The Piano Man of Mystery

I have written several articles about my great grandfather on my mother’s side, James Monroe Dobbs, Sr. (see International Man of Mystery pts 1, 2, & 3; and Where the Hell is Valparaiso, Dobbs?), and as such, please indulge me as I may repeat some details by way of explanation as to why I find this most recent discovery worthy of note. It seems I have solved yet another mystery. I have learned the identity of the man who was responsible for my great-grandfather starting his career in the US Diplomatic Corps. It was none other than one of the sons in “Steinway and Sons.” – the world-renowned manufacturer of pianos and other musical instruments. As the great television detective, Mr. Monk, would say, “Here’s what happened….”

Last night, when I was attempting to locate a lengthy article that appeared in the Atlanta Constitution in the spring of 1893, I found that James was mentioned in a few other Georgia newspapers that I had somehow previously overlooked. The Atlanta Constitution article that I was looking for told of how my great-grandfather was 16 years old when he ran off and joined the Merchant Marines. This was 1877, the same year that his father died suddenly at 42.

After a couple of years, James gave up on being a sailor, and for a decade, he tramped around South America, became fluent in Spanish, and then went to work as an engineer for the Panama Railway. After a dozen years abroad, James returned to his family home in Georgia. He went into the lumber business in Atlanta. In 1891, James married the beautiful and talented Miss Emma Hahr of Atlanta. Miss Hahr was from Fayetteville, North Carolina, and was an internationally known concert pianist. Shortly after that, their daughter, Emita, was born. As Emma was not my great-grandmother, little Emma was my grandfather’s older half-sister.

In March 1893, after being sworn in for his second nonconsecutive term, President Grover Cleveland appointed my great-grandfather to the office of Consul General to Valparaiso, Chile. In the latter part of the 19th century and before the building of the Panama Canal, Valparaiso was an important stopover for ships rounding South America via the straits of Magellan and Cape Horn. Situated on hills above a beautiful bay, Valparaiso was nicknamed by American sailors “Little San Francisco.” And just like San Francisco, the South American city was subjected to earthquakes. In fact, in 1906, the same year as the San Francisco earthquake, a massive 8.2M earthquake struck the Chilean town a few months following the California quake, destroying much of the city and killing thousands of people. When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the Chilean port went into a steep decline that lasted for many years.

Yet, in the 1890s, it was a bustling, cosmopolitan port city. One Georgia newspaper article referred to James’ appointment to Valparaiso as “a fat job”(Thomasville Times 3 April 1893); another called it “plum” (Milledgeville Union Recorder – 11 April 1893).

The history of Post-Civil War American politics is far too complex for me to discuss here. Needless to say, after a long string of Republican presidents and Congressional majorities, the New South and the Democratic Party saw a resurgence in the 1890s. Grover Cleveland had become the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats who opposed high tariffs; Free Silver, inflation; imperialism; and subsidies to businesses, farmers, or veterans. His crusade for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives of the era. This may be confusing to some people, but the Democrats were the conservatives in those days, and the Republicans were considered progressives. In many parts of the South and until the latter part of the 20th century, the Democratic Party was the conservative party.

The Dobbs family had a long history with the Democratic Party, back to the early Jacksonian days. James’ grandfather was the Cobb County Democratic Party chairman back in 1840. According to an article found from that year, the party in Cobb County refused to back the Democratic nominee, vice president Martin Van Buren. In meeting notes published that year, the Cobb County Democratic Party declared the man they called “Martin Van Ruin” responsible for the Panic of 1837 and the massive decline in cotton prices. They considered him not a friend of the South, both for the economy and his position on slavery. Instead, the men of Cobb County decided to back a Whig, Indiana’s former governor, Gen. William Henry Harrison. The choice did not work out well for the Democrats of Cobb or the rest of the country for that matter, as Harrison became sick following his inauguration and died a few months into his term. Over the next 30 years, the South became solidly Democratic, rolling over the Southern Whigs, Know-Nothings, Unionists, and *shudder* Republicans. Except for the brief period of the Reconstruction, it remained the “Solid South” until the late 1960s.

While I believed that James won that position in South America because of his experience and proficiency with the language, I also think that it was due to his loyalty to the Democratic Party and Mr. Cleveland. Instead, I learned that while James was a Democrat, he was not a supporter of Mr. Cleveland in 1892. According to a one-paragraph article in the Macon Weekly Telegraph (17 April 1893), James was a “Hill supporter.” This meant that he had supported the former governor of and then the Democratic Senator from New York, David Bennett Hill.

Sen. Hill and former president Cleveland had been political foes off-and-on for many decades. While Cleveland, who was once mayor of Buffalo, represented upstate New York, Hill was a member of the Tammany machine in New York City. So, all this time that I thought my great-grandfather was a Bourbon Democrat, it turned out that he was a Tammany Democrat. Once again, there is that mysterious New York City connection that I have discussed before. The article in the Macon Weekly Telegraph excused Pres. Cleveland’s appointment of a Hill supporter by explaining that “the president knows the value of making friends of his political enemies. He can give Tammany many points in this game.

While Cleveland had publicly advocated for civil service reform, Hill and the Tammany Democrats embraced the role of patronage in politics and built up a strong following. Tammany Democrats were also imperialists. Whenever asked, James would tell reporters that he was firmly in favor of the annexation of Hawaii.

