The Dotey family’s going from riches to rags was a shocking example

Posted by | August 17, 2012

The Calvin B. Doteys, a wealthy and greatly respected family, had a very fine old home with spacious grounds on South Third Street. Old Mr. Dotey made his fortune in, and was president of, the Jefferson Iron Works in the lower end of town. He had a daughter Molly, who became the one and only titled person in Steubenville. Long before I was born, it was said a German, Baron Lagerfelt, came to town and married Molly. Only a few months later he left his bride and skipped to parts unknown, taking with him most of his wife’s fortune. He never returned, and so far as I know, all the Doteys, probably Baroness Lagerfelt included, felt it was good riddance.

Another child of the Calvin B. Dotey family was Harry. He wore his hair long, played the piano and pipe organ, and never worked a day in his life. He left the Episcopal Church and became a devout Roman Catholic. Among his many eccentricities was his adoption of the name Harry Linwood Marie Dotey y Carr. He wore gaudy scarves and ascot ties, pink shirts, flashy suits, and always carried bright yellow gloves. A large Catholic medal on a heavy silver chain hung ostentatiously from his neck. With very large jeweled rings on both fingers and thumbs and heavy bracelets with lockets, he attracted attention wherever he went.

It can well be imagined what a stir such a person created in a small sleepy town over sixty years ago. He loved to ride for hours on the old streetcars engrossed in reading books and magazines. A great student of art and an accomplished musician, when grand opera came to Pittsburgh, Harry Dotey always bought two seats and appeared at every performance. He placed his hat, gloves, coat and cane on the adjoining seat. Music lovers in the city of Pittsburgh wondered who the strange man was sitting alone on the aisle.

Both he and his sister, the Baroness, did a tremendous job at squandering the money which their father had worked so hard to accumulate. The walls of the old house on South Third Street were hung with rare paintings, and the home was filled with priceless objets d’art. Most of these treasures were bought from the Wunderly Brothers of Pittsburgh, who for generations have owned an epecially fine art store. One of the Wunderly Brothers told me years ago that Harry Dotey’s knowledge of art was amazing. He bought extravagantly and was notorious for never paying his bills. About the time the Wunderlys felt forced to bring suit against him, he would come into the store and pay a long outstanding bill. But, according to Mr. Wunderly, when he left the Gallery he invariably had bought additional treasures, and owed the Wunderlys an even larger amount than when he came in.

At Christmas Harry and the Baroness sent the most elaborate and expensive presents to all their friends, including my father and mother. They were always beautifully wrapped and tied with wide satin ribbon in tremendous bows. For many years a framed picture of a nude was turned to the wall on the floor of our bedroom closet. Harry and the Baroness had given it to my father and mother, but my parents immediately relegated it to the darkness.

Unfortunately, old Mr. Dotey made my father guardian of his two spendthrift and eccentric children. Father had a terrible time with them. Harry could have made a little money by playing the church organ for pay, but he pretended righteous indignation when any such degrading suggestion was made to him. The Baroness finally died, and poor Harry lived on for several years in the Massillon Insane Asylum, which while he wasn’t actually insane, seemed a more suitable place for him to end his days than in the Jefferson County Poorhouse.

Baroness Lagerfelt to the poorhouseWhen Baroness Lagerfelt signed herself in to the poorhouse, it made national news. Here’s a June 17, 1909 writeup from the New Orleans newspaper L’Abeille de la Nouvelle-Orleans.

Father, who was the epitome of generosity, preached economy to us incessantly, and frequently held Harry Dotey and his sister, Baroness Lagerfelt, up to us as horrible examples of what happens to people who spend more than they should. The Dotey family’s going from riches to rags and the Poorhouse was a shocking example. Father told us that when the old Dotey home was dismantled, the third floor was filled with the most expensive and beautiful toys which Mr. and Mrs. Dotey had bought for Harry and Molly when they were children. This great store of playthings, any one of which would have made some child happy, was allowed to accumulate dust over the years. The old colored man who spent his life working for the Dotey family had many children of his own, but in the end Harry Dotey stood adamant over him and watched closely to see that every sacred article which he had enjoyed in his childhood was burned, so that no lesser child could defame it.

Father and his Town A Story of Life at the Turn of the Century in a Small Ohio River Town, by Wilma Sinclair LeVan Baker, Three Rivers Press, 1961

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