Boyhood and family
Iroquois Theater manager/co-owner
William James Davis was born to a Danville, New York farmer
who tried his hand at running a mill before becoming road boss for railroad
construction crews for the Michigan Central Company in southern Michigan and northern
Indiana. Will was born during the family's
years in the Ann Arbor, Michigan area (1836-1851)
but spent his boyhood where the family settled after
Gleason Davis (1808-1883), and Irish immigrant, Anna
McWhorter (1811-1896), married in 1831. Over
the next sixteen years they would have five children:
Marie Eunice Davis
Scott Davis (1840)
William James Davis
Thomas Gleason Davis Jr.
While starting their
family, Thomas supervised the construction of track
on the Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana
Railway (later consolidated under the name Lake
Shore & Michigan Southern), including the Three
Rivers and Jackson, Michigan branches, and the
Airline. His family was proud that he took the
first train into Chicago from the east.
In Elkhart, Thomas
operated a hardware store for a time, and served as
a justice of the peace. He organized the
city's first Masonic lodge. During the civil
war he oversaw construction of railway in Tennessee
and after the war he and his youngest son, Thomas jr.,
worked on building a rail line for a coal mine in
Murphysboro, Illinois. While working there,
Thomas jr. died of malaria.
Will leaves home
Son Will joined the Union navy in 1862 at age
eighteen but retained friendships with Elkhart
classmates throughout his life. Among these
were Orville Chamberlain, decorated civil war
captain, and band instrument pioneer, Girard Conn.
the close of the Civil war, after the
USS Blackhawk, on which he served as a payroll
clerk, caught fire and sank, Davis worked for a
short time at a tonic bottling company in Chicago
and in 1869 joined his former navy boss, Charles
Kirkendall, working as a revenue collector in
Natchez, Mississippi (see picture and additional
information below). Will would later claim to
have co-founded the first Republican newspaper in
Mississippi, a weekly named The New South
(1869-1877). If Davis participated, his
role was not recorded; the only names I find
associated with the publication are two of his
coworkers at the Revenue service, William Noonan and
Davis invested some of his time in Natchez in
correspondence with Mississippi senator, Adelbert
Ames, failing to persuade Ames to help him get a job
selling railroad land out west.
Another of Will's adventures while in the south was
riding on the luxurious
Robert E Lee steamship during a
famous summertime 1870
race against the steamship Natchez from New Orleans
to St. Louis. The owner/pilot of the
Robert E. Lee was named John Cannon and one of
Davis' coworkers at the Revenue Service was a George
Cannon. If George was related to John, it
would explain how Davis came to get a ticket
(although some accounts dispute that passage was in
When the temporary income tax expired in 1872, Will
headed back to Chicago. Elkhart man, and
railroad associate of his father, Philo Morehous, director of
the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway, helped Will get a job
at Lake Shore & Michigan as
a freight clerk.
After the death of his father in 1883, Will's
mother, Anna, moved to Will and Jessie's summer
home, a farm in Crown Point, Indiana, where she
remained until her death. She was then
interred in the family plot at Grace Lawn cemetery
in Elkhart, IN, with her husband, Thomas, sons and
daughters. Will J. Davis was also interred at
Grace Lawn in 1919.
Keeping a foot in two
While working for the railway, Will serviced the account of circus
William Cole, working with one of Cole's
managers, William Hayden. Hayden recommended
Davis to Cole and in 1874 Davis was hired to work as a
clerk for Cole's Adelphi Theater.
From that experience came his first job as a theater
company advance man, working for the legendary
His first assignment from Haverly, in 1876, was
taking Haverly & McGuire's Georgia Minstrel troupe
to California. In less than a year he was back
at the Lake Shore & Michigan in Chicago working as
an assistant general passenger agent.
In 1878 Will spent May and June traveling to Australia
and New Zealand as a publicity agent for a
consortium of railway and steamship companies who
wished to promote American routes. Members in the
syndicate included Union & Central Pacific railways,
Pacific Mail Steamship Company, Rock Island,
Northwestern, Lake Shore & Michigan Southern and New
He returned to work for Haverly as an advance man,
ushering Colonel Mapleson's Her Majesty's Grand
Opera Company and Lester Wallack.
After 1879 Will was firmly planted in the theater
industry but retained many friends and contacts in
the railway industry, even taking a few
excursions with a group of passenger agents.
Jessie and Willie
One evening in 1879 a Chicago Tribune employee,
Edward Markham (Hearst journalist?), took Davis to a
performance of HMS Pinafore by organist Arthur Creswold's church choir at Story & Camp.
(So it was reported in Davis' obituary in 1919.
