Nellie the fighter covered the great fight
Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of articles about the history of the Nevada Appeal. The Appeal first published on May 16, 1865. This article originally appeared during the Nevada Appeal’s 125th birthday celebration. To read the full article go to nevadaappeal.com.
When historians ponder how Carson City’s Nevada Appeal newspaper survived its first half-century of hard times, credit routinely goes to Henry “Harry” Rust Mighels, the first editor-publisher, and to Samuel Post Davis, who followed as editor after Mighels died of cancer in 1879. However, these two journalistic monoliths owe much of their success to frontier wife and pioneer journalist Nellie Verrill Mighels Davis who was the driving force which kept the Appeal alive through some incredibly difficult times in the late 1880s and on past the turn of the century.
Nellie Verrill was a talented, versatile person who was able to succeed in the rigors of frontier wife and career woman. She juggled hone, family and full-time employment 40 years before the advent of electricity and at a point when laundry and meals for a growing family were a 12-hour-a-day task.
Nellie left loving parents, a supportive family circle and a comfortable, civilized home in Maine to build a life “out west.” Nellie was a sturdy, moon-faced dark-haired maiden with wide-set blue eyes. Her handsome looks, bright, well-educated mind and indomitable spirit were to enamor her to two different husbands.
Although Harry and Nellie grew up near the town of Portland, Maine, 15 years separated their ages. She was a girl in grade school when he went off to California for the first time to begin a successful career as a political writer and newspaper editor. When the Civil War broke wide open, Harry returned to the East Coast to join the Union.
He was 32 and she was 17 when the neighborhood gathered to see him off to war. He rode his horse to Nellie’s front gate and declared: “I’ll be back some day to marry you.” Then he whirled his horse and galloped off before she could have an opportunity to disarm the statement.
Harry’s departing declaration enlivened conversation around the Verrill family’s dinner table for some time after. “Everybody laughed about it,” Nellie recalls, “but I had the feeling he was probably right.”
The day Harry rode off to war, he carried, pressed into his watchcase, a picture of Nellie that she had posed for at his insistence. Bearing in mind the style of the day was to sit for a portrait with wooden impassiveness, Nellie’s picture had an interesting difference. Her mount was tweaked at the corners by an almost-but-not-quite unladylike smile. It seems a sister and several young friends went wit her to the photography studio where they stood in the background, mugging, posturing and hooting mercilessly at her questionable motives.
Harry saw two hectic years of combat in several of the war’s bloodiest campaigns and was hospitalized in 1864 with bullet wounds.
Harry finished the war convalescing at his parents’ home.
Nellie was now 20 and they were talking marriage. After years of a Mark Twain-esque existence in the California gold camps, pushing 40 and with little more than “walking around money” in his pocket, Harry was smitten with the urge to build home, family and fortune around his sweetheart. By everyone’s estimate, including Nellie’s eldest brother, Washington Verrill, the fortune, or at least the beginnings of it, had to come first.
Fully recovered from his war injuries, he eventually ended back up on the West Coast, broke, out of ideas, living off friends and trying desperately to resurrect a stalled newspaper career. Friends in San Francisco helped him land the job as the first editor of the brand new Morning Appeal.
“It provides the first square-up support of the Union by a newspaper in Carson City,” Harry observed in a letter to Nellie. “It pleases the Unionists and vexes the Copperheads and am highly delighted with both results.”
The intensity of their affection for each other transcends the intervening century and remains knows today thanks to a remarkably well preserved packet of letters existing in the hands of grandchildren.
Enduring his first cold, lonely winter in Carson City, Harry wrote to tell Nellie he went out into a nearby field (likely where the Capitol Building stands today since he lived and worked across the street from that spot), made a snowball and heaved it mightily in an easterly direction. He said he then turned away before it could fall to the ground so that he might imagine it flying clear across the country and landing at the feet of his darling Nellie.
She confessed by responding mail that she went outside and returned the charming snowball gesture.
After a year on the job, established in his adopted community and well on his way to taking over ownership of the paper, Harry called for his fiancé to join him on the frontier, “in Silverland.”
