History is often the result of how we feel at a particular moment. In the 1890s, the United States was in the mood to punch someone—anyone—and was looking anxiously about for permission.
Permission was supplied, in part, by Swarthmore College dropout Richard Harding Davis. A newspaper correspondent and novelist, Davis arguably made the political career—indeed, the presidency—of Teddy Roosevelt with his account of the Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. At a time when the nation was feeling the effects of immigrants from new places, his writing also assured his white middle- and upper-class audience that their values would prevail. “Davis was mostly an act,” wrote historian Evan Thomas. “He often suffered from feelings of worthlessness and nervous symptoms, but he knew how to play the ‘Boy Hero’ in an age looking for one.”
Born in Philadelphia, Davis was the son of Clarke and Rebecca (Harding) Davis, both journalists. Clarke started out as a lawyer, hated it and switched to journalism, eventually becoming managing editor of Philadelphia’s Public Ledger. Davis’ mother saw writing as her way out of gritty Wheeling, W.Va.— and it was. Her “Life in the Iron Mills,” describing the hard lives of Wheeling’s millworkers, was published in 1861 in the Atlantic, then the country’s leading literary magazine. After the article caught the attention of Clarke in Philadelphia, the two corresponded, met and, in 1863, married. Their son was born the following year.
The Davises settled on South 21st Street near Rittenhouse Square. Summers were spent in New Jersey at a cottage on the Manasquan River, a resort area popular in theatrical circles. There, young Richard met the famous Barrymore acting family. Ethel Barrymore became his lifelong friend.
Davis never acted, but he always had a bit of theater in him. He was, however, a terrible student. His brother, Charles, later wrote, “His weekly report never failed to fill the whole house with an impenetrable gloom and ever-increasing fears as the possibilities of his future.”
Davis quit Episcopal Academy two years before he would’ve graduated. He went to Bethlehem to be tutored by an uncle who was a Lehigh University professor. After trying Swarthmore, where he failed dismally, Davis managed to get into Lehigh. There, his most memorable accomplishment was refusing to be hazed by the sophomores, a college tradition.
According to Thomas, Davis was tackled by 12 sophomores as he left the local opera house. While they wrestled in the gutter, Davis refused to submit, but offered to fight anyone in the group. A police officer broke it up. The next day, Davis found himself nominated—by a sophomore—for student council. He declined, but hazing at the school was subsequently abolished. “One gets taken care of in this world if you do what’s the right thing, even if it is only a street fight,” Davis wrote to his father.
It was also at Lehigh that Davis was first noted for his theatrical, ultra-English costume: gloves, a Norfolk jacket, knickerbockers and a tam-o’-shanter, with a briarwood pipe and a crooked cane. His accent, wrote Thomas, was “half English, half Philadelphia Main Line.” Later, after Davis became famous, the cartoonist Charles Dana Gibson used his handsome, square-jawed face to model a companion for his “Gibson Girl.”
From Lehigh, Davis went on to study at Johns Hopkins University. But he didn’t graduate there, either. In fact, he didn’t graduate from anywhere. Instead, he took a job as a reporter for the Philadelphia Record, followed by another at the Philadelphia Press. Like college, both stints were brief and unhappy.
But Davis hit his stride in New York. He went to work for the Sun, where he spun an 1889 tale about a newcomer to the city (himself) foiling an aggressive street huckster. “In one day, he became famous,” observed Edward Bok, editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal.
Davis was talented. “His powers of observation were the most remarkable I have ever known,” a colleague recalled. “He possessed a remarkable nose for news. He seemed to have a natural instinct for picking out the right point to make for when in search of a really good story.”
Juicy stories about juicy subjects—abortion, prostitution, executions, the Johnstown Flood—became a Davis specialty. He also began churning out fiction—most notably Gallegher, the tale of a young newspaper apprentice who dreams of being a reporter and solves crimes in the process. Davis wrote about himself—or, at least, the self he wished to be. “In a certain sense, he was living a life of make-believe, wherein he was the hero of the story, and in which he was bound by his ideas always to act as he would have the hero of his story act,” observed cartoonist and friend John McCutcheon.
Davis was hugely popular. Boys wanted to be him, and girls wanted to marry him. Greater writers—Frank Norris, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway—cited Davis for their own decisions to take up journalism as a way to learn about life. As recently as the 1960s, Gallegher became a TV series on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
Then Davis went to war, a little one—the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, which lasted only 30 days and didn’t produce much. While there, he wrote entertaining accounts of quaintly dressed peasants chasing each other around Macedonia. It was good practice.
