Rebecca Harding Davis: Wheeling’s Famous Author

While Wheeling has many notable residents throughout its history, there is a woman in particular who stands out from the rest as one of Wheeling’s most famous authors. Rebecca Harding Davis was born in Washington, PA in 1831. When she was five years old her father, an English-born insurance executive, moved them to Wheeling where she lived for the next twenty-seven years of her life. Her father went on to be the city treasurer for fourteen years, while Harding went on to attend Washington Female Seminary.1 She graduated as class valedictorian in 1848 at the age of seventeen, before going on to work for the Wheeling Intelligencer as a reporter.2 

Harding began writing stories and poetry and soon had some of her work published anonymously. Arguably her most famous work, Life in the Iron Mills, received praise for its raw depiction of reality for many in industrial towns at the time. Harding was eventually revealed as the author and went on to publish more groundbreaking work. She addressed topics such as “human beings attempting to achieve the American dream, an ideal usually denied laborers, slaves, freedmen, working women, prostitutes (even child prostitutes), and women authors” according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.3 Harding’s works became well known, and she went on to travel to Boston and meet authors such as Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.4

One of Rebecca’s works.

During her travels, Harding visited Philadelphia where she met Lemuel Clarke Davis. Davis enjoyed Harding’s writings and the two had begun corresponding before her travels even began. After meeting face to face, they were soon engaged. Rebecca Harding became Rebecca Harding Davis on March 5, 1863 at the age of 32. The couple were married during a March snowstorm at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wheeling, where the Harding family had been part of the congregation since moving to the city.5 After their wedding Davis left Wheeling and moved to Philadelphia to live with her husband. The couple went on to have two boys, Richard Harding Davis and Charles Belmont Davis, as well as a daughter, Nora Davis. Richard and Charles went on to become notable writers, while Nora traveled with Davis as a socialite.6 Davis’s husband Lemuel died in 1904. She then spent much of the rest of her life with her son Richard at his home in New York, before passing away on September 29, 1910, at the age of seventy-nine.7

During her life in Wheeling, Philadelphia, and New York she continuously wrote and published her works. She focused on topics that were sometimes deemed taboo by society, but Davis had no qualms about exploring these topics and bringing attention to them. Her early works focused on themes that were happening around her, such as what working life was like for immigrants. She also wrote about her distaste for the Civil War and what it was doing to both the country at large and to smaller towns like Wheeling. Later in life, she went on to critique society for its racism, hypocrisy, and treatment of the mentally ill, which eventually led to Pennsylvania laws being reformed and to better treatment of patients at mental institutes. Davis became a regular contributor to multiple newspapers, eventually becoming an editor for the New York Tribune. During the last years of her life, she transitioned to writing children’s stories that still conveyed her opinions about morality.8

During her lifetime, Rebecca Harding Davis published some 500 works, most of which can now be found online. Ultimately, her best-known work was the piece that started her writing career, Life in the Iron Mills, and can be found here. The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who recounts the tale of a man who had previously lived in the house the narrator now owns. The previous owner, a man named Hugh Wolfe, begins the story at work at the iron mill. His cousin Deborah, who lives with him, brings Hugh a meal at work, as she is in love with Hugh, but he does not know this. Hugh has tuberculosis and is regarded as strange by his coworkers, but he treats them all kindly. He often creates sculptures out of iron byproduct but then destroys them for unknown reasons.

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Life in The Iron Mills, page one.

One day, a group of important visitors come to the mill, and one tries to convince Hugh of his potential as an artist. On their way home, Deborah reveals that she stole a large amount of cash from one of the visitors, and she gives it to Hugh to try to improve their impoverished lifestyle. Hugh and Deborah are convicted of theft and while Deborah gets a three-year sentence, Hugh receives a nineteen-year sentence. Prison ruins Hugh’s mind, and he eventually commits suicide after Deborah confesses her love for him. A Quaker woman visits the prison and Deborah convinces her to bury Hugh in the country. The woman promises to not only bury Hugh, but to find Deborah after her sentence is over and bring her to live in the country. After prison Deborah changes into a calm, loving, and humble Quaker, but her love for Hugh still remains. The story ends with the narrator thinking about a statue that Hugh made that still exists and is kept in the house, and how it often invokes deep thoughts about life and religion.9

Rebecca Harding Davis’s works typically included themes such as romanticism, nature, and religion, all of which were incorporated into Life in the Iron Mills. She left a legacy for future Wheeling authors to live up to, and her works are remembered and praised today. While some of her work disappeared after her death, it was eventually retrieved and has been firmly incorporated into Wheeling’s history since then. Seventy-four years after her death, Davis was inducted into the Wheeling Hall of Fame in 1984.

If you want to learn more about Rebecca Harding Davis, the history of women writing, and hear an interview with Maribeth Thompson and C.J. Farnsworth about what writing and literature means to them, listen to Ep. 3 of  Herstory, Words, Words, Wordshere. Listen to the two previous episodes to learn about other women on Wheeling, and check back next week for our final episode.


• Anna Griffith is a Senior majoring in English Rhetoric and Writing with a double minor in Creative Writing and Marketing. She is a founding member of Threshold and was the Public Relations Manager during her Sophomore and Junior year. She is continuing her PR position during her Senior year in addition to being Editor-in-Chief. After graduation, Anna hopes to attend a master’s program and eventually work in publishing or as a librarian.


1 “Wheeling Hall of Fame: Rebecca Harding Davis > Research | Ohio County Public Library | Ohio County Public Library | Wheeling West Virginia | Ohio County WV | Wheeling WV History |.” n.d. Ohio County Public Library | Ohio County Public Library | Wheeling West Virginia | Ohio County WV | Wheeling WV History |. Accessed March 21, 2024.
2 “A Groundbreaking Realist: Rebecca Harding Davis.” n.d. Documenting the American South Homepage. Accessed March 21, 2024.
3“Davis, Rebecca Harding – Encyclopedia of Alabama.” n.d. Encyclopedia of Alabama. Accessed March 21, 2024.
5 Comins, Linda. 2018. “Speakers Explore Wheeling Writer’s Legacy | News, Sports, Jobs – The Intelligencer.” Theintelligencer.Net. The Intelligencer. December 3, 2018.
7 Ibid.
9“Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis Plot Summary | LitCharts.” n.d. LitCharts. Accessed March 21, 2024.