Story and Camp was a prominent piano manufacturer
but perhaps they maintained performance rooms at
Davis was impressed by the group and persuaded
Haverly to take them on as commercial
troupe, first on the road, then in Chicago at
Haverly's Theater when Will became the assistant
house manager. One contralto in the group,
Jessie Bartlett (1859-1905), who played
the role of Buttercup, particularly caught
In 1880 Jessie Bartlett and Will married. Their first
child was born two years later but died in infancy.
Their only child to survive to adulthood,
William Jessie Davis Jr.
(1883-1965), was nicknamed "Willie."
(He worked in the ticket office at the Iroquois and was
present the day of the fire but his
name was kept out of the press. We
only know of his presence at the Iroquois because
his father tried to demonstrate his empathy for the
victims' families by saying that his son too had
been in danger.)
In 1889 Will took six-year-old Willie along on a
month-long business trip to California, Will's first
return visit to the state since he was there with
the Georgia Minstrels in 1875. Jessie was
performing there with the Bostonians and Davis and
Alf Hayman were responsible for the Bostonians west
In May 1887, with William
Cole's financial backing, Davis leased the
to open his first theater. He hired his
nephew from Elkhart, IN, Samuel W. Pickering
(1865-1938), son of his late older sister,
Marie Davis Pickering (1834-1871), to work as assistant
treasurer at the Haymarket, under George Fair.† In 1889
Davis sold the
Haymarket to Kohl & Castle but continued
managing it for several years, while also taking on
Theater with Alf Hayman. The Haymarket
burned in 1893 and the Columbia in 1900. That same year Will became manager of
the Illinois in Chicago with a small ownership
percentage. His partners were other members of
the Klaw & Erlanger theater syndicate.
In addition to his farm
in Crown Point, Indiana, Will owned a home in
Chicago at 4740 Grand Blvd.
In 1903 the Iroquois
of experience but maybe not enough that was
sometimes referred to Davis as the grandfather of
theater in Chicago, when he added the Iroquois to
his list of theaters to manage, Davis had
fewer than five years of hands-on theater management
experience, and perhaps was not
constitutionally well suited to the task.
majority of his experience was as a free-wheeling advance
agent – a far cry from managing employees or the details of
administration, maintenance and oversight.
Davis knew advertising, promotion
and how to horse trade for the best deal on both.
He had strong
opinions about theater decor and comfort. He lacked the
experience, however, of a Harry Powers (a long time
owner/manager of Powers Theater and co-owner in the
Iroquois), on how to run a house. Davis relied on a few key managers for day to day
operations. That seemed to work well at the Illinois
Theater. When inspectors examined Chicago
theaters after the Iroquois fire, the Davis-managed Illinois
Theater was found to be one of the best in the city
insofar as fire-fighting preparedness. Perhaps
the Iroquois would eventually have evolved into a
similar state of readiness. Or not. The
success of the Illinois might have had less to do
with Davis than with his secretary and future wife,
The Nellie factor
Even allowing for bad
timing, it is incongruous that the man who did an
exemplary job of equipping
the Illinois for fire prevention, did next to nothing at the
explanation may have to do
with Davis' secretary, thirty-seven-year-old
Mary Ellen "Nellie" O'Hagan (1866-1947), who
worked in the offices at the Illinois Theater. (I
have found no indication
that a secretary was employed at the Iroquois where business manager Thomas Noonan
may have served that role.)
In 1903, Nellie had
worked for Davis for a decade and their relationship
was close enough that in 1907, two years after the
death of his wife, he married her. It seems
possible that Nellie's presence on the premises at
the Illinois might have resulted in purchase
requisitions being handled more quickly and reliably
than they were at the Iroquois. If the
fireman at the Illinois needed more equipment, for
example, perhaps giving a list to Nellie brought
more dependable results than giving it to Davis. Her level of
purchasing authority is not known but her influence
and proximity to Davis may have given her the
opportunity to facilitate decisions and affect more reliable follow through
than Noonan was able to manage at the Iroquois.
Pure speculation on my part but it fits with various
scraps of information.
Davis was an entrepreneur, a risk taker, a starter.
Perhaps he was more skilled at throwing balls in the
air than at juggling them. Nellie may have
been his master juggler. If so, it might be that the biggest mistake
Davis made with the Iroquois was in not appointing
Nellie as business manager at the Iroquois
instead of Thomas Noonan. It should be noted, though, that
Nellie lost her fiancé three months before the
Iroquois fire so may not have been a good candidate
for increased responsibility.
Three days after the Iroquois
Theater fire, while Chicago was still burying its dead, Davis whined and
groused to the press because his other theater, the Illinois, was on a list
of seventeen theaters to be closed for fire curtain non-compliance.
Though there were sixteen other theaters on the list, Davis took it
personally and grumbled about people kicking a man when he's down.
