 1850 Census, he was living in Doddridge County in the household of Henry Wanstreet and his family. After Clara’s death, her father took Clara and Diss Debar’s son, Joseph Eugene Hubert Diss Debar, to be raised by him in Cincinnati.
In Doddridge County, Diss Debar founded the German community of Saint Clara, named for his late wife, and he actively recruited German-speaking immigrants to settle there. Just as stated in the above excerpt, Diss Debar had at least two children with his housekeeper Amelia Cain. In 1858 Diss Debar and Amelia were married in Doddridge County, where they had five more children. One child died in infancy and is buried at the St. Johannes Lutheran Church in St. Clara, Doddridge County. Diss Debar and Amelia left Doddridge County around 1868 and moved to Parkersburg. From there they moved to Philadelphia sometime prior to 1880.
We know that Diss Debar ultimately came to Doddridge County as a land agent to sell off several thousand acres of land in Cove District, but is that why he came to the United States in the first place? If so, why did he linger in Cincinnati for so long before coming here?
Diss Debar and Slavery
Another aspect of Diss Debar’s life that surprised me was the fact that in 1860 Diss Debar owned a 50-year-old black female slave. In 1870 he had in his household a 56-year-old domestic servant named Mahala. Mahala was presumably the slave listed in the 1860 Slave Schedule.
We know from Diss Debar’s memoirs that he subscribed to Horace Greeley’s anti-slavery newspaper, the New York Tribune. Also, in 1872 Diss Debar was appointed secretary of the liberal Republican Convention in Grafton in support of Horace Greeley for President. Diss Debar’s connection to Horace Greeley seems at odds with his ownership of a slave.
Other Family Members in America
I recently found a newspaper article that suggests that Diss Debar had other family members who came to America. The following excerpt about a nephew, who is buried in the same cemetery as Clara, appeared in the April 14, 1888 issue of the Pittsburgh Daily Post:
“In another part of the cemetery is another monument erected to the memory of Otto Dis, of Munich, who died in 1855. This Otto Dis was a nephew of J. H. Dis Debar, son of his brother, Philip Dis, of Munich. When young Otto Dis came here he was accompanied by his sister, Maria Lugo.”
I’ve been to Riverview Cemetery and though I easily found Clara’s prominent headstone, I was unable to find Otto’s. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, just that I haven’t located it yet. I have also not been able find Otto or Maria in any census or death records.
There is, however, another Diss buried in a cemetery in Parkersburg. There is a headstone at the Harper Hill Cemetery which is inscribed ‘G. J. Diss, born in France’. The death date is hard to read, but it looks like he died on July 16, 1853. Given his birth in France and his burial in Parkersburg, a place where Diss Debar was known to have lived, I have to believe that G. J. Diss is related to Diss Debar in some way. If so, why did he not change his last name to Diss Debar? Could the above article have been wrong about the name and burial location, and G. J. is Diss Debar’s nephew? Doubtful, but possible.
Tangents and Paradoxes
Whenever I write about Diss Debar, I find myself rambling. My intention here was simply to clarify and de-romanticize the circumstances of his coming to America, but there were so many interesting tangents in his unconventional life that I can’t help but take them. I have found that the more I learn about Diss Debar, the more I realize that I’ve not even scratched the surface of the complexities of his life. The opening paradoxical line of the above excerpt from the 1888 newspaper article sums it up perfectly: “This man has an interesting history, which explains much that is now a mystery.”