Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

For forty years after the Civil War, a Victorian home on South 21st Street in Philadelphia was con­sidered “The Centre of the Universe” by its promin­ent residents and their visitors. American writers and actors were drawn to this cultural center by the talented parents of Richard Harding Davis, the flamboyant archetype war correspondent who thrilled readers at the turn of the nineteenth century with adventures in six wars and various international affairs.

Davis’s colorful career was nurtured in the exciting at­mosphere of his Philadelphia boyhood home. Whether sitting at “the feet of great artists, publishers and politicians, or standing in the wings of The Arch Street Theater at the invitation of the Drews or Barrymores, Davis’s young life was filled with a drama he later transferred to foreign coverage.

As never before, a reporter was popularizing war news, at times turning it to moving literature, often with touches of self-dramatics that brought professional criticism but public adoration. When Davis covered the coronation of Czar Nicholas, his own front page pictures appeared larger than the Czar’s! The British compared Davis to Kipling in opening far corners of the world to Americans who fol­lowed the reporter behind enemy lines, into the horrors of trench warfare, through jungles and exotic cultures, vicar­iously sharing observations and escapades which made him a wealthy freelance writer. Though the global changes of World War I also ended the unhindered role of foreign correspondents, Richard Hard ing Davis, as the dashing prototype, left journalism a legacy of unequaled excite­ment.

In 1870 when Davis was six years old, his parents moved from a series of rented homes in Philadelphia to their life­long residence on 21st Street, which the younger brother Charles later described as “the mental stimulus” and “predominating influence” in Davis’s life. Today, the facade shows “early twentieth century, neo-Georgian modi­fications,” and the third floor where the boys acted out Richard’s early melodramas is one of three well-kept apart­ments. Only small gardens remain from the once spacious backyard where the brothers played cricket and baseball behind a home The Philadelphia Historical Society granted certification in 1968 as “an ordinary two-bay, three story, Mid-Victorian with some Italianate elements.”

During the post-Civil War years when the Davis family moved to the city, Philadelphia was experiencing a building boom greater than New York – City Hall foundations were built in 1871, The Masonic Temple in 1873, along with public libraries, gymnasiums and private clubs (the Union League was called “a bit of the French Louvre transported to Broad Street” in 1864, the year Richard was born). And beside them sprang up the popular city row homes with parlors decorated in the Victorian style of contrasting shapes, textures and colors. Amid the patterned wallpaper, flowered rugs, carved and tufted furniture with matching velvet drapes reflected in tall gilt mirrors, Rebecca Harding Davis and Lemuel Clarke Davis entertained.

“Their list of guests forms a roster of almost all the theater celebrities of the latter half of the nineteenth century,” claimed author Fairfax Downey in Richard Harding Davis: His Day.

There was always a merry company at the Saturday morning pre-matinee breakfasts and at the post edition suppers in the Twenty-first street home, pre­sided over by Clarke Davis, back from putting The Ledger to bed.

Both American and European celebrities were visitors. Sir Henry Irving, the great Shakespearean actor, expounded on the theater in the Davis dining room with his long legs stretched under the table, smoking a cigar and peering curiously over his black-rimmed glasses at the Davis boys, who were allowed out of the pantry to take ice cream with famous guests. On less formal occasions Richard and Charles dined with guests like the Joseph Jeffersons or Gilberts, who were considered “home folks” because they slept in the front room when visiting Philadelphia. At these special times, Charles recalled that he and Richard, could “even if unsolicited freely express our views on the modern drama.”

Like many star-struck youths, the Davis boys redecor­ated their bedroom with “the cabinet photographs of the actors and actresses which for the moment we thought most worthy of a place in our collection.” But unlike their peers, the brothers actually knew the personalities whose portraits they slipped between picture moldings around the perimeter of their gray wallpapered room.

In those halcyon days they could not foresee that Richard would become a similar celebrity a few years after leaving Philadelphia in 1889 at age twenty-five for greater journalistic opportunities in New York. As author of a popular series in The Evening Sun, Davis was often identi­fied with its cosmopolitan hero, Van Bibber, while his handsome features were a model for the envied “Gibson Man,” escort to the beautiful Gibson Girls in the leading magazines.

His attachments to family and home, however, remained strong. The day he left for New York he wrote his mother:

I am not surprised that you were sad if you thought I was going away for good. I could not think of it my­self. I am only going to make a little reputation and to learn the business to enable me to live at home in the centre of the universe with you.