Wonder who he pinned as his persecutors for the
many prior fires in his life.
When the Iroquois Theater trials
were over and Davis no longer faced the possibility of imprisonment, he said
what he really thought, in so doing exposing, at the very least,
extraordinary tone deafness (see clipping at left).
In an interview
granted to a hometown biographer several years later Davis' further
demonstrated his rejection of responsibility by declaring that his
indictment and prosecution were the "result of a
vindictive plot on the part of a political and newspaper clique in Chicago
to ruin him financially," and that it had taken him four years to gain his deserved
The oil portrait
in top photo was produced in 1875 when Davis was thirty-one years old. Artist's
signature is hard to decipher. E. Setko? There were many
portraits of Davis in his estate. This one was produced when he worked
at the Adelphi Theater as a clerk.
of oval portraits pictures members in a Natchez, Mississippi group in 1872. Davis worked
for the Revenue Service then. One of those pictured, Allison Foster,
was associated with the Knights of Pythias in 1873 so KGB may have been a
political or religious fraternal organization; since seven of the eleven members
worked as clerks, however, and the satchel could represent a money bag, KGB
may have been a professional club for clerks. Pictured are:
Will J. Davis
(b.1844, Michigan, Revenue Service)*
Walden (b. 1846, Massachusetts, Revenue Service)*
Castello (1817-1881, Pennsylvania, Natchez postmaster)
Allison H. Foster (b.1850, chancery clerk who later became an
undertaker and owner of the Fosters Funeral Home Cottage Gardens in
Noonan (b. Ireland)
Cannon (b.1843, New York, Revenue Service)*
Jordan (b.1850, Ohio native, Revenue Service)*
Griffin (b.1845, Mississippi, Natchez city clerk)
photograph of Will astride a horse, presumably one from his farm, Willowdale,
in Crown Point, Indiana, where he raised trotting horses and dogs. Based on a guess at his age in the photo, it was taken
around 1895. In 1891 an adjacent plot of land was added to the
original 80 acres that had been purchased in the fall of 1889. At that
time Davis was working with a well known horseman of Crown Point, Captain
Rodman H. Wells, a retired Union army officer. Davis and Jessie owned 12 mastiffs, ten fox
terriers, two collies and a bull terrier. In 1893 he sold thirty-two
horses and used the revenue to purchase a second farm in Crown Point, of 520
acres, bringing his land in Crown Point to 930 acres. Additional
acreage was purchased in 1909. In 1899 he had ten brood mares and a stallion
named Will J. Davis that raced that year for his second time. He also owned
a horse named after his business financier, circus man
William W. Cole. In
1891 Will boasted that Willowdale was the only stock farm in the country
with electric lights. Like he knew. In September,1896 Mr.
Fire-Magnet experienced the fifth fire in his life, in addition to
three theaters and a steamship: the hay barn at his farm in Crown Point was
destroyed, reportedly by tramps. Loss: $1,200 ($34,000 today).
The following year he purchased a white Arabian mare from Elkhart, IN man,
Melvin Benham (1856-1899).‡ In 1904 English actress
Lillie Langtry reportedly purchased five horses from Willowdale and had
them shipped to her breeding farm in England.
with Davis and groups of dogs and horses were taken at Willowdale in 1907. Chicago
journalist and poet,
Eugene Field, had a terrier bred by Davis and named after His wife,
Jessie Bartlett Davis.
The photos below are ephemera
related to Davis' book collecting. Two of his attorneys,
Levy Mayer and
Alfred S. Austrian
shared the hobby.
Discrepancies and addendum
* All four lived
at same boarding house in Natchez, Mississippi, next door to two other
Revenue Service employees, Charles Kirkendall, who had been Davis' superior
officer in the Union navy during the war, on board the
USS Blackhawk, and office supervisor, Simon Manly Preston (1821-1919).
Pickering returned to Elkhart and in 1894 married Anna Hamlin (1866-1955).
The theater skills learned from his uncle didn't go to waste; from 1900
until the early 1920s he and Anna lived in South Bend, Indiana where he
managed the The Auditorium and the Oliver Opera House. They later
returned to Elkhart, living on South West Blvd and on Strong Avenue.
Their home on South West Blvd was the one at the top of the McNaughton Park
hill. The original dark colored brick is today painted off white.
operated a livery stable in Elkhart (my hometown). Like Davis, he was
buried at Grace Lawn Cemetery in Elkhart. There's a street here named
after Melvin one of his descendants. He died seven years after his
horse transaction with Davis. His leg was broken in a runaway horse
incident and amputation didn't stop the spread of tetanus. He left
behind an $8,000 estate ($247,000 today).
Jessie Bartlett Davis,
wife of Iroquois Theater manager
Nellie married her boss
Other discussions you might find interesting