Vahe Hayk, Kharberd and Her Golden Plain: Historical, Cultural and Ethnological Memorial Book. New York, Kharberd Armenian Patriotic Union, 1959.
On May 31, 1914, Davis arrived in Kharberd, which he later described as the “slaughterhouse province” in his reports. In June 1915, Turkish authorities began arresting Armenian men in Kharberd en masse. On June 26, the government issued a decree ordering mass deportations of Armenians. On July 1, the first wave of Armenian deportees left Kharberd. “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.
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.
A consular safe haven
In response to the scheme to exterminate the Armenian population, Davis organized a shelter in the huge building of the American Consulate.
From the first days of mass deportations, he tried to accommodate as many Armenians as possible.
“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.
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. “The crime of which they were guilty was that they had run away from being killed when they had committed no offense of any kind, a thing which should seem to be almost justifiable. Yet, for many months, women and children, as well as men, were hunted out by the police as deserters and mercilessly arrested.”
Davis himself organized a supply of provisions for the Armenians. He pulled a few strings and used his diplomatic leverage to obtain documents from the vali (the province governor) to enable the Armenians to leave for the United States.
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.”
The governor ordered Davis to hand over all the valuables of the Armenians he was sheltering, but Davis refused and 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.