A (future) noted West Virginian befriends Charles Dickens

Posted by | June 14, 2016

The year he turned 44 years old, in 1864, Joseph Hubert Diss Debar was appointed WV commissioner of immigration by Governor Boreman; during his tenure he produced the only handbook for immigrants to be published in the state, printed in English, German and Swedish. He was Doddridge County’s first representative to the newly created West Virginia Legislature, the only foreign-born delegate to serve in that body. In 1863, the legislature had appointed Debar to make drawings for a state seal and coat-of-arms. These designs became the official seal and coat-of-arms for the state when West Virginia came into the union. Joseph Diss Debar, in short, was prominent in matters of state.

Joseph H. Diss Debar

Joseph H. Diss Debar

But all these successes were still far in the future in 1842, the year Diss Debar crossed paths with Charles Dickens for the first and only time.

Diss Debar didn’t start his life in West Virginia. He was born in Strasbourg in French Alsace in 1820, the son of the estate manager for Cardinal Prince de Rohan. The young Debar headed to America, with strong connections from France to pave the way, to become a land agent in what would later be West Virginia. One major land holding covering several counties in the north central part of the state was known as the Swan lands, acquired by James Swan of Boston before 1809. John Peter Dumas of Paris, named trustee for the estate upon Swan’s death in 1831, ended up hiring Diss Debar.

Joseph Diss Debar sailed toward America from Liverpool, England to Boston, in January 1842 on the steamer Britannia. Charles Dickens was also making the voyage, and the two became friends.

In this excerpt from Reminiscence of Charles Dickens’ first visit to America by a fellow passenger (J. H. Diss Debar), Debar explains how:

“For pastime only — for I have never played anything but whist or e’carte’ before — I took part in a game of vingt-et-un in the saloon, supposing the company respectable and the risk slight. The fascinations of the game, however, and the stimulating example of an American gentleman at my elbow, carried me beyond my soundings.

“I lost nearly fifty dollars the first day and half as much the next — almost a catastrophe for a young commercial traveler on a moderate salary. Hoping to retrieve my luck, I next morning again ventured to the shrine of the fickle goddess and had recovered half my losses, when, a change of dealer or banker occurring, I felt a soft but significant touch upon my right shoulder, and looking around beheld a pair of large and wonderfully eloquent eyes beckoning me to come away.

Collection Wikipedia Commons

RMS Britannia in 1840.

“Comprehending the situation, I quietly arose under some pretext and took a walk on deck, where Mr. Dickens made his appearance an hour after, apparently unconscious of my presence. Seeing me approach him, he waived the formality of my expressions of gratitude with a sweeping gesture, merely inquiring whether I meant to play again in that company.

“Upon my unhesitating reply in the negative his satisfaction was unequivocal, and with a brief injunction of secrecy regarding his intervention he gently bowed himself away. Subsequent developments in the case of another victim of nearly my age revealed the fact that certain passengers, rising importers of New York City, whose banking proved so disastrous to some of their clients, were confederates playing into each other’s hands by such tricks as may readily be surmised by persons familiar with the game.

“Another occasion on which Mr. Dickens was forced out of his contemplative mood into something like personal display was afforded by the midnight storm so graphically depicted in the “Notes”. Granting that this war of elements was all that is claimed for it by the imaginative author, it failed to impress itself upon a majority of the passengers as a narrow escape from a watery grave.

“Perhaps an accident to the cow, which somewhat reduced the supply of milk in the regulation tea and coffee, contributed to magnify the perils of the gale in the eyes of transatlantic neophytes. At any rate they regarded the occasion as one eminently suggestive of a substantial testimonial of their grateful admiration to the captain, although this gallant little man, on hearing of the proposition while picking up crumbs around his plate with his moistened index, ‘thought he had often seen much worse weather.’

“A meeting was called, attended by scarcely any one not belonging to the British mess. In explanation of this term it may be of interest to state here that in those days English travelers on transatlantic steamers generally outnumbered all the others put together, and regularly messed at one and the same table during the passage.

Sketch of Charles Dickens from 1842.

Sketch of Charles Dickens from 1842.

“On this trip this table was presided over by the captain or his next in rank and occasionally by a young Briton, a colonel in a Canada regiment which he was going to join. Since this scion of nobility could be spared from the turf and field, it undeniably was a wise discretion that destined him to the military instead of the diplomatic career in which his father, a peer of the realm, occupied a distinguished rank.

“And it was undoubtedly the attraction of opposites which threw this young man preferably into the society of Mr. Dickens, who, at the table, occupied the seat immediately to his right. The other table in the saloon was almost exclusively tenanted by passengers from the continent, with a sprinkling of Americans and such Celts from the Green Isle or the land of Scots as were conscious of a tinge of disloyalty to her majesty’s authority.

“Some one having called the meeting to order, the choice of president fell upon the youthful Colonel, and Chas. Dickens Esqr was chosen secretary. So far, so good; but when the first named officer blushingly arose to explain the object of the meeting, an incident occurred, the generous omission in the “Notes” is herewith supplied it is hoped without impropriety.

“Although endowed with an organ that would have marshaled a whole army corps as well as a regiment, the noble colonel was totally unable to give vent to his feelings. In vain did his nervous hand wander from the tips of his flaxen hair to the depths of his pockets and vice-versa, but beyond the thrice repeated invocation, “Gentlemen — I — ah — awh” — he could not proceed. The meeting was beginning to look blue and sly jokes were already flashing up and down the opposition table, when the cart was happily pulled out of the bog by the nimble secretary who, gently elbowing down his honorable friend, accomplished the refractory task in his most felicitous style.

“As a result it was unanimously decided to present Captain Hewitt with a silver tea-set, for which a subscription was raised before the meeting adjourned. Nor did the luckless orator lack in grateful appreciation of his timely rescue from a critical strait, for he was ever afterward observed to cling to his benefactor more devotedly than ever, and at the sightseeing at Halifax and Boston the two had become perfectly inseparable.”


sources: http://www.polsci.wvu.edu/wv/Doddridge/dodhistory.html

Cowan’s Auctions Catalogue June 2012 



WV Governor’s Message, submitted to the Legislature of 1907, with the Accompanying Reports and Documents coevering the Two Fiscal Years Oct 1, 1904 to Sept 30, 1906


One Response

  • Ian Keable says:

    Great to see this story in fuller detail. Dickens of course would have known all about card sharping and hustlers from his early days in London. One thing that puzzles me is that I first came across this in Peter Acroyd’s Dickens, published in 1990. He attributes the story to Pierre Morand. Was that Joseph Hubert Diss Debar’s original French name? Or has Acroyd got it wrong?

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