Madison Gates Purviance
The Early Years in Idaho - Part 1

Urgent Message...

It was February 20, 1932, a Saturday. Edna Purviance’s sister Myrtle was packed and really to leave for Los Angeles from her California home in Merced when she received a telegram.

Her father, Madison Gates Purviance had been found dead at his home in Biggs, California earlier that morning.

Bigg, California

Myrtle was on her way to catch a plane to fly down to Los Angeles because her sister Edna Purviance had fallen critically ill in Hollywood with a perforated ulcer. Edna had became ill suddenly on Friday evening, February 19th. Myrtle received the news that night and booked the first flight she could to Los Angeles. The same evening, their father went home telling friends he was not feeling well. No one knew that he would not see another day...

But all eyes were focused on Edna. The doctors were not holding much hope for her recovery. Myrtle knew her father didn't have much money, and money was needed for her father's funeral. She had to make a quick decision. Myrtle notified officials in her father’s town asking them to delay the funeral of
Madison Gates Purviance…

Madison Gates Purviance
The first telling of the story of Edna Purviance’s father
Research by Linda Wada © - July 2003-2016

Part One - The Early Years before Edna

'On February 19, (1932) I was stricken with a perforated ulcer… The same night, my father died, I was too ill to be told of it. He was 84 years old, and of course not able to support himself for years. I have been sending him a small check every month to live on.’

From a letter dated April 1932 Edna Purviance wrote to Charlie Chaplin
David Robinson’s - Chaplin; His Life and Art

This segment from a letter in David Robinson’s book, ‘Chaplin; His Life and Art’, is one of the few items Edna wrote about her father. It says little, but still says a lot. She knew her father’s health, his financial condition and where he lived. Yet, very little has been known about Madison Gates Purviance, Edna’s father.

While mentions of her father appeared in scattered articles that have surfaced over the years, the articles at times read as if he were two people.

To untangle the web, I have spent the last four years researching the life of Edna Purviance in Nevada, and in the process, found out more about the life of Madison Gates Purviance then I would have ever imagined!

So grab a cup of tea or your favorite coffee and settle in for the first-ever telling of the man who gave Edna Purviance her life and the name that would become famous: PURVIANCE!

Why the Confusion?

So why the confusion in all the articles written? Because Edna grew up with two fathers in her life: her biological father Madison Gates Purviance and her stepfather Robert Nurnberger. The lives of two very different men seem to have gotten mixed together.

Descriptions written about Edna’s father came in several versions. The Hollywood version: Edna’s father and mother were happily married and reported to be very proud of their daughter Edna’s success. Others listed her father as deceased but were never clear as to when this event happened. Still others had her father working as a miner in the old west. There was even a rumor that her father forced Edna to pay him money in his later years.

So what is the truth? Well, this is what I found so far:

Yes, both Edna’s real father and mother were proud of her achievements, but they were not happily married. They divorced just after Edna turned seven years old in 1902, and at a time when divorce was not considered the proper thing to do.

Edna’s mother's second marriage to Robert Nurnberger lasted seven happy years. This couple had a good life in Lovelock during Edna’s childhood. Robert provided a home and steady income during most of Edna’s school years.

But Robert Nurnberger, the well known plumber and well driller in Lovelock, was never mentioned in the stories about Edna’s past.

Nurnberger never lived long enough to see Edna on the screen. Robert died February 7, 1911, in California, four years before Edna signed with Chaplin in late January 1915. How Nurnberger would have felt about Edna’s career will never be known.

Yes, Edna’s father did have an interest in mining, but it was her stepfather Robert, not her real father Madison. My research has not uncovered Madison in the mining business so far. Edna’s real father was a skilled grain miller and worked that trade until late in his life.

And yes, Edna provided money to her real father to help out in his later years when his health would not allow him to work anymore. But coerced to pay? That seems rather doubtful. All three daughters (Bessie, Myrtle and Edna) showed love for and interest in their father in his later years.

So those are some of the reasons for the different histories about Edna’s father written over the years. This research is trying to uncover the facts. No story on Edna’s real father has been written before -- this is the first time his story has been told. More research is in progress.

But for now, to start his story, the first place we find Madison is in Madison -- Madison County, Illinois.

