This time last year, the Herald staff was putting finishing touches on “The Women of Leadville,” the 2020 edition of the newspaper’s biannual Heritage Guide. Of all the fascinating women featured in the publication, one woman continues to mystify me — Nellie Davis.
Nellie served as the Herald Democrat’s first female editor, paving the way for myself, Marcia Martinek and the various other women who have led the newspaper through its 142-year existence. I spent the last week tracking down old newspaper clippings on Nellie to help piece together her life — here’s what I found:
Born Madeline Annunciata Davis in 1873, Nellie spent much of her childhood learning about the world through formal education, travels to France and days spent in the Herald’s pressroom with her father, Carlyle Channing “C.C.” Davis, who founded the Herald Democrat.
Articles from the Carbonate Chronicle, one of Leadville’s newspapers in the 19th century, recount Nellie acting in H.M.S. Pinafore at City Hall at age seven and attending several balls in her teenage years, including the Purim Ball, Simon’s Soiree and the Letter Carriers’ Ball. She later headed off to college in Notre Dame, Indiana, graduating from St. Mary’s College in 1895.
When C.C.’s health failed later that year, Nellie took over her father’s editorship, managing the Herald’s editorial content, and with it the newspaper’s various male employees.
“There was little about a newspaper office that Madeline couldn’t do,” Denver Post reporter Raymond Richards wrote in Nellie’s obituary in 1924. “She proved it when her father became ill by publishing the paper herself. That was at such an early stage of feminism that newspapers across the country found it interesting, and Madeline tasted fame.”
In 1896, Nellie was elected vice president of the Colorado Press Association. She hosted Colorado Press Day in Leadville, showing off the Leadville Ice Palace to journalists from across the state. Yet Nellie’s editorship was short-lived as the company was sold just six months after she took over.
Nellie spent the next phase of her career working as a journalist and actress in various states across the country. According to the Denver Post, there was some evidence of Nellie having a husband.
Inspired by her childhood travels to France, Nellie enlisted in the French army as a military nurse at the dawn of World War I. She received the Croix de Guerre and Bronze Star from General Maud’huy, the military governor of Metz, for her service during the war.
After the war came to a close, Nellie moved to Algeria with French colonial troops where she continued her work as a relief nurse.
On May 31, 1924, Nellie passed away in Algiers after developing an illness that led to paralysis. She was 51 years old.
“An end came to a life of intellectual attainment, of romance, of drama, of bizarre experience; a life of sharp lights and intense shadows: a life that progressed in colorful transition from the flurry of newspaper city rooms to the bright glow of footlights, from the peace of a little farm to the crash and clangor of war, from the homage of a French division with rifles at present to lonely toil among strange peoples in a far land,” Richards wrote (with no shortage of flare) of Nellie’s life.
Thanks, Nellie, for leading the way for the rest of us.