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Tragic Side of Two Lives

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, April 22, 1934


The Tragic Side Of Two Lives

By Howard Burba


            Did anyone ever tell you about the escapades of Ann Amelia Diss de Barr and the colorful little chapter she wrote into history during her brief but hectic role on the stage of life?

            Has anyone ever thought to relate to you the true story of the reclamation of Amanda Hall, whose name was once the most familiar of all those who drank of life’s dregs in Dayton’s underworld?

            Possibly not.  Unusual stories such as these two women wrote into Dayton history are unpleasant memories, and even the historians dislike the idea of devoting themselves to more than a passing mention of them.  But life as Daytonians have lived it in the past cannot be correctly recorded if one omits a single chapter, and to omit the chapters dealing with the careers of Ann Amelia Diss de Barr and Amanda Hall would be to overlook two pictures of Dayton life far too interesting to lie buried and forgotten in the dust of other years.

            Along in the ‘80's there appeared in this country a woman giving the name of “Ann Amelia Diss de Barr.”  She first came to the notice of the police of several midwestern cities when wealthy men began telling of being swindled of huge sums by a so-called clairvoyant.  Diss de Barr claimed to be of royal lineage, a daughter of the famous Lola Montez and King Louis I, of Bavaria.

            She managed, through her cultured manner and apparent good breeding, to make the acquaintance of several prominent Chicago families, and for a time was accepted as a valuable addition to the social life of that community.  Then stories of a strange nature began to be associated with her movements.  The police had their attention called to her activities, and became convinced she was not only an imposter, insofar as her title and foreign relationships were concerned, but a smooth swindler as well.

            Too frequent complaints of those claiming to have been victimized by the self-styled clairvoyant caused her to mysteriously disappear from that city.  Later the police of St. Louis began to receive complaints similar to those filed some months previously in Chicago.  They investigated, learned that Diss de Barr had taken up her residence there upon leaving Chicago, and that she was collecting rich tribute from gullible citizens of that community.  By this time her exploits had provided the newspapers of the country with several highly-readable stories, and the name of “Ann Amelia Diss de Barr” was becoming a familiar one in print.

            Shrewd to the point where her ability to evade the law was almost uncanny, she cleared her skirts of St. Louis, and nothing was heard of her for a year or so.  She left a trail of saddened but wiser patrons in the two big western cities, while police of both places could only broadcast a warning to the authorities of other cities to be on the lookout for her.

            On Sept. 13, 1891, a flashily dressed woman, weighing in the neighborhood of 200 pounds and wearing a blonde wig and heavy diamond earrings alighted from a carriage at the Beckel House and proceeded to register under the name of “Vera Ava.”  To the clerk she said little, further than to request the best suite of rooms in the place and the immediate disposition of her baggage, consisting of several large trunks.  But the attaches of the hostelry, scenting rich pickings in the form of tips, made it their business to inquire more closely into the personality of their guest.

            It was not long until Dayton was discussing the English lady philanthropist who had settled in her midst.  Then came a night when the Beckel House staff was thrown into an uproar through a report that “Vera Ava” had suffered a hemorrhage of the lungs and was dying.  A local physician was immediately called to administer to her.  Upon his arrival the woman, wiping blood-stained lips, asked to have a priest called, declaring in a feeble voice that she believed she was going to die.

            The good Father Hahne, of Emmanuel church, hurried to the hotel.  He was somewhat astounded upon making the woman’s acquaintance to be told that she was in reality a member of his congregation; that she had been baptized at Emmanuel church in her early years.  The physician had, by this time, completed his examination of the woman, and being a close friend of Father Hahne he called him aside for a private conference.  He declared there was nothing the matter with “Vera Ava,” that she had feigned a hemorrhage of the lungs and that the blood from her mouth was in reality coming from a tooth which she had herself pulled an hour before.

            Turning to the woman after vouchsafing this information to the priest, the physician told her in plain words that there was nothing the matter with her, and that he saw no occasion for shamming.  IN an instant “Vera Ava” was off her couch and had dealt the doctor a smashing blow, also striking Father Hahne, who stood near.  She dashed from the room and out of the hotel. Father Hahne hurried to his church, scanned the records in an attempt to verify her statement that she had been baptized there, and reported that nothing to that effect could be found.

            “Vera Ava” had not had an opportunity to operate in Dayton, and this escapade served to prevent any attempt to do so.  She was in arrears at the hotel for her room and board, and on the following day when she had not returned her trunks were seized.  It was, in the language of the hotel attaches, a “waterhaul.”  The trunks were practically worthless, while their contents were even more so, consisting of a few once costly gowns long since outmoded and unserviceable.