Finding Madison in Madison

"I have found Purviance named Matthew, Michael, Mickey and even George "
In the years I have researched Madison’s life so far, I have found him named Matthew Purviance, Michael Purviance, Mickey Purviance, George Purviance and even just plain M.G. Purviance. But Madison Gates Purviance was his given birth name, legal name and gravestone inscription. It would be fair to say, Madison Gates never really liked his given name.

According to family records, Madison Gates Purviance was born in Madison County, Illinois in 1849. I have found a census report from Illinois that shows this finding to be correct.

The official family record has Madison listed as the ninth child born in a family of 12 children. He had five sisters and *six brothers. (*One child was named Marion, which could be a boy or a girl.)

I have also found that Madison could have grown up near Troy, Illinois, since this is where his oldest brother was reported living at the time of the Civil War.

Madison was between the ages of 12 and 16, when the Civil War was fought. His older brother Lieutenant William Purviance fought in that war but was wounded at the battle of Shiloh. William would ‘wear’ a bullet from that fight for the rest of his life. The wound would be a topic of colorful discussion for the rest of William’s days. But little else is known about these early years of Madison’s life in Illinois.

Madison's life would span many interesting years in American history including 21 U.S. presidencies, from James Polk to Herbert Hoover, which included Teddy Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln.

He was born in the year of the famous 49er's California Gold Rush, only months after the Donner Party tragedy. And he lived near the famous 'jumping off point' for all those travels west, St. Louis!

Madison would have read about and met people who would have been starting their journey westward. The Davey family, Edna's mother's family, would have passed through this area on their way westward. Madison County had the National Road running right through it. This road was the main road to St. Louis and to all points west!

It was an adventurous, but brutal time in American History. Dreams of many people were won and lost, with some lost forever.

When Trains were Best!

Madison was between 14 and 20 years old when the first Transcontinental Railroad was built across the west connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans for the first time by steel rail. In Madison County, he had a front row seat to this land-changing event!

The iron horse, as the train was called, changed the west forever. While horses, covered wagons, stagecoaches and walking still transported people west, the railroad created the biggest impact ever seen in the west, past or present.

It was most likely Purviance used the train to travel west. The train quickly became a popular way to travel with thousands of people using it by the 1870s. At the speed it traveled, any ticket price would have seemed cheap.

'Six months to travel by wagon, now took only about a week'
What took up to six months to travel from east to west by wagon, now took only about a week. For a young man seeking adventure and a new start, the west was the place to go! And the way to go was by train!

Towns were springing up faster than grass in springtime. And for the native Americans, buildings seem to sprout from once virgin grass plains faster than weeds. New train routes were shooting off the main rail lines, furthering the extraction of minerals in western mountains.

Town sites were built at the mining claims, no matter where the mines were located. Whole towns were erected at 5,000 to 10,000 feet elevation. It didn’t matter to the settlers, living near the ore was essential.

Business people followed the rail lines building towns to serve all the
mine fields, ranches and farms in the plains, valleys and mountains. By 1870s towns were scattered all over the western U.S. in anticipation of new settlers. And Madison Gates Purviance was just one of the thousands of settlers eager to stake his claim in this land.

Michael Purviance Passes Away

Madison was known as 'Michael' in Biggs

Polk to Hoover

Born with Polk and died during Hoover's term

William Purviance

William visits Madison in Lovelock in the
summer of 1899.
Lovelock Tribune - July 1, 1899

Train from late 1800's

Late 1890's to 1900's version of the train
Photo - private Humboldt Co. collection

Drawing of train from mid-1800's

1860's version of the train

Railroad to Stage Line

October 1, 1868
Railroad Stage Line
Silver City to San Francisco
using both ways of transportation.
Owhyee Avalanche - Silver City, Idaho
(note: one way the Daveys and Purviance
could have gotten to Idaho.)

Purviance worked for Cy Jacobs

Lovelock Tribune - November 11, 1899

Cy Jacobs ad

Cy Jacobs ad for his Boise City business
The Idaho Avalanche - Silver City
December 7, 1878

Silver City

Silver City Street - late 1990's
Photo JoAnne Cordis -private collection

Below about name change of 'City Brewery'
Wood River Times July 6, 1881

Purviance and French at the Pioneer Brewery

Below 'City Brewery' ad from
Wood River Times August 10, 1881

City Brewery and 12 1-2 Saloon

French and Purviance were agents for
'City Brewery' and '12 1-2' in Hailey, Idaho.
Wood River Times - August 10, 1881

First Ad of 'A Bit Saloon', just before the name change.
Wood Times - June 22, 1881

Finding Madison in the America West

The first western town I found M.G. Purviance living was Boise City, Idaho in about 1887. Boise, a French word meaning ‘City of Trees’, was an appropriate place for a man with a French name to settle in. Purviance’s ancestors originally lived in France in the 1600s.

