Priscilla Tyler. (University of Alabama)
In one Administration that was less than one full-term there were four women who served as First Ladies – two of them were married to the President, and two of them were not.
A present but publicly inactive First Lady Letitia Tyler, painted by Lyle Tayson in 1979. (artworkoriginals)
The President was John Tyler and he was the first to assume the office without being directly elected to it; rather he had been the vice presidential candidate on the winning ticket which William Henry Harrison headed as the presidential candidate. President Harrison, of course, died after thirty days in office and Tyler assumed the position.
When Tyler moved into the White House in late April of 1841 he brought the largest First Family to date to live in the mansion.
His wife Letitia Christian Tyler was confined to a “rolling chair,” unable to walk or to fully express herself verbally, having suffered a stroke two years earlier.
Contrary to persistent and popular myth, however, Letitia Tyler was able to speak and made at least three known appearances in public: her daughter Elizabeth’s East Room wedding, a theater performance and a reception for schoolchildren presided over by her daughter-in-law.
Although limited in public by her stroke, Letitia Tyler did manage social events and receive some guests in her room in the White House family quarters.
Although confined to a wheelchair, Letitia Tyler took charge of managing the entire household from her room in the family private quarters.
She also assumed the private roles played by First Ladies, like emotional supporter and personal adviser to the President.
There is also subtle suggestion that she received a few special guests who were not family members in her upstairs suite.
Beside Elizabeth, three other presidential daughters in residence at the beginning of their tenure in the White House were teenager Alice, the married Mary who came with her two young sons and husband for a brief time, and Letty who was married by estranged from her husband.
There was also the President’s teenage son Tazewell, his son John, Jr. who was married but estranged from his wife Rochelle, and married son Robert, who moved in with his toddler daughter Mary and wife Priscilla.
First Daughter Elizabeth Tyler, who married in the White House.
However, Letitia Tyler was unable to assume the public First Lady roles of hostess of social events in the state rooms and escort of the President to ceremonial events in and out of the White House.
President John Tyler. (LC)
To fulfill these tasks, President Tyler specifically asked Priscilla Tyler to help him, rather than ask one of his daughters.
Who he designated as the public First Lady seems to have been one of President Tyler’s first decisions on how his Administration would be conducted and it proved to be an acutely wise one.
It may have been that he asked his daughter-in-law to take on the public role so he could avoid showing favoritism among his three adult daughters, but the reason seems much more likely to be due to the unusual nature of Priscilla Cooper Tyler’s personality,
More so than any of her predecessors since the popular Dolley Madison, the young Mrs. Tyler was animated, sophisticated, empathetic, humorous, articulate and accessible.
Mary Tyler’s costume party also included adults, (background, left to right) Dolley Madison, President Tyler and Priscilla Tyler.
It was certainly no accident that she and the rest of the Tyler family women had embraced Mrs. Madison herself, the aged, former First Lady then living across Lafayette Square from the mansion. Dolley Madison was in attendance even when President Tyler hosted a costume birthday party for Priscilla’s little daughter
Few women of that era had her ease and confidence about having part of her life known to strangers, and it was this First Lady’s unique training before entering the White House which seemed to uniquely qualify her.
Descriptions of her left by observers all underline her success in crafting a public persona out of her real self as a private person and to then convey it with a strong presence in the male-dominated arena of national politics.
Priscilla Tyler had worked as a professional stage actress before marrying Robert Tyler in 1839 at 23 years old.
She first went on stage at 17 years old, along with her father Tom Cooper, a famous Shakespearean actor and theater co-owner.
Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, painted by Chester Harding in 1822. (Wikipedia)
When the family lost their home in Bristol, Pennsylvania during the 1837 economic panic, Priscilla and her father were forced to survive for a time on the minimal fruit and vegetables they grew beside the run-down cottage they rented.
Miss Cooper was playing Desdemona in a stage production of Othello in Richmond, Virginia, a member of the audience later recalled falling in love with her as the performance went on. At the final curtain, he bolted up to lead a standing ovation, and then rushed backstage to meet her.
His name was Robert Tyler and he was the son of Virginia’s former Governor and U.S. Senator, soon to run as vice presidential candidate on the 1840 Whig Party ticket.
A theatrical poster showing future First Lady, the actress Priscilla Cooper, costumed for one of her Shakespearean performances. (University of Alabama)
They married months later, in 1839. Despite being a working woman, and one employed in a professional considered socially unaccepted, Priscilla was warmly embraced and loved by the Tyler clan, particularly her aristocratic mother-in-law Letitia.
Her theatrical training, however, proved especially beneficial to her father-in-law in the White House. Priscilla Cooper Tyler was able to cast herself and literally play out the role of “White House hostess” with the mansion’s public rooms as a theatrical stage.
Despite the tremendous political turmoil endured and generated by President Tyler, and the run-down condition of the old mansion, the female lead of the presidential family was a shining star who attracted the affection and interest of both special guests and the public.
Long before First Ladies assumed leadership of public movements or raised consciousness about societal problems, Priscilla Tyler conveyed a sense of duty to the public and the guests who came to the White House through what was then the primary public role of a First Lady – that of hostess of the White House.
An extrovert, she impressed everyone from Charles Dickens to a French Prince with her conversational skill. She initiated summer musical concerts by the Marine Band for the general public on the South Lawn of the White House.
Intelligent, vivacious and genuine, Priscilla Cooper Tyler left a strong and positive impression as First Lady.
Priscilla Tyler earned herself a presidential history footnote when, in the summer of 1843, she became the first First Lady to accompany a President on an official traveling tour through a region of the nation, a summertime custom of the presidency since the early days.
It was the first time that any President traveled the United States with a female member of his family as part of his official party, thus giving a previously unrecognized level of public visibility and status to the role of First Lady.