            Then came press dispatches that the police of Cincinnati had arrested a woman giving the name of “Vera Ava” but whom, they were positive, was the missing Chicago-St. Louis swindler, Madame Ann Amelia Diss de Barr.  She was taken to police headquarters for questioning.  There she stated that she was en route to St. Louis but had been abducted by an unknown woman and forced to ride to Cincinnati.  When asked if she was Diss de Barr she replied: 

            “Most assuredly I am not.  I do not know that woman.  In fact, I never saw her.”

            Chief of Police Phil Deitsch, of the Queen City, was not satisfied with the answers given by the woman, nor with the story of her abduction.  He made a more extended investigation, and finally concluded that not only was she the notorious Ann Amelia Diss de Barr, but that she was mentally irresponsible.  Accordingly he appeared before the probate judge at Cincinnati and filed an application for an insanity hearing, asking that she be temporarily committed to Longview asylum.  The judge, however, ruled that his jurisdiction did not cover the case, and the application was dismissed.

            Then the police of Cincinnati found themselves with a problem to untangle or, as one Cincinnati paper said at the time, with all due respect to Diss de Barr’s avoirdupois, “with an elephant on their hands.”  She was penniless.  She had no friends in that city.  She gave an address of a Chicago minister in whose church she declared she had been active, but upon getting in touch with him the police found the woman was known to him only by reputation, and through newspaper accounts of her exploits.  She had not, the minister reported, been identified in any manner with his congregation. 

            Cincinnati accepted the woman as a charge, and officials of a charitable institution agreed to take care of her.  This solved the problem with which the police were wrestling and, since the woman herself had apparently lost all interest in her future, and became melancholic and bitter in-her denunciation of the world in general, she was quickly forgotten by that part of the world which had but recently found her career both interesting and spectacular.

            Madame Ann Amelia Diss de Barr, a resident of Dayton only long enough to write a brief but colorful chapter in its history, spent her remaining days a ward of a Cincinnati charitable institution.  She passed on remembered only by police records as one of the cleverest swindlers with which the middle west ever had to deal.


The Reclamation of Amanda Hall


            For several years the underworld of Dayton wondered about Amanda Hall.  From whence she came, none knew.  Her ultimate destination, none cared.  Dayton made her acquaintance along in the 80's wondered why a woman of such beauty and apparent refinement had chosen to live a sordid life, and left her to her own devices.

            Amanda Hall became a familiar figure on the streets of Dayton, and especially in the segregated districts of the city.  She became, too, an occasional visitor at the station house, and to all appearances had reached the point in life where she was past redemption.  That there was a story of shattered romance somewhere back along her path, none doubted.  But while she mingled on an equality with the habitués of the “red light” district, and sank to the lowest ebb with them, not once did Amanda Hall reveal that story; not once did she complain of the hand fate had dealt her.

            Possibly Amanda Hall would have died in the miserable way she had lived had not that same fate, shuffling the cars anew, dealt her a new and astounding hand with which to play out the game of life.  Fate dealt her that hand on a dark and gloomy day in January, 1884, while she was to all appearances serving probably the last of her numerous sentences in the workhouse.  It came about in such a way that all Dayton gasped-and then in their hearts breathed a silent prayer of thankfulness.  Let the old newspaper files of that day tell the story, let the reporter of that day write this little-known chapter into Dayton history; and let it serve as another bit of long-recorded evidence that “so long as the lamp of life still burns the vilest sinner may return.”  Here is the story of the reclamation of Amanda Hall:

            “The reclamation of Amanda Hall from the workhouse on Saturday discloses a life of romance not as gilded as that of Monte Cristo, but much more varied.  She came to Dayton about seven or either years ago and has always been known here as Amanda Hall, but her real name, her friends state, is not Amanda Hall but Cornelia Pfaul.

            “From the gentleman who secured her release it is learned that she was born, not in Pittsburg, as stated, but in one of the larger eastern cities, and is the daughter of a gentleman whose name is familiar to the entire country, he having been a governor of his state, a member of the United States house of representatives and of the United States senate and was a distinguished officer in the war of the rebellion.  He is now dead, and his death is said to have been hastened by the wayward life of Cornelia, his favorite child and only daughter.

            “Her father was wealthy and she had the benefit of a finished education.  She was possessed of a genial disposition, and her rare beauty, accomplishments and exalted social standing caused her to be courted by leading gentlemen of the nation.  She was the recognized of her native city, of the capital of her native state, where she dwelt while her father was governor, and was the queen of society at Washington when she resided there.

            “Her father and family desired her to marry a wealthy man whom she did not love.  She, to please them, promised to marry him, and the wedding date was set, the wedding guests assembled and the marriage feast spread, but at the last moment Cornelia, too honorable to give her hand without her heart, relented, and eloped with a young man much her social and intellectual inferior name Pfaul, and they were married.  Her proud family was greatly scandalized, and in their pride disowned her.