In Boise, Purviance learned the flour mill trade.

In the early American west, being a miller was a good trade. All western towns of any size had their own flour and grain drying mills. It meant steady work for a person who had experience, and in Boise City, Cyrus Jacobs was one of the top men to learn from.

Jacobs was one of the original founders of Boise City, which became the capital of the state of Idaho in 1890. Jacobs is still known in Boise City history even today. His personal stone home and once boardinghouse was built in 1864. Today it is registered as the oldest home in Boise and is the current home of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center.

Jacobs was not only a co-founder of Boise but also was active in city government. He was on the city council and was even mayor of Boise at one time.

Jacobs made his money with the flour mill, but he also sold his own specialty cured smoked meats. And he was a supplier of high quality wines and liquors to the local bars in southwest Idaho. He served many of the mining camps in southwestern Idaho, which included towns like Silver City.

Purviance must have been a good student in learning the mill trade, for he was able to get steady work in this trade for the rest of his life. But the money made in the resale of wines and liquors must have looked attractive to him as well.

A Strike!

Beginning in 1880, a new mining area was springing up in the Sawtooth Mountains northeast of Boise City. A stamp mill needed to be built for the new mineral strikes in an area called the Wood River Valley. The mill and the mining all required lots of manpower, and where there were jobs, people always migrated. And where workers traveled, businessman always followed.

Early in 1881, a new town site for the area was in the news continuously in Boise. Purviance certainly heard all the street talk about this new town.

"Oregon and Washington were too populated"
With newspaper reports saying that places like Oregon and Washington were too populated, and the land overgrazed for sheep and cattle, people were looking for an unspoiled land to live. The Wood River Valley became the new promised land!

Hailey, Idaho - Boomtown

In April 1881, the first lots were auctioned off for the new town called Hailey. For $25 you could purchase a lot to start your own business or home.

Today in Hailey, it would be hard to find a pair of Levi blue jeans at $25 each. The Wood River Valley has become one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S. It is home to the famed ski resort Sun Valley, located north of

Sun Valley was the United States' first ski resort. Many famous people would call Sun Valley home over the years, including writer Ernest Hemingway and his family. Current actor Bruce Willis owns a ranch and city property in downtown Hailey.

With properties selling in the millions today, a lot for $25, by comparison was a darn good deal! But one has to remember, $25 was a lot of money in 1881. Many people were living on very small salaries of a few dollars a month.

Time to move on!

Purviance was at that auction it appears. He brought property in Hailey, but he was not alone in doing so. In Boise he had a friend, A.T. French, who would be Purviance’s first business partner in Hailey. The pair had both worked for Cyrus Jacobs in Boise City.

In reading the papers, it appears French was the senior partner. French seemed to work more in the delivery trade at Jacob’s business in Boise, especially with the wine and liquors. French would continue to work in this trade during the years I have researched his life in Idaho. Both Purviance and French made the move to Hailey in the spring of 1881.

Hailey grew very quickly in the next two months. You could actually buy a pair of original Levi’s at newly built storefront.

Restaurants, hotels, livery stables, blacksmith shops, and newspaper offices opened within a two month period. And of course saloons and breweries were always part of the town's offerings.

French and Purviance decided to follow Jacobs’ lead, and became leaders in this new boomtown. Purviance was reported as having his own home in Hailey, and it appears French did too, but I'm still researching their ownership of property.

The pair would go into business together. During this time, they got contracts as agents for delivery of liquors, wine and beer for a local brewery just built in Hailey called the Pioneer Brewery.

Shortly after becoming agents the name changed to City Brewery. They also became agents for their own business of ‘delivering’ liquors, wines and beers directly to the public.

Purviance's First Business

'A Bit Saloon' (later known as '12 1-2' opened its doors in late June (1881)
‘A Bit Saloon’ opened it’s doors in late June. It appears to be in connection with the 'City Brewery'. 'A Bit' had an ad in the Wood River Times, Hailey's first newspaper. Shortly after opening, 'A Bit Saloon' changed it’s names to ‘12 1-2 CTS.’ The agents were French and Purviance.