Nellie bade her family goodbye, and brother “Wash” escorted her to New York City and bought her a new dress to travel in. She was met in New York by Nevada State Treasurer Eben Rhoades, who was, at Harry’s request, her escort on the journey to San Francisco. Rhoades had been in Boston on state business.
They left on a crowded side-wheel steamer and sailed to the Isthmus of Panama. The travelers crossed the Isthmus in a “funny little narrow-gauge railway on a road so crooked I could see both ends of the train most of the time,” she reported. From Panama City,
They boarded small boats “under the escort of little brown soldiers” to be ferried to a second steamer standing offshore for the trip to San Francisco. They arrived 28 days after the journey began.
Nellie and Harry were married at the home of friends in San Francisco, traveled by boat to Sacramento and by mud wagon to Placerville. From Placerville to Carson City was a straight, 24-hour, nonstop haul in a Concord stagecoach. The six-horse teams were changed every 10 miles as the coach rolled through the Sierra Nevada and past Lake Tahoe.
Nellie rode the whole way in the seat on top, sandwiched between the driver and her husband. The driver was the legendary Hank Monk. She was allowed to take the seat “by special permission” but only after she promised to “not scream and to not grab the driver’s arm.” She was apparently able to keep both commitments because she later declared that particular stagecoach ride through the mountains as one of life’s most memorable experiences.
Harry Mighels, as well as providence, made a lot of demands of Nellie over the years. Harry wanted a large family and they didn’t waste any time getting started. In addition to keeping a home and raising a family of four, Nellie was regularly called upon to help out at the paper since Harry couldn’t afford the luxury of much hired help.
“I covered the Legislature because we couldn’t afford $25 a week for a reporter,” Nellie told a local women’s club luncheon nearly 75 years later.
Nellie was a capable and knowledgeable reporter. She was also a typesetter. A case of news text was kept at the Mighels residence. She would set “sticks” of type at the house and send them to the office in galleys delivered to the newspaper by the children.
In the late 1870s, Harry developed a stomach cancer. As the disease began to take its toll, he relinquished more and more of his duties to Nellie. She covered meetings and the Nevada Legislature in session, edited telegraph news and items from the exchanges, wrote editorials, worked as a news correspondent for the Virginia City Chronicle and raised her growing family. She kept a low profile at all times and never identified herself or her work in the news pages.
Harry began spending more and more time seeking treatment in San Francisco’s French Hospital and languishing at home, seeking to improve his health which was in a steady, irreversible decline. The hours he was able to work, he spent laboring on a book of memoirs and collected writings he hoped might generate some revenue for his family after he was gone. By the time Harry died May 27, 1879, Nellie was producing the paper virtually single-handed. A letter signed by Gov. Jewett Adams and the entire Nevada Senate of the 1879 session, praised Nellie for her “many qualities of head and health.”
Sam Davis, a longtime friend of the Mighels family, likely a compatriot of Harry’s in the California goldfields during their early newspapering days and more recently a Virginia City-based reporter, came to work at the Appeal following Harry’s death. He was hired by Nellie to be the news editor.
Events flowed a natural course. A year later Sam Remarked to Nellie, “I’m around this place all the time anyway — we might as well get married.” And so they did, on the Fourth of July, 1880.
Local legend has it Harry somehow ran the paper on his own until the day he died and Davis then plucked the banner from Harry’s lifeless grip and carried it off into the sunset. At least one historian, in recent years, indicated Sam “took pity on and rescued the pathetic little Mighels family.” There are ample facts available to disarm that presumption.
Truth of the matter is the Appeal editorship was only a sustaining diversion in between a series of flings at Nevada politics and business ventures for first Harry and then Sam. It has been said on numerous occasions the paper could not support a lot of hired help, so it is obvious the Appeal was most of the time, if not all of the time, in the firm capable control of Nellie’s supervision.
The Mighels’ oldest son, Hal, who was 12 years old when his dad died, had to quit school and find a job to help support the family. He went to work for the Carson & Colorado Railroad as a mail-sorter, riding in the baggage car on the Mound House run. He trudged off to work every morning, lunch bucket in hand, regardless of the weather, and turned his paychecks over to his other.
