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First Lady Biography: Jane Pierce
Jane Means Appleton Pierce
Born: March 12, 1806 – Hampton, New Hampshire
Died: December 2, 1863 Andover, Massachusetts
Father: Reverend Jesse Appleton (Died 1819)
Mother: Elizabeth Means (Died 1844)
1 Mary Appleton Aiken
2. Frances Appleton Packard
3. William Appleton
4. Robert Appleton
5. John Appleton
Physical Description: Very slender, weighing at most 100 lbs., about 5’4" or 5’5", with chestnut hair parted severely in the middle and ringlets, "Sherry" (Brown) colored eyes, sharp nose and almost always a sad, distracted look. Dressed in dark colors, usually black, but on occasion would wear white with black lace.
Religion: Congregationalist (Father was a Congregationalist minister.)
Education: Taught at home, but early showed an aptitude for music (piano) making one teacher wish she would pursue a musical career. Music was something she did not pursue in later life. Her reading tended to religious works rarely does she mention current authors in her letters. Her handwriting was poor later in life, making her letters extremely hard to read and to transcribe.
Husband: Franklin Pierce (November 23, 1804 – October 8, 1869)
Marriage: November 19, 1834 in Amherst, New Hampshire, in her grandmother's home. Married by brother-in-law John Aiken.
Age at Marriage: 28 years (Franklin was not yet 30)
Personality: Shy, reclusive, prone to deep depressions, Jane Pierce would never be able to accept her husband’s political career or to mingle easily in society. She hated Washington, but in reading her early letters to her in-laws and to her mother, she did at least attempt to join with her husband in the social duties of a Congressman’s wife. On occasion she would show great insight into motives and characters of fellow politicians. The birth and death of her children took a heavy toll on a character not resilient to life’s demands. Fortunately, she had a husband who not only loved her but also understood her and permitted her the freedom to visit her sisters whenever she liked. The most important factor of Jane Piece’s character was her need to lean on others, hence the importance of her aunt through marriage, Abigail Kent Means and most importantly her oldest sister, Mary Appleton Aiken. They did what they could to keep Jane Pierce on as "even a keel" as much as was possible. The time of her tenure in the White House, her gloom and depressions were so acute, permanent and evident to all that Nathaniel Hawthorne, a famous author of that time, would refer to her as "that death’s head" in the White House. Her later years would see her somewhat improve. The return to her home however in New Hampshire, with its painful memories, saw a return of her depression.
1. Franklin Pierce, Jr. (Born February 2, 1836 – Died February 5, 1836) 3 days old
2. Frank Robert Pierce (Born August 27, 1839 – Died November 14, 1843 in Concord, New Hampshire) 4 years of Age
3. Benjamin Pierce (Born April 13, 1841 in Concord, New Hampshire – Died in a train wreck on the way to Washington with his parents on January 6, 1853 near Andover, Massachusetts) 12 years of age
Jane Pierce survived all 3 of her sons – No descendents survive today.
First Lady: Because of the tragic death of Benjamin, she did not attend her husband’s inauguration. She did not enter the White House until later in March 1853.
She did not receive publicly at the White House until January 1855, asking her uncle Robert Mean’s widow, Abigail Kent Means, to perform the official duties of the First Lady. Since Mrs. Means had no children, she would find it easier to spend long periods of time with Jane, whom she loved like a sister. When Mrs. Means was absent from the Capitol, Mrs. Jefferson Davis (Varina Howell, future First Lady of the Confederacy and wife of the Secretary of War) would officiate as did other cabinet wives, but not one of them was considered the official hostess.
Mrs. Pierce spent much of her time writing heart-breaking notes to her dead son,Benjamin, putting into them all the love that her repressive nature could not express in life. It would be nearly two years following his death (January 1855) before she would receive guests at her husband’s side.
She attended Congressional debates, which is surprising considering her dislike of politics.
Always kind to the White House staff, she usually had them attend church on Sundays. Both she and her husband were very strict about the Sabbath.
Having more of an abolitionist background than her husband, it was Jane Pierce who persuaded him to release Dr. Charles Robinson, an ardent abolitionist and republican, from a Kansas prison where he had been detained. Pierce, known for his kindness of heart, did so both for his wife and the distraught wife of Dr. Robinson. Late, during the Civil War, the Pierces were divided – she for the ending of slavery (if by war, then let it be so), he for the constitution first (the union first and slavery second).
The Pierces oversaw many decorative changes to the White House, including a furnace, a tile-covered bathroom with hot and cold running water, a new rug in the East room (where it looked like flowers were being thrown at your feet), new ornate mirrors (still being used) and a handsome china service which the President purchased at the New York World’s Fair.
Mrs. Pierce’s health became more fragile and the President would have a dozen or so of his wife’s nieces and nephews come to visit and care for her.
After the election of James Buchanan in 1856, the Pierces departed the White House early (and stayed with secretary of state William L. Marcy), so the staff could prepare the house for the incoming president and his niece, Harriet Lane. Franklin Pierce could not help but remember his first day (March 4, 1853) and how nothing had been ready for him – not a room, not a bed – and how he and his secretary, Sydney Webster, ended up sleeping on chairs.
Jane Pierce did not attend the swearing in of her husband’s successor.
Later Life: After leaving Washington, the Pierces spent a short period of time in New England – Franklin in New Hampshire to settle accounts, Jane in Andover, Massachusetts with her sister, Mary Aiken. The Pierces then sailed to the Caribbean on board the U.S.S. Powhatan, a government ship loaned to them by President Buchanan. From the Caribbean they sailed to Europe, where Franklin made a valiant attempt to help his wife recover, but by then, her depression had become chronic and she had contracted tuberculosis that made her querulous, irritable and often melancholic. The Pierces returned home in 1860, and Jane rarely left her sister’s home after that.
The Civil War saw the couple take opposite sides – Franklin for preserving the Constitution and the Union and Jane for ending slavery, even if it took a war and breaking up the union to do so.
Death: Jane Pierce died at her sister Mary Aiken’s home in Andover, Massachusetts on December 2, 1863. She was 57 years old. The ex-president took his wife home to Concord, New Hampshire to lie beside their sons, Frank Robert and Benjamin (Franklin Jr.'s resting place is unknown). Franklin spoke often of going and watering the flowers "on the sacred spot". He died on Friday, October 8, 1869 and was buried beside Jane at Old North Cemetery in Concord.