The partners called on the help of their old boss Jacobs to help them supply the saloon with all the serving items it needed plus stock it with favored liquors and wines not brewed in the Wood River Valley. Jacobs personally drove the first wagon load of supplies to Hailey for French and Purviance.

Because they had worked for Jacobs for a few years, the whole load for that first delivery was purchased on credit to help them get started in their new business. It appears the deal was sealed with a handshake and a receipt.

According to the newspapers, during the summer of 1881, French and Purviance built up a good business and working relationships in Hailey, Idaho.

Back to Top

The First Wedding

In the fall of 1881, Purviance would make big news by becoming the first man to get married in Hailey. And the woman he married was Louisa Wright Davey. The couple were married on Sunday, September 25, 1881.

The wedding was well-attended with many friends and relatives of the couple present. The ceremony was held in Purviance’s home in Hailey. The local paper said the couple was well blessed in material wealth and wished them a long happy union.

Edna’s mother, Louisa Wright Davey (Louisa was her given name) was born in England in 1864 and was the oldest of three sisters and one brother. She would remain close to all her family in the years to come. Louise was about 12-years old when her parents, Richard and Julia Davey and her brother and sisters, traveled by ship to America in 1876.

The family settled in Silver City, Idaho, within a year after leaving England. Richard Davey, Louise’s father, did not spend much time in Silver City in those early years. He would spend months at a time traveling by horseback to the many mining camps in the west from Idaho to California, while his wife and children lived in Silver City area.

Louise would finish high school in Silver City, and it appears she continued her education or sought work in Boise. Boise City is the most likely place Madison met Louise. I have found reports of both of them being in Boise City in 1880.

Purviance’s boss, Jacobs, was very well known in Boise, and he most likely hosted many social events. Louise was known for attending many social events her whole life. So it seems quite possible that Madison Purviance and Louise Davey met at such an occasion.

First Marriage in Hailey

Above Headlines in the Wood River Times:
September 28, 1881

Louisa and Madison Purvaince married

I have found her middle name listed as Wright.
The paper could have met W
Article reprinted in the Silver City Avalanche
October 8, 1881.

Purviance's First Girl!

During fall of 1881, the personal life of A.T. French started to get a bit rocky. French’s wife and daughter didn’t live in Hailey, but continued to reside in Boise. Both fell seriously ill in the fall of 1881. His wife and daughter became so ill, French had to move them to San Francisco for special medical care. San Francisco was the largest city in the western U.S. and had the best health care.

French had to move too! He decided to sell out his interest in the French and Purviance partnership in November 1881 and moved to San Francisco to be with his family for the winter.

By the end of November Purviance had a new partner named Bristol. Life appeared to have settled down by the holiday season, but a new arrival was about to stir things up again.

Bessie Purviance is born
Bessie Purviance was born January 8, 1882
Wood River Times - January 11, 1882

In January of 1882, Wood River Times newspaper reported another event from the Purviance home. ‘Matt. Purviance became a father to a baby girl today’. (Note: he was known by the locals as Matthew in Hailey. Some of the family members remember Madison as Matthew. In addition, Matthew is a British name for Madison.)

Bessie Purviance was born January 8, 1882. And if you are quick with math, you would catch the fact Louise was five months pregnant when she married. This fact could be one of the reasons that Madison left Boise City where both Louise and Madison were well known, to a town where Louise could be a bit less known. But all her friends knew she lived in Hailey, as the wedding made news from Hailey to Silver City. But there is a chance they could have had a simple wedding in March of 1881 and this was the proper wedding the couple wanted. But I found no official record of this occurring, only a mention in the Purviance family research records.

In later years, the Purviance family would report in the Lovelock papers that Bessie was born in Paradise Valley, Nevada, not Hailey. But other reports show her age as matching the birthdate of 1882. The Purviances were very proud of their daughter and may been trying to protect her from their past.

Louise's sister, 15-year old Bessie Davey was living with Louise even before the wedding. I have found Bessie in Hailey from September of 1881 to mid-February of 1882. She was attending school and social events in Hailey while helping Louise with the baby. It is most likely Bessie Purviance was named after her aunt. Louise was 18-years old when Bessie Purviance was born, and Madison (Matthew) Purviance was 33-years old.