As Davis became a glittering personality in his own right, he fulfilled his mother’s ambitious plans for an adored son’s future. Asserting what one reviewer called “a classical dominance over him,” Rebecca prepared Richard for the literary fame she had missed.

Rebecca Harding Davis was born in 1843 at “Locust Hill,” her grandparents’ English-style country estate in Washington, Pennsylvania. And though her father moved the family to Virginia, where she was educated at home Rebecca later returned to live with her Aunt Blaine and attend Washington Female Seminary. While there, she was influenced by political lecturer Horace Greeley and aboli­tionists Francis LeMoyne (a local resident), Henry Ward Beecher and Quaker Wendell Phillips, with whom she shared a determined opposition to war.

Her growing concern for other social injustices – the appalling working conditions in the mines and Indian con­flicts – challenged Rebecca to write starkly realistic stories on these themes for the progressive Atlantic magazine. The January 1861 issue with her first story attracted the atten­tion of the literary New England Brahmins – Hawthome, Emerson, Holmes and Alcott.

Equally impressed was Clarke Davis, a law student who wrote and edited legal articles for the Philadelphia firm of Thomas Balch. As a fellow contributor to The Atlantic, Clarke arranged a meeting with the anonymous authoress: and their mutual concerns led to marriage in 1862, before Clarke was drafted into the Civil War.

When he returned, the young couple with baby Richard settled in Philadelphia, not far from Clarke’s family in Rox­borough. Rebecca continued to write prolifically and saved her earnings for a mortgage on the $10,000 row home, registered in her name in late December 1869. The second income enabled Clarke to quit law the following year for a preferred career in journalism as an editor for The Phila­delphia Inquirer, while he continued to freelance idealistic articles concerned with the human plight. His exposes on asylum conditions for Peterson’s and The Atlantic so im­pressed Governor Pattison that he commissioned Clarke to revise the so-called “lunacy laws.”

When Clarke joined The Inquirer, it was a conservative non-partisan journal enjoying a revival through the business acumen of owner William H. Harding, who inherited the paper in 1859. But by the mid 1880s it had lost circula­tion and profits, forcing Harding to sell in 1889.

Coincidentally, Clarke left The Inquirer that year to become managing editor or The Public Ledger – the first paper in the United States to use the revolutionary Hoe rotary press – owned by wealthy Philadelphian and friend of Clarke, George W. Childs. Both men belonged to popular social clubs such as the Triplets, “a dining club of wits and racanteurs,” where Philadelphia literati gathered to hear famous speakers, many of whom dined at the Davis home. The following years began the era of Clarke’s own promin­ence. especially in the field of dramatic criticism.

Though Clarke was a quiet man who maintained a low profile in life, his oldest son. Richard. was quite the oppo­site. From youth. the “thrilling weekly adventures” to Saturday matinees, with Clarke’s backstage connections. became an addictive dress rehearsal for Davis’s drama­-filled life. In later years. Richard Harding Davis always managed a theatrical touch in his well publicized travels. Whether riding after Teddy Roosevelt. covering the Rough Riders (literally with a rifle at Las Guasimas): dodging Boer and British bullets with his wife, servants. matched luggage and folding bathtub in pursuit; or sipping champagne in full dinner dress under a cool arcade in Vera Cruz as hot, dusty troops marched by: Davis exemplified America’s romanti­cized image of war correspondents at the turn of the century.

In the years before Davis’s success as a novelist and play­wright, his mother transferred her frustrated literary promise, which had deteriorated after the birth of three children into mass production of Gothic thrillers. romantic potboilers and commentaries, to encouraging Richard’s talent. Their correspondence throughout his troubled school days suggests the deepening mutual dependence that developed as Rebecca sent Richard loving, encouraging letters to compensate for his inferiority complex as an academic failure.

MY DARLING BOY,
You went off in such a hurry that it took my breath at last. You say coming down [from prep school] helps you. It certainly does me …. Try and get ahead in your lessons so that you can come home oftener.

She never lost faith in her son’s literary abilities throughout five unhappy years at his father’s alma mater (the presti­gious Episcopal Academy in suburban Merion), nor while he tutored with an uncle, spent an unsuccessful year at Swarthmore Preparatory or studied at Ulrich Academy in preparation for Lehigh College. There, he scored touch­downs for Lehigh’s first football team, founded literary and dramatic clubs, and though anxious for recognition, studied very little.