Yet, the question that I had never really considered until now is who was responsible for guiding and facilitating my great-grandfather’s appointment to a diplomatic post in a country thousands of miles from home. Reading contemporary articles, I get that James’ appointment to a South American country was a big deal for his friends in Georgia. The Savannah Morning News (28 March 1893) reported that when James went to Washington to meet President Cleveland, he was accompanied by his congressman, a local judge, and the former mayor of Marietta. It goes on to describe James as “a young lumber dealer of [Atlanta] who has spent some years in South America, who speaks Spanish and wants the consulate at Valparaiso.

Another article (Milledgeville Union Recorder 11 April 1893) writes “[h]is is an excellent appointment and will reflect credit on the State Department. He was strongly backed by Pope Barrow and made his application on the basis of fitness.” The backer referred to was Georgia Sen. Middleton P. Barrow, who was the son of a Georgia slaveholder like James. It was my expectation from the articles I had read that James’ support had come from “New South” politicians like Sen. Pope Barrow and Congressman Johns Maddox.

While almost all of the articles I found spoke highly of my great-grandfather, I found one that looks suspiciously like a political hatchet job. The article’s title was “A Political Mystery Solved,” and it appeared in the Americus Times Recorder (23 May 1893). The article begins by saying that the departure of Consul Dobbs and his wife makes this “unpublished story concerning Mr. Dobbs appointment timely.”

From the outset, the source of this report is made suspect when the author writes, “this story is vouched for those who have every opportunity of knowing whereof they speak” regarding my great-grandfather’s appointment by Pres. Cleveland. It states its purpose is to “clear up the little Mystery.” It tells us that Mr. Dobbs is “a gentleman of sterling worth and a fine businessman.” Then there is a “but,” and it implies suspicion regarding the fact that James was not previously heard of in politics despite having “cast his humble ballot,” that he came from a small social circle in Georgia and having stayed many years in South America. Then it says that the mystery is solved when it is realized that he is the husband of the “brilliant pianist,” the former Miss Emma Hahr.

It says, “Mr. Dobbs is, in fact, better known now as Miss Hahr’s husband then as consul to Valparaiso, and in this fact, the story of his appointment lies.

It goes on, “Miss Hahr’s reputation as a pianist extends in art circles throughout the country. So highly is she esteemed that Messrs. Steinway has repeatedly endeavored to induce her to go to South America in the interest of their pianos, but her husband, Mr. Dobbs, had his business here and did not want to break up and go to South America hanging to the apron string of his talented wife.

But when Cleveland was elected, William Steinway, the younger son in world-famous piano manufacturer “Steinway and Sons” and the last remaining son, found a way in which he could get James and Emma down to South America. William Steinway was a very wealthy man who lived in a fabulous mansion in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens; he was also apparently quite influential in New York politics.

The article says, “[Mr. Steinway] naturally had considerable influence with the administration, and the story goes that one of his first thoughts was to have a place provided for Mr. Dobbs in South America in order that the obstacles which had prevented his wife from taking hold of the Steinway interest in the rich country of South America would be removed. Of course, with his appointment to a lucrative position, practically assured through Mr. Steinway, of New York, Mr. Dobbs, who, as has been stated, is a gentleman highly esteemed by all who know him, had no trouble in getting the endorsement of home folks, though his appointment has all along puzzled the politicians.

On the surface, the report seems fine, maybe a little snarky, but not too bad. But then the last paragraph contains the beginning of a story of a “similar scheme” that is “rumored” regarding another man’s appointment to a diplomatic post overseas. The use of weasel words kind of gives it away.

James and Emma stayed nearly 5 years at his post in the Chilean port city. Since this is the first time I have learned of this Steinway connection, I do not know if Emma & James did any touring in South America. The office of the consul-general in Valparaiso was a one-man operation. He reported to the ambassador who was stationed in Santiago. According to the information received from the US State Department a few years ago, James was allowed to hire a secretary and buy new office furniture the second year that he was there. As I wrote a few months ago, I did recently discover a passport application for Emma signed by James as in his capacity as consul-general of Valparaiso. It states that the passport was issued for “protection,” and it is not clear what the meaning is behind that.

James was not relieved of his post until several months after McKinley was sworn in as president in March 1897. By then, Emma had given birth to a son named after James. It took the family nearly three months to return to their home in Georgia. Part of their journey home was a 38-day sea voyage from Chile to Hawaii aboard a large sailing yacht known as a barquentine. Shortly after arriving home, the baby died, and according to her obituary, Emma died suddenly that summer. The journey back to the States must have taken a toll on her and the child.

Following the death of Emma and the baby, James disappeared from society for a few years, leaving his daughter, little Emma, once again in the care of his brother Evan Prothro Dobbs. According to the passport application that I discovered, James “sojourned” in the UK between 1898 and 1900.

The new century brought happier days for my great-grandfather. In 1900, he met and married a young woman named Helen von Spiegel. She was my great-grandmother and mother of my maternal grandfather, James Monroe Dobbs, Jr. Helen was originally from Dallas, Texas. Yet, for some reason that remains unknown, James and Helen were married in New York City, and that is a mystery to be solved another day.

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