American diplomat, eye witness of Armenian Genocide Leslie Davis was born in Port Jefferson, New York, in 1876, Davis graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1898. Davis continued his education at George Washington University and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in law in 1904. While still a student, he worked as a journalist. He spoke several languages: English, French, German, Russian and Spanish.
Davis’s diplomatic career began in 1912 with his assignment to Batumi (then part of the Russian Empire). In 1913, during a vacation, Davis trekked through Uzbekistan and the Caucasus Mountains and climbed Mount Ararat on September 7, 1913. Due to his manners, described as “unrefined” by A.L. Gottshalk, the head of the American consulate in Batumi, it was decided to delegate him to Kharberd (Harput), “a remote, uncivilized area that did not require courtly manners.” Out of the 13 American consulates across the Ottoman Empire, the one in Kharberd, in the heart of Armenian provinces, was the most remote. Davis’s nearest geographical neighbor was Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, a deputy consul of Germany in Erzurum.
On May 31, 1914, Davis arrived in Kharberd, which he later described as the “slaughterhouse province” in his reports. “It appears that all those…men, women and children were massacred about five hours’ distance from here. In fact, it is almost certain that, with the exception of a very small number of those who were deported during the first days of July, all who left here have been massacred before reaching the borders of the vilayet [province],” Davis wrote.
In June 1915, Turkish authorities began arresting Armenian men in Kharberd en masse. On July 1, the first wave of Armenian deportees left Kharberd.“The important thing now is to keep people alive for the present and then to assist them to leave the country as soon as it may be possible. There is no way of knowing, however, what further measures may be taken against the few survivors who remain here and the difficulty under present conditions of saving any in case of emergency from the cut-throats of this region is perhaps greater than can be easily realized by those who are living in more civilized places,” Davis wrote to the U.S. Ambassador in Constantinople Henry Morgenthau on December 30, 1915.
Davis risked his own life to hide about 80 Armenians in the building of the American Consulate. One of them was Karapet Petrosyan, the Consulate interpreter and Davis’s bodyguard, corroborated this report. In 1923, Karapet, a Genocide survivor himself, wrote to Wilbur Carr, chief of the Consular Bureau of the State Department: “After a few days we were informed that the people who were deported were being killed within a few miles from the city. Consul Davis would hardly believe this, so he and I went out on horseback from the town and when we were away about three miles, on both sides of the main road the dead bodies could be seen. When we made 15 miles we saw thousands of dead bodies of men, women and children killed and decayed. Consul Davis was then convinced that the Governor meant to root out the Armenian race from his state, so he began to do his utmost to extend his protection to the existing citizens.”
Davis sent a report to the Department of State explaining his shock at what happened and his concern as the only foreign official to witness the tragedy. He understood that he could not turn back the tide of violence, but resolved to save at least some people from the terrible fate of their neighbors.
In 1915 and 1916, during the most violent period of the Genocide, American missionary Henry Riggs mentioned in a letter to Wilbur Carr, the head of the State Department’s Consulate Section in December 1917. “Mr. Davis was tireless, intrepid and tactful, so that he saved many lives that would otherwise have been sacrificed, even though throughout it all, the local officials were very insistent in their denial of the consul’s technical right to any such interference in Turkish ‘internal affairs’.”
Some of Armenians sheltered at the American Consulate were American citizens or their relatives. After the deportation of Kharberd the only Armenians who remained over there were those who found shelter in the American Consulate, girl students of Euphrates Collage, American Hospital Staff who got permission for temporary residence, students and educators of German and Danish orphanage. The consulate and its grounds were large and well-fortified. Around 40 Armenians lived in its gardens. The children were under strict instructions not to make a sound. The men hid in the warehouse during the day, only emerging into the fresh air of the gardens after dark. They were all still in danger because they had been branded "firari" – slackers and sinners.
Those Armenians who found shelter at the American Consulate handed their money, jewelry, securities and life insurance contracts to Davis. As the situation deteriorated, foreign missionaries in the province were also threatened, and they too asked Davis to safeguard their valuables. “For a while I had about $200,000 in gold there, though much of the time my cavasses [armed constables] were all away and I wondered what would happen if a raid should be made on the Consulate while I was there alone.”
Davis kept them safe until he left the Ottoman Empire in 1917. As indicated in his report, the Consul returned most of these possessions to their lawful owners before leaving Kharberd. Another part of the money was given to Danish missionaries, and insurance contracts were handed to a German missionary named Ehmann. Davis then took the rest of the money with him to the United States to distribute among the relatives of the owners.
According to the American Consul report the survivors of Kharberd province were 8000-10000 Armenians 1000-2000 of which were refugees from other provinces. Besides sheltering Armenians in the consulate, Davis also organized financial assistance to Genocide survivors who were hiding in other parts of the province, in the mountains and the ransacked villages. He became an intermediary of sorts between Armenian refugees in Kharberd and their relatives living in the United States. They used to send money to the consulate, and Davis, in his turn, passed it on to the refugees in their hiding places. The U.S. consul had established connections in different parts of the province – even in Malatya and Arabkir – where Armenians told him about members of their families who had survived the massacres. Davis also cooperated with Kurdish residents of Dersim, thus maintaining a correspondence with Armenians who had found shelter there.
Besides, using his connections and personal reputation Davis was obtaining documents from the vali organizing the transfer of the survivors to USA. Davis was also interested in the fate of Armenian survivors in neighboring provinces – Diyarbakir and Sebastia. Davis described sending small bank transfers to Armenians he knew in these areas, realizing that if he got a receipt for the transaction, it was confirmed that his acquaintances were still living there.
Many Armenians from Kharberd had gone to the United States before the Genocide in an attempt to find work there. Thus, after his return to US in 1917, many American-Armenians were turning to the former consul in hope of finding their relatives. With authorization from the State Department, Davis went to New York, Boston, Providence and other cities to meet many American Armenians from Kharberd who were concerned about the fate of their relatives.
Leslie Davis continued his diplomatic activity until retirement in 1941. He died on September 27, 1960 in Pittsfield, US.
American researcher Susan Blair was the first to write about Davis and his humanitarian activities in detail in 1990, after reviewing until then unexplored reports of State Department.