In a desperate attempt to prove himself “a remarkable fellow” to his peers, Richard adopted the “affected pos­turing” of a dandy. This objectionable attitude continued into his first job (gained through Clarke’s influence) at The Philadelphia Record and soon caused Davis’s legendary firing.

For three months in 1886 Davis rankled under a load of petty assignments he was expected to complete for seven dollars a week, while his city editor, John S. Chambers, bristled at the superior attitude of a cub reporter who sported natty English clothes and a cane on the job. But most provoking were the kid gloves Davis always wore – ­even to begrudgingly write assignments. One day Chambers ordered the idling reporter back to work and then to re­move the annoying gloves. Davis refused. And Chambers fired him on the spot.

Fortunately, the experience sobered Davis. He applied himself to a new job at the livelier Philadelphia Press where he developed a flair for feature writing and human interest stories – his trademark in later years.

In 1889 during the tragedy of the Johnstown flood, Davis was on vacation from The Press. But on return be convinced his editors to let him write follow-up reports of surprising poignancy on the aftermath of human suffering. He would repeat similar accounts as a famous freelance writer focusing on the suffering of the 1914 refugees in “The Burning of Louvain.” This chapter from his book With the Allies was praised by Teddy Roosevelt and ac­claimed as a classic of war reporting, where Davis wrote:

The story was written against the sky. It was told by German soldiers incoherent with excesses; and we could read it in the faces of women and children being led to concentration camps and of citizens on their way to be shot.

It was also in Philadelphia that Davis gained his reputa­tion for reporting and starring in high adventure. Not far from his family home, a gang of “yeggmen” (Victorian burglars) terrorized the Rittenhouse neighborhood. The Press accepted a police challenge to catch the criminals, and Davis went undercover for several weeks to gain their confidence. He helped plan an elaborate robbery, then notified the police and triumphantly leaked the exclusive story to The Press.

It was only the opening act in a swashbuckling career. Later, as a “crisis chaser” through six wars (Spanish-Ameri­can, Graeco-Turk, Boer and Belgian Congo, Russo-Japanese and World War I), Davis “made a fetish out of playing up danger,” as he became a journalistic model in the golden age of war reporting. Said editor John Dana of the trend­setting New York Sun: “All the lads were trying to imitate Davis. Many of them became reporters because he had be­gun as one.” The journalist’s rare combination of talents was explained by a family friend. Edward Robins:

I always admired a certain boyishness which never left him and the art he possessed of enjoying life and people. He had the storytelling gift developed to the highest power.

Ironically, these qualities contributed both to success and censure. In 1900, one critic questioned whether Davis’s “perennial charm and youthfulness” weren’t “a little un­natural now,” asking, “Will Mr. Davis always remain twenty­-three?” These faults were attributed by Morton Keller, re­viewer of a biography on Davis, to Davis’s relationship with his mother.

His literary career, and his emotional maturation were stunted by the intensity of his maternal dependence. To many of his contemporaries he seemed like an over-grown child – one of Hemingway’s boy-men.

Indeed, Rebecca’s influence even kept Davis from marrying for love until her death in 1910. Only then could he dissolve his first “purely platonic” marriage, where eleven years earlier on the wedding trip he had written his mother:

When the pain to see you comes, I don’t let it hurt and I don’t kill it either …. If sons will go off and marry, or be war correspondents, or managers, it doesn’t mean that Home is any the less Home.

But despite Davis’s personal problems, Keller concluded that “this air of frivolity and weightlessness characterizing Davis’s career was the source of his special appeal to con­temporaries.” This conclusion is confirmed by a Davis peer, Booth Tarkington, who reminisced more kindly:

To the college boy of the early nineties Richard Harding Davis was the ‘beau ideal of jeunesse dorée.’ . . . He was of that college boy’s own age, but al­ready publishing books! … Of all the great people of every continent this was the one we most desired to see.

Davis fans bought 40 thousand copies of Gallagher, voted best story of 1895 and based on early Press adventures. They were captivated by the endearing hero, a news­paper errand-boy who solves an action-packed crime, saves his editor, and scoops an exciting headline.

