Of the two dozen women relatives in presidential families other than wives who served in one capacity or another of the First Lady role, none had as little influence or played a less significant role than did Jane Harrison, the ninth President’s daughter-in-law and her aunt Jane Findlay, and Anna Tuthill Taylor, his daughter and youngest child.
This was in no way a reflection on their intellectual, political or social capabilities but the fact that the Administration under which they served was the shortest in history: the ninth President, William Henry Harrison, only served for thirty days, dying on April 4, 1841, exactly one month after being inaugurated.
What makes the oddity of this shortest presidency all the more peculiar is determining not just which of the Harrison family women members were part of his presidential entourage but who among them, if any, was designated by the President or considered by the public to be his official hostess.
As president-elect, William Henry Harrison is documented as having visited his married daughter Anna Tuthill Taylor in the area of Williamsburg, Virginia during the period immediately preceding his inauguration.
Harrison’s daughter had married his sister’s grandson and was then living in the same plantation house, Berkeley, where he had been born; after their parents had left, the house had been inhabited by President Harrison’s sister and inherited through her family.
Anna Taylor accompanied him back to Washington for his March 4, 1841 inauguration and was in residence at the White House for part, if not all of his thirty days in residence there.
Her name as “Mrs. Taylor” also appears in the roster of family members listed as being in attendance at his public funeral services in the East Room of the White House.
How it is that history came to designate Jane Harrison and not Anna Taylor as presidential hostess is unknown.
To date, no facial depiction of Anna Taylor has been discovered; the only known representation of her is in silhouette form, along with her father and her sister-in-law Jane Harrison.
The new President is not documented as having given any thought to the protocol ranking or social status of the women of his presidential family.
This may suggest that, passively, he expected both women would work together to oversee social events until the intended arrival in Washington of his wife Anna, an infirm but orderly person who would assume management of the presidential household.
Until then, it may be that Jane Harrison and Anna Taylor together served as hostesses simultaneously, as did Jackson’s niece and daughter-law Emily Donelson and Sarah Jackson, who overlapped for a time.
One might speculate that Jane Harrison was asked to come with the President-elect to Washington as some sort of compensation for the traumatic fourteen-year marriage she endured with his late son and namesake.
William Henry Harrison, Jr. had been a promising young attorney but he gambled and speculated so wildly that he rapidly amassed a crushing load of debt which proved humiliating to his father, who spent his own money and sold property to help bail him out.
He also struggled with an addiction to alcohol and though he often went for long periods without drinking, he ultimately died of his disease. Jane Irwin had been visiting her paternal aunt Nancy in Ohio when she met and married Will Harrison in 1824.
Born in 1804, in the Mercersburg, Pennsylvania limestone mansion, inherited by her father Archibald Irwin from his father, who owned and ran a lucrative flour mill, she was widowed in 1838, left with two small sons. Her mother-in-law and father-in-law took them into their household.
Jane Harrison holds a rather peculiar and rare status for presidential trivia: she was both a maternal and paternal aunt to another President, Benjamin Harrison. Of course, her husband was the future President’s uncle (and thus she was his aunt-by-marriage) but she was also his maternal aunt.
Jane’s sister Elizabeth Irwin also married one of President William Henry Harrison’s sons, in this case John Harrison – and was the mother of the future President. Furthermore, Jane Harrison’s first cousin Mary Anne Sutherland married Carter Harrison, a third son of the ninth President.
Thirty-seven years old at the time she moved into the White House, Jane Harrison brought along not only her sons James and William, but her paternal aunt, after whom she had been named.
Jane Irwin Findlay had no children of her own but had helped to raise her namesake.
The widowed Mrs. Findlay was seventy years old when she joined the Harrison entourage by stagecoach and flatboat from Ohio but she already had social experience as a political figure in Washington, her wealthy husband having served as a Congressman during the Quincy Adams and Jackson Administrations.
He’d also been a founder, developer and the mayor of Cincinnati, a role which introduced him into the circle of the Harrisons.
Misinterpretations of the scant descriptions of the Harrison White House sometimes ascribe the hostess role solely to Jane Findlay, but while a seat of honor was granted to her at formal dinners hosted by the President it was likely due to her rank as a former congressional spouse or respect for her age rather than her importance in the presidential household.
Lingering questions about the brief Harrison Administration would remain largely unanswered. One speculative matter is whether enslaved people might have been used for the family’s domestic servants or not: Anna Taylor lived in a slave-holding state while Jane Harrison was a resident of an abolitionist one.
Neither woman left any written or oral history of their brief thirty days as joint White House hostesses.
Despite being relatively young at age 41 years old, both Jane Harrison and Anna Taylor died in 1845, just four years after the President. Mrs. Findlay outlived her, surviving the President by a decade and dying at 81 years old.
Illustrations depicting the death scene of the first incumbent President’s show a weeping woman relative at the side of Harrison’s bed are of no help in determining which of the two young women might have held more sway.
In two Harrison deathbed scene illustrations a single female relative figure is identified as neither the dying President’s “Daughter-in-law,” nor “Daughter,” but rather, incorrectly, as “Niece.”
In the only known Harrison deathbed illustration where two women relatives are depicted, one of the women is identified correctly as the President’s daughter, so at least it is half-right.