Hailey's Shine Fades

The year 1882 and 1883 were cloudy years for the family. The Madison Purviance and A.T. French partnership broke up because of the poor health of French’s wife and daughter which caused French to leave Hailey. Madison's new partner, Bristol, didn’t seem to work out. The saloon ads simply disappeared from the newspapers by February of 1882. But no sign of any sale of property or change of ownership appeared in the newspapers.

Louise had a child to care for now, and Madison seemed to be looking for new work. Maybe Louise didn’t want to raise her child around a saloon, but it was apparent the family was looking for a change.

It was during these years Richard Davey, Edna's grandfather, was traveling by horseback to the mining camps in Idaho and was reported visiting family near the Hailey area. He could have informed the Purviances of a new gold strike south of them in Spring City, Nevada, near Paradise Valley.

Paradise Valley was not a new town, but a town that was settled in the 1860s. Farming and ranching were the mainstays of the area, supporting the mining camps scattered in the nearby mountains. Located at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains, it was a pretty location to settle. But it thrived mainly because of the rich mineral wealth in the nearby mountains and the grazing areas on the wild grasslands.


Meanwhile back in Hailey, I found that Louise was still in Hailey until the summer of 1882, while Madison scouted out new areas to live including Bozeman, Montana. It was officially reported by Louise herself that she was going to leave Hailey to be with Madison in Bozeman, but I have not found the couple in Bozeman in my research. There was a reason why the family was a bit hard to find between summer of 1882 and fall 1883.

In early August of 1882, a notice about a lawsuit appeared in the Wood River Times. The suit was about an unpaid balance of $485.05 to Cyrus Jacobs, owed by French and Purviance.

Apparently the pair never paid for the first load of supplies Jacobs personally delivered when 'A Bit Saloon' first opened a year earlier. This balance also included one load of goods ordered in early December of 1881 when Bristol was just getting started with Purviance. But Bristol was never mentioned in the suit.

'First load of supplies never paid for'
It would be fair to say that Purviance and French both skipped town to avoid paying the money owned to Cyrus. And maybe they did, but they left a trail. Louise was still at the Purviance home in Hailey in June 1882, and had to be the one to face the sheriff who was asking about Madison’s whereabouts. She told them he was in Bozeman, and that she was going to join him soon.

If the local officials read their own newspaper, they would have found Madison was reported in Bozeman in May of 1882. But according to the 30-plus page official court records, no one could find him in Montana or Idaho. The officials couldn’t find French either, though he was reported in Idaho earlier that spring running a saloon delivery business in the Rocky Bar area.

Louise and baby Bessie left Hailey soon after being served the affidavit according to officials in Hailey. Where she went to is not clear, but she would meet up with her husband as another event later in the year 1883 will show. But at this time, she could likely gone back home to Silver City, but I have found no record of her after June of 1882 in Hailey to the fall of 1883 in Nevada. But she would never be able to return to her Hailey home.

Unfortunately, Louise would suffer the pain of knowing her first home would be used to settle the lawsuit with Jacobs.

Purviance nor French apparently had the money to pay for the charged items for the saloon at the time the lawsuit was filed. And neither man returned to Hailey to face the charges in court. So with little else to do, Jacobs placed a lien on Louise's home in Hailey. Her house was auctioned off in a sheriff’s sale in May of 1883. The property brought in $300 and apparently was enough to settle the suit for Jacobs. No other action was filed. But it would be an event Louise would never forget in the years to come.

Due to the legal problems, it may never be known exactly where the Purviances were during this period. The research continues on this time in their lives. Thankfully, the confusion lasts only a short while, and I was able to discover them in the new place they were to call home!

Continue: Part Two - Paradise Valley


Wood River Times
First appeared on August 2, 1882

Bozeman Montana

Wood River Times- May 3, 1882

Sheiff's Sale

The property had a tax value of $400
Wood River Times - May 31, 1883

Back to Top

All other content Copyright 2003-2016 - Edna Purviance, Research Collection
including photos and newspaper articles from public and private collections.
Linda Wada, WadaWorks, All Rights Reserved

Special thanks to the official county offices and libraries from Humboldt, Perishing and Butte County.
Letter from Edna to Chaplin - David Robinson's book Chaplin: His Life and Art