The Philadelphia ties remained so strong in the early years at The New York Sun that Davis created a popular series he could submit in advance as his Saturday assign­ment, freeing him for weekends at home. Even in later years when Davis could not return from his world-wide travels for Hearst’s Journal, Pulitzer’s World, James Gordon Bennett’s Herald, The London Times or Scribner’s, his emotional roots remained at “The Centre of the Universe.” This powerful attraction is recalled by Clarke’s colleague, Edward Robins.

One of my most pleasant recollections is of the Davis family, when they lived their delightfully interesting lives in the house on Twenty-first street below Wal­nut. What a charming household they were, all de­voted to one another, and none the less charming be­cause they were all a little different than most people. Clarke took the liveliest interest in the drama and its history … he was the intimate friend of Augustin Daly, Ada Rehan, John Drew, the Jeffersons, John S. Clark, and many more thespians of distinction.

After Clarke’s death in 1904, Rebecca and daughter Nora maintained the home on 21st Street, occasionally traveling abroad to visit Charles, a vice-consul in Italy. They eagerly awaited Richard’s frequent letters from inter­national war zones where his military expertise added depth to war coverage.

Though Davis hated war as much as his parents had, he hated the world’s injustices more. Even during school years a strict moral code, encouraged by his parents, prevented him from cheating to better his poor grades or submitting to hazing practices to join a fraternity. These heroic atti­tudes continued in later outspoken articles, earning him the title “Sir Richard the Lion Harding” for partisan judge­ments on issues such as bribery of Cuban officials by the Secretary of State, Belgian Congo atrocities. and false jingoistic headlines on the search of female spies.

Condemning the British position in the Boer War, Davis wrote:

As I see it, it has been a Holy War this war of the Burgher crusader, and his motives are as fine as any that called a ‘Minute Man’ from his farm or sent a Knight of the Cross to die for it in Palestine.

Though Davis was often criticized as “the knight of de­cency,” his role is placed in perspective by Joseph J. Mathews in a study, “The Profession of War Correspon­dent.”

Richard Harding Davis, leading exponent of human interest brand war news, cast a longer shadow over war-time information than any other twentieth cen­tury reporter.

Davis’s still powerful “River of Steel” eyewitness ac­count of Germans invading Belgium is included in many current journalism texts. To fellow correspondents who envied “the uncanny Davis instinct to always be in the right place at the right time,” it was “the most vivid piece of war reporting in the war”; historians rank it as “a classic.” (Interestingly, it contains a comparison to an early Press report from Johnstown.)

What came after then, and twenty-four hours later, is still coming, is not men marching, but a force of nature like a tidal wave, an avalanche or a river flooding its banks …. as the swollen waters of the Conemaugh Valley swept through Johnstown ….

For seven hours the army passed in such solid columns that not once might a taxicab or trolley car pass through the city. Like a river of steel it flowed gray and ghostlike.

But his relentless impassioned campaign for support of European allies, for “Preparedness” (decrying the isolation­ist slogan “Too Proud to Fight”), and strenuous war travels behind enemy lines undermined his health. And, on April 11, 1916, while writing late into the night for the war effort, he suffered a fatal heart attack – just a few days be­fore his fifty-second birthday.

Despite an untimely death before American involve­ment in the war, Davis more than fulfilled his mother’s expectations that “each human being before going out into silence should leave behind him, not the story of his life, but a bit of the time in which he lived.” For beyond praise of Davis’s writing and contributions to documentary journalism, in international obituaries and special editions, historian Thomas Beer commented that “his part in history should not be overlooked.”

This opinion was echoed in Teddy Roosevelt’s eulogy: “He was as good an American as ever lived, and his heart flamed against cruelty and injustice. His writings form a text-book of Americanism.”

Though an international figure “who considered the whole world his run,” Davis made the final trip to Phila­delphia, where his ashes rest beside his beloved parents in Leverington Cemetery, on Roxborough’s ridge above Fair­mount Park. There, a weathered tombstone reads:

RICHARD HARDING DAVIS
April 18 1864
April 11 1916
HE THAT BELIEVETH ON ME
SHALL NEVER DIE.

Beyond the religious reference, the message may be a charge to re-examine the impact of a native son for whom Philadelphia was “The Centre of the Universe” during an exciting period of American history and journalism.

 

This article originated as a degree project chosen for presentation to the South­eastern Association of Education in Journalism.

 

Kathleen M. Greulich is studying for a master’s degree in journalism at Temple University.