The Millionaire and the Mummies Find us
Contributed by John M. Adams, ARCE member
Theodore Davis in 1912.
Anyone who reads about ancient Egypt – even moderately – has come across the name of Theodore Davis, usually identified as “an American millionaire” who was either an amateur or a dilettante. Through a dozen eventful years in the Valley of the Kings (from 1902 to 1914) he was the money behind the discovery of a record eighteen tombs, including those of one-third of the 18th Dynasty kings. Yet aside from a few snide jabs about his irascible nature, almost nothing more is said about Davis. Curiosity about such a figure – an American Lord Carnarvon – and the fact that no one had ever bothered to look into his life encouraged me to undertake the task.
An early result of the research was the discovery that nobody even knew what his name was. Sources that gave Theodore M. Davis a middle name at all called him Monroe – or at least once, “Munro.” According to his signed passport application and multiple other documents, however, the name was Montgomery.
Even having the right name to look for did not solve the problem of finding Davis’s personal papers. It seems impossible a man as methodical and in-control as Davis did not keep his files – at least, the ones that would not put him in prison. His papers have disappeared, however. Years of searching have produced only a theory of who destroyed them.
Davis' home, "The Reef", in Newport, RI.
But a number of useful sources have survived. Davis was the target of four separate investigations by Congress into his sometimes blatant and always prodigious corrupt practices. Held between 1874 and 1884, under four different presidents, the transcripts of the hearings run to several thousand pages of testimony, depositions and exhibits. They reveal much of the story of Davis’s crooked climb to wealth. They also provide side-lights such as the Davis crony who made his living by bribing newspaper reporters to run false stories that caused selected railroad stocks to plummet, then buying the stocks cheap and profiting when the stories proved to be unfounded. When asked to state his occupation before testifying the man replied, “Railroad wrecker.”
The journal kept from 1889 to 1913 by Davis’s mistress, Emma Andrews, documents in wonderful detail the couple’s life in Egypt (the journal is now held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Emma provides fresh insights into such momentous events as the discovery of KV 55, but also describes visits to their boat by notables including J.P. Morgan and the king of England’s younger brother. Even more interesting are moments she alone records, like the opening of a mummy case by British archaeologist Percy Newberry in 1901 which produced a lovely heart scarab and a Book of the Dead. “Having robbed this ancient Egyptian of his spiritual equipment,” Emma concluded, “his body was consigned to a decent burial in the sand.”
Interior of "The Reef".
When Davis died in 1915 he left his priceless collection of old master and Renaissance paintings, as well as his Egyptian collection, to the Metropolitan. The rest of his estate totaled well over $100 million in today’s money, and bickering beneficiaries fought over it in court for fifteen years before a final decision upheld Davis’s wishes in 1930. The bound volumes of the transcripts of the various trials and lawsuits occupy two full shelves in the archives of the University of Rhode Island. Involving over forty friends and relatives, each eager to demonstrate why they deserved more of Davis’s money than the others, the trial records detail his private life back to his boyhood in Michigan in the 1840’s. Without the trial records we would never know that after Davis, his wife and Emma had all lived in his Newport mansion for twenty-five years, the mistress finally evicted the wife in 1911 when the women were seventy-four and seventy-five years old, respectively.
A chance comment at a dinner party in England led to a trans-Atlantic conversation that ultimately brought forth a large collection of letters written home by a woman who traveled to Egypt twice with Emma and Theo. Mamie Newberry was Emma’s niece and had lived with Davis from age 16 until her marriage seven years later. The letters were held by Mamie’s great-granddaughters, who had been allowed to believe Aunt Emma and Uncle Theodore were man and wife. The letters preserve photographer Harry Burton’s comment to Mamie about the disinfectant smell in the bedroom she occupied in Davis’s dig house in the Valley; “It doesn’t mean anything except that the last chap died here, you know.” Mamie’s letters are the sole source describing the suicide at the mansion of Davis’s English valet in 1914 as his master descended into severe dementia. The valet had been with Davis for more than twenty years; in Egypt he had learned Arabic, wore native costume and “seemed to know every dragoman, hotel employee and merchant in the country.”
Newly released book, "The Millionaire and the Mummies".
Another invaluable source for odd details was Google Book Search (until legal disputes effectively ended it in September of 2011), with its capacity for full text searching of thirty million books scanned into its database. From the un-indexed memoirs of people peripheral to Davis’s life, the service provided anecdotes such as Davis’ presenting shabti statuettes to his Newport neighbor Julia Ward Howe, his probable attendance with his attorney and broker at the “Pie Girl Dinner” in New York City where the press reported a naked sixteen-year-old girl emerged from a pie “covered only by the ceiling,” and a bi-lingual pun/dirty joke made by Davis at a Leadville, Colorado brothel. Davis was attracted to the madam but his host (the mayor of Leadville) advised she had retired from active duty. Davis replied, “I see. Hors concours,” (a French term, “out of the competition,” usually used in horse shows).
John Adams presented at the ARCE Annual Meeting in Cincinnati. Photo: Kathleen Scott.
As in any research effort, the primary links were librarians, archivists and custodians of old family papers. Relatives of Davis’s wife operate a small museum in Boalsburg, PA, which holds the oldest known photo of Davis and a painting of his wife; permission was also granted to review their archives, which produced several unpublished Davis letters. The Redwood Library in Newport holds delightful photos of the interior of Davis’s mansion, complete with a painting by Goya hanging in the dining room corner. The Oriental Institute archives have a letter by James Henry Breasted describing a week he spent at Davis’s home; he documents the otherwise unknown daily routine of a “big red automobile full of girls” arriving for tennis – although he does not mention just where the girls came from.
Thanks to these and many other sources, it became clear that Davis’s story was more than Egyptology. The scientific results of his work have been preserved and analyzed by scholars, but I have attempted to enlarge the story to reveal a fascinating portrait of a life during America’s Gilded Age, lived by one of its most interesting, brilliant, and obscure eccentrics.
Author John M. Adams is director emeritus of the Orange County Public Library, former ARCE Board of Governors member, and founder and first president of the ARCE Orange County California Chapter.
INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL OF MUSEUMS
The International Council of Museums, in an effort to fight against illicit traffic in cultural goods, compiles the Emergency Red List of Egyptian Cultural Objects at Risk. This list aims to help art and heritage professionals and law enforcement officials identify Egyptian objects that are protected by national and international legislations. View the Red List for Egypt.