Along with the President and her husband, Priscilla Tyler was honored at a public banquet and reception in Baltimore, a massive harbor flotilla and then street parade in New York where 40,000 threw flowers on their path, and a naval salute in Boston.
As a result of the unprecedented trip, Priscilla Cooper Tyler received considerable press notice.
Priscilla Tyler is among the earliest known of First Ladies to receive newspaper publicity during her tenure in the White House.
As one New York newspaper, The True Sun, editorialized, “she has shown all the power of her native strength of mind and without being dazzled by the elevation of her position…”
The newspaper’s offering of an “apology for alluding” to her in print was an early example of the public ambivalence about a First Lady’s “proper” role, raising the issue of whether she was a public figure to be acknowledged in her own right and carrying some public responsibilities, or was she just the hostess of a public institution?
Priscilla Tyler left the First Lady role in March of 1844, moving to Philadelphia with her husband where he finally started his long-delayed legal career as a means of providing for his family.
Letitia Tyler Semple at the time she served as First Lady,
Twenty-three year old First Daughter Letty Tyler Semple inherited the First Lady role by default.
Letty and her two eldest sisters had been on hand to help Priscilla as social aides, but both Lizzie Tyler Waller and Mary Tyler Jones were no longer living in the White House with their father when their brother and sister-in-law also moved out.
The only adult female in the household was the President’s married daughter Letty Tyler Semple.
Despite her age and life of privilege, all indications suggest that Letty was already bitter towards the life fate had led her into.
At eighteen years old, she’d married United States naval captain James Semple. Taking great pride in their identity as Virginians was all they emotionally had in common and hardly enough to build a union and family upon.
The burial headstone of James Semple. (csnavy.org)
Semple tended to rise into threatening rages, fueled by alcohol and then became submissive in his eagerness to please Letty. In turn, she treated him with rude silence, refusing to engage in any honest effort at building a strong marriage.
Shortly after his father-in-law had the power to do so as President, Semple was sent away from the U.S. on a three year voyage which kept him constantly at sea, a crucial factor in delaying any potential divorce of the First Daughter, a socially embarrassing reality at the time.
It might be the case that President Tyler asked Letty to serve as White House hostess to keep her active and occupied, but the truth was that she alone remained the only adult woman of the presidential family then in residence at the White House.
She did as her sister-in-law Priscilla had done and sought the advice of aged former First Lady Dolley Madison, by then living in a townhouse across the park from the White House.
Following her predecessor’s advice, Letty Semple spent three afternoons each week making social calls to the women family members of prominent political figures. During the post-Easter spring “little social season,” from March until early June, 1844, Letty Semple joined her father as host of two weekly formal dinners and one weekly public reception.
Julia Gardiner Tyler.
For someone so embittered by a bad marriage so early on in life, her sojourn as First Lady was likely the most pleasant period of Letty Tyler Semple’s life.
She was not only living in great emotional closeness to her beloved father and seeing to his every need but also began to take some personal pride in being able to help him as President.
It all came to a abrupt, traumatic and unexpected end, when President Tyler eloped with New York socialite Julia Gardiner who was actually three years younger than her.
The dining room of President Tyler’s Virginia home. (Sherwood Forest)
One by one, the other Tyler children came to accept Julia Tyler as their stepmother, grateful for her intense devotion to their father – but not Letty Semple.
She refused to even show courtesy to the woman who had so unwittingly altered the course of her own life.
Letty Semple apparently continued to live alone in the White House during the suffocatingly humid summer of 1844, at least for some weeks.
She put herself through the unpleasant period not because she enjoyed it but because her new stepmother was spending a good portion of the summer with her father in the Tyler family’s Virginia home.
Letitia Tyler Semple after the Civil War. (VA Historical Society)
Somehow, John Tyler managed never to show favoritism between his daughter and second wife, but once he died, Letty Semple was overtly rude and dismissive towards Julia Tyler.
After enduring some two decades of rudeness from her stepdaughter, the widowed Julia Tyler managed to finally give as good as she got from Letty – all the while earning points for the compassionate wartime care she showed the neglected and impoverished husband of her hateful stepdaughter, James Semple.
Widowed Julia Tyler. (VA Historical Society)
This so enraged the estranged Letty that she never again even acknowledged either her stepmother or husband.
The Civil War proved especially devastating to the remaining Tyler First Family members.
Like Julia Tyler, the second wife and fourth First Lady of John Tyler, Priscilla Cooper Tyler had been born in New York but also like her, she transferred her loyalties to the South when the Civil War broke out.
The family relocated to Richmond, Virginia and then, after the war, to Montgomery, Alabama.
It was there that Priscilla Tyler died two days before the year 1890 began, having survived her husband by a dozen years.
The old kitchen log cabin behind a Virginia plantation home where Letty Semple was forced to live during the Civil War. (victorianvilla.com)
Letty Semple’s life only appears to have become even unhappier. She remained estranged from her husband, but forced to survive on little to no income other than that shared with her by siblings.
During the Civil War, she lived in a tiny log hut that was originally a kitchen house on the back property of a Chatham, Virginia plantation.
After the war, she moved to Baltimore and found work teaching at a girl’s school, but the endeavor proved unsuccessful.
Letty Semple in her final years.
Broken financially, emotionally and professionally, this former First Lady was finally placed in Washington, D.C.’s Louise Home in 1877, a permanent housing shelter created for impoverished white women.
Although she became completely blind, Letty Semple had some dignity restored to her life, being made an honored guest at the White House social events of the McKinley Administration.
She refused, however, to return to the presidential mansion after it had been renovated and modernized in 1902 by President Theodore Roosevelt, railing against what she called “the atrocious butchery” of the its modernization. She died five years later.