            “Her husband was a sort of shiftless fellow and, of course, unable to maintain her in anything like the style to which she had been accustomed.  He drifted from bad to worse, and finally abandoned her.  Alone, discouraged, helpless, penniless, she fell.  For a long time she was the reigning belle in a gilded place of sin in a western city, but as the years came on, hastened by her dissolute life and the sorrow and remorse that never left her, her regal beauty fled and she drifted from place to place and down and down as she went, until she came to Dayton a few years ago from Columbus.

            “Upon coming to this city she entered one of the bagnios, and for a time attracted much attention while upon the street by her handsome appearance and elegant address.  She drank heavily and kept drifting down and down until within the last year or two she has been content to be a barkeeper in a low saloon in the West End and the consort of drunken soldiers and the most violent and dissolute male characters of the city.  Her love of strong drink finally rendered her unfit even as bartender in the dive in which she had eked out an existence, and she was turned out of doors.  For weeks she drifted about Miami City subsisting on charity, often being days without food and, often before it grew so intensely cold, sleeping in outbuildings.

            A few weeks ago she appealed to an old lover, a brick mason who had often shared her favors in happier and brighter days, for assistance to keep her from starving.  He turned coldly away from her and sought the company of a new love.  Catching him in her rivals’ society shortly after Cornelia, in a fit of jealousy and with a feeling that she had been wronged, assaulted him.  Upon his complaint the unfortunate creature was arrested and, upon entering a plea of guilty, was sent to the workhouse for 30 days and a fine of $11.55.  She was anxious to go behind the bars and gloomy walls of the old prison in order to have a place to sleep and sufficient food to eat, and at the same time recover from the long spree in which she had indulged.

            “It might be stated that she has served several terms in the workhouse for drunkenness and other petty offenses peculiar to the desolate life she led.  It is proper to say, also, that not at anytime, when in custody, no matter whether drunk or sober, did she forget her good breeding.  She was invariably neat and tidy in her personal appearance and with the scanty means at her command always dressed in good taste.  She possessed to a great degree the feminine dignity observed in well-bred ladies who have moved in the highest social circles, and at all times used only the language of a modest, refined woman.  To outward appearances there was little of the vulgar or abandoned about her.

            “She was sent over the last time on the 15th of December, and though sick and faint from a long debauch, absence of food and exposure, through her bleared countenance and distress traces of her former beauty still remained.  She was at that time dressed in a wreck of her splendor, what had been at one time a costly and beautiful black satin dress, a fur-trimmed sacque, a Gainsborough fur hat, etc.   She gave her age as 34, though she looks to be much older.

            “She had no sister, but had a number of brothers and an adopted sister, the latter of whom, though much younger, dearly loved her.  After the death of Cornelia’s father, soon followed by that of her mother, the children sought to hunt Cornelia out of the degredation into which she had fallen and take her home.  Right here it should be stated that after she had been abandoned by her profligate husband, and before she had sinned, she wrote to her family asking forgiveness and permission to return, but the imperious parents would not listen to the appeals, and coldly turned her away.

            “When the brothers and sister attempted to seek her out, they scoured the country for months and years without finding a trace of her, and perhaps never would have found her but that she in her utter misery, completely broken in health and spirits, like the prodigal, turned her face toward the home which shone so beautifully on the memory of her happy girlhood days.   “From behind the grated windows of what was to her a hospitable prison she wrote them to take her home, and upon the wings of love they came to her rescue.  Her adopted sister is the wife of a millionaire in Pittsburgh and it will be at her home that Cornelia will remain.  This sister was accompanied to Dayton by a Mr. Lincoln, a relative, who is a member of the common council and the City Commission of Pittsburgh.

            “Upon her arrival in this city the sister was so overcome with the fact that she was in the same city with her lost sister, and that she was about to reclaim her, that she was utterly prostrated and unable to leave the hotel at which they stopped.  Mr. Lincoln first called at the workhouse, and after an interview with Cornelia went to the mayor’s office where he was furnished with a written recommendation to the board of workhouse directors that the remainder of her sentence be remitted, and this was cheerfully agreed to.

            “Cornelia was driven in a hack to the hotel, where she was met by her sister for the first time since, so many years ago, to them, she was to have become a bride.  The meeting between the sisters was very affecting.  Cornelia, broken and penitent, was forgiven and blessed by her more favored sister and taken to her bosom.  The party left for Pittsburgh at 9:12 o”clock last night.

            “This sketch of Cornelia Pfaul, though it discloses a somewhat romantic life, cannot begin to picture the horrors, the degredation, the misery and the suffering she has endured.  It is a good lesson from real life that every good girl will take to heart, that through this fallen woman’s sufferings she may learn and be encouraged to follow the straight, but always pleasant, paths of virtue which alone can lead to happiness.”