Hal never returned to school because steady employment was a necessity to him the rest of his life. He did, however, grow up to become one of the Appeal’s outstanding editors.
The highlight of Nellie’s journalism career, or at least the thing that thrust her work (if not her name) into the national attention, was her beginning-to-end coverage of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons world’s heavyweight championship fight in Carson City. Challenger Robert “Fitz” Fitzsimmons decked “Gentleman Jim” Corbett in the 14th round to dethrone the world champion boxer in a ring set up in the infield of the Carson City racetrack March 7, 1897.
Nellie was to become the first woman to ever report a championship prizefight. Her subsequent articles were reprinted widely across the nation, including front-page play in the Chicago Tribune. Her articles were a landmark in detailed, interpretive reporting. The Appeal’s fight report was a special edition which was snapped up by fight fans and souvenir seekers. Bundles of them addressed to locations all over the country were put on outbound trains. It went into two subsequent sold-out printings.
Nellie’s work was a non-stop narrative beginning with the reporter’s arrival at the camp’s training camp. The article followed the day’s events complete with a description of the packed streets, quotes from visiting dignitaries and a blow-by-blow description of the fight itself.
A sample of the round-by-round reporting:
“Round 6 — The clinch and Fitz tries to wrestle Corbett down. Loud cries of ‘Oh! Oh!’ Corbett lands light jab on the face. Fitz counters on the jaw. Corbett upper cut finally with the right and has Fitz literally covered with blood but is fighting like a demon. Fitz is down on one knee and takes the time limit. He is full of fight on rising. Corbett is slaughtering him with upper cuts. Corbett’s leads are a bit wild and he misses. Many well devised blows. Time called with Fitz looking very much the worse for wear and Corbett puffing.”
Nellie’s failure to leave a visible trail of her work, leads some people to disbelieve or discount the magnitude of her accomplishments. Some are tempted to ask, “If she was so successful, why wasn’t she more widely celebrated?”
For openers, 19th century women wielding money, success or power were viewed with the same suspicion upon any minority in that situation.
A University of Nevada, Reno sociologist postulated in a recent book that there were only two types of working women in Virginia City during the Comstock era: prostitutes and school marms. It’s a reasonable conclusion if one considers only government statistics and ignores the role of homemaker as a profession, as the sociologist did, but it’s unfair nonetheless.
Precious little is known about pioneer businesswomen — only because that is the way they wanted it. Nevada’s female business leaders had to contend with the era’s severe Victorian social biases, worsened locally by the public posturing of Julia Bulette, queen of the Comstock harlots. What with Bulett’e crowded calendar of public events sand her almost daily mentions in the press, no wonder area businesswomen such as Nellie prized and vigorously protected their anonymity.
Indeed, such was the case several years later when Nellie was covering the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight. No self-respecting woman was expected to be seen there. The women who did attend the fight were presumed prostitutes. Not wishing to burden family and friends with having to explain away her presence, she simply kept her name off the fight stories. Nellie said as much to family members years later.
Nellie lived well beyond her 100th birthday. Proud of both her families, she resided in Carson City to the end and died June 22, 1945. She now lies in the same Carson City cemetery plot with her two husbands and most of her immediate family. Her Appeal obituary called her “one of the most outstanding women in Nevada’s history.”
She bore seven children, five by Harry (one baby girl, who was born shortly after his death and lived only a few weeks) and two daughters by Sam.
Nellie was active in her community throughout her life — even long after Harry and Sam were both gone. She was a charter member of Carson City’s historic social organization, the Leisure Hour Club, formed in 1896. She was a past president of that organization.
Nellie helped organize the Federation of Women’s Clubs in Nevada; helped form the Red Cross to aid Spanish-American War veterans; served as state president of the Women’s Relief Corps and was a member of the Pythian Sisters and the Episcopal Church.
The least visible member of the original Appeal families, she was the inspiration, the strength and the untiring workhorse responsible for keeping the Appeal from adding to Carson city’s reputation as a “graveyard of journalism.”