It was also good timing. America was aching for war. There had been a brief rush of war fever in 1895, when Great Britain and Venezuela had squabbled over the latter’s border with British Guyana. To wide disappointment, however, that issue had been resolved diplomatically, and war hopes had since settled on Cuba.
The U.S. was bored. It hadn’t fought any wars since the Confederacy’s collapse more than 30 years earlier. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner had famously described the “close” of the western frontier, inspiring nationwide angst about the loss of an influence that had supposedly made Americans both tough and democratic. Coupled with Gilded Age consumerism, the era’s thinkers worried that Americans would become a race of “girly men.”
Among Turner’s congratulatory letters was one from Washington, D.C. “I think you have struck some first-class ideas,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt, an obscure member of the U.S. Civil Service Commission with political ambitions.
Roosevelt was not alone and, in these years, met many like-thinkers who helped him become a New York City police commissioner and then assistant secretary of the Navy. All the while, he beat the drum for war. “Frankly, I don’t know that I should be sorry to see a bit of a spar with Germany,” Roosevelt wrote to a British diplomat. “The burning of New York and a few other seacoast cities would be a good object lesson on the need for an adequate system of coastal defenses.”
In 1896, Davis went to Cuba for William Randolph Hearst, whose New York Journal was in a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Cuba was torn by an anti-Spanish guerrilla movement—what we would now call terrorism—and Hearst knew that war makes good reading.
Davis thought the trip a waste of time and viewed the Spanish governor, Don Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau—widely described as a monster in the U.S. press—as “dignified and impressive.”
In Santa Clara, however, Davis witnessed the execution by firing squad of a young rebel who strode purposely to the place where he would be shot and then stood there calmly smoking a cigarette. “The Death of Rodriguez,” in which Davis wrote “the blood from his breast sinking into the soil he had tried to free,” caused a sensation.
On his return trip, Davis met Clemencia Arango, a young woman whom Spanish authorities suspected of smuggling letters to rebel leaders and, therefore, had strip-searched. Davis’ account didn’t mention that the woman had been searched by a matron. Hearst’s paper published an illustration of the naked girl surrounded by swarthy Spanish policemen. The headline: “Does our flag protect women?”
Roosevelt actually didn’t like Davis much. The two had squabbled at a dinner party over the president’s public criticism of those who aped foreign manners. Davis, always the dandy, recognized the implicit criticism and asked Roosevelt if he also embraced the “American” custom of spitting tobacco juice on the floor. TR privately called Davis “an everlasting cad.”
But business was business. Roosevelt wanted to be a hero, and he knew that stirring newspaper accounts could get him there. After the USS Maine was sunk, and thus American outrage fully stoked and war declared in 1898, Roosevelt used his connections to get command of a volunteer regiment, the Rough Riders. He picked Davis to follow his regiment.
By July 1, they were at the foot of San Juan Heights near Santiago de Cuba, with about 800 Spanish soldiers dug in at the top. At the bottom, sheltering from enemy fire, several other American regiments stood between Roosevelt and glory. “Col. Roosevelt, on horseback, broke from the woods behind the line of the Ninth (Infantry) and, finding its men lying in his way, shouted: ‘If you don’t wish to go forward, let my men pass,’” wrote Davis. “The junior officers of the Ninth, with their Negroes, instantly sprang into line with the Rough Riders and charged at the blue blockhouse on the right.”
But it wasn’t all about Roosevelt. Davis hailed the “bulldog courage” of the troopers who followed, mentioned a few other officers, and even praised the bravery of the Spanish soldiers who stuck to their posts. There was only one hero, though. “Roosevelt, mounted high on horseback and charging the rifle pits at a gallop and quite alone, made you feel that you would like to cheer,” he wrote. “He wore on his sombrero a blue polka-dot handkerchief, à la Havelock, which, as he advanced, floated out straight behind his head, like a guidon.”
As Davis’ well-bred, well-dressed fans knew well, “Havelock” referred to Sir Henry Havelock, a British general who, when shot through the arm during an 1857 rebellion in India, had used his handkerchief as a tourniquet.
Davis’ account described a man desperate to be a hero for readers longing to know that heroes existed—by a writer skilled at inventing heroes. It made Roosevelt president.
And we’ve been punching people ever since.