First Ladies Library Blog

Welcome to the National First Ladies Library blog. This replaces the “asked/answered” page and all information from it has been transferred to the blog. Here will be an ongoing public forum on the work of the NFLL and its collections, discussion on new and emerging scholarship and popular publications, news stories, and any other information or discoveries related to directly to the subject of First Ladies. The public is invited to engage here with questions on the subject.

Research, reading and writing on the subject of American First Ladies opens windows into so many fascinating aspects of not just national and international history and culture but contemporary issues as well.

Enjoy our blog and feel free to post your comments.

The White House and its South Lawn. (carlanthonyonline.com)

The White House and its South Lawn. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Although Mary Lincoln believed in the power of Ouija boards to foretell the future, and consulted astrological magazines as well, she held no faith in the power of dreams to predict imminent events.

In fact, when President Lincoln often turned solemn and fearful when he awoke from dreams with dark conclusions, she laughingly dismissed it as ridiculous.

Not so six of her fellow First Ladies, three of whom also left the White House as presidential widows, two of whom had premonitions about their husbands being in danger, and one that had extra-sensory experiences related to the potential death of a president other than her own husband.

Former President John Tyler died in Richmond, Virginia Exchange Hotel as foretold in a dream by his wife, Julia. A quarter of a century she died there too.

Former President John Tyler died in Richmond, Virginia’s Exchange Hotel as foretold in a dream by his wife, Julia. A quarter of a century later, she died there too.

Julia Gardiner Tyler was no stranger to the supernatural world. As a former First Lady she sponsored an evening of “levitation, magnetic powers, and the conjuring up of spirits from the great beyond.”

She watched in fascination as a slave seamstress levitated a table. “Instead of being terrified, I was very glad I witnessed what is, without a doubt the magnetic influence of the body – and not supernatural agency.”

It was in the power of premonitory dreaming, however, that Mrs. Tyler herself possessed.

As a widow, Julia Tyler always wore a cameo portrait of the late President at her neck,

As a widow, Julia Tyler always wore a cameo portrait of the late President at her neck, (Appleton’s Biographical Dictionary)

One night, while at the James River plantation she shared with her husband and their seven children, she was terrified of a dream she had of him, by now a former president, serving in the Confederate House of Representatives. She imagined him in his room in Richmond’s Exchange Hotel, unable to breathe, holding his necktie.

She told several people about this and decided she had to get to him, to see that he was alright. She made the trip to Richmond, relieved that he was well. She returned home.

Two days later, John Tyler died exactly as she had dreamed he would.

Some twenty-seven years later, Julia Tyler was visiting Richmond and rented a suite at the Exchange Hotel.  She died there too, that very night.

Primary source documents in the hand of First Lady Peggy Taylor seems to have been largely obliterated.

Practically the only primary source remnant from the public life of First Lady Peggy Taylor is this sole copy of her calling card. (Smithsonian)

Practically the only primary source remnant from the public life of First Lady Peggy Taylor is this sole copy of her calling card. (Smithsonian)

Despite the fact that she led a full but secluded life on the second floor of the White House during her husband’s presidency, there remain no notes or letters, barely an autograph.

There is one direct quote attributed to her, however, recalled for the record by a loyal family friend some years after the former First Lady’s death, which she uttered when her husband, Zachary Taylor, the heralded general of the Mexican War, was nominated for the presidency: “It is a plot to deprive me of his company, and to shorten his life.”

Just who was behind what she believed was some kind of conspiracy to kill him, she never said.

Peggy Taylor became hysterical at the deathbed scene of her husband, President Zachary Taylor.

Peggy Taylor became hysterical at the deathbed scene of her husband, President Zachary Taylor.

Sixteen months into his presidency, however, her prediction proved correct. President Taylor died of a sudden stomach disorder in July of 1850.

Peggy Taylor was so hysterical at his deathbed by how quickly his spirit seemed to leave his suddenly inanimate body that she refused to at first believe this.

His corpse was placed on to stay preserved until the burial could take place, but three times Mrs. Taylor asked that he be taken off the ice so she could be certain he really was dead.

From their earliest days together, Julia Dent not only believed that her husband Ulysses S. Grant would go on to enjoy a triumphant life of success and public acclaim: she also believed the audible yet invisible voice which assured her of this during their most dire days of struggle.

Early in their marriage, Julia Grant claimed that an invisible voice assured her that Ulysses was destined for greatness, a premonition in which she never lost faith.

Early in their marriage, Julia Grant claimed that an invisible voice assured her that Ulysses was destined for greatness, a premonition in which she never lost faith. (LC)

Faith in this premonitory voice would not only save her husband’s life but change the course of history.

Just six days after her husband, by then the Union Army leader, had signed the peace treaty ending the Civil War, Julia Grant refused the invitation of the President and Mrs. Lincoln to join them on one of their many nights at the theater. The reason went deeper than the rivalry between the two women.

Earlier that day, Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant was seated in the back of her carriage, negotiating the muddy streets of Washington when a man riding his horse in the opposite direction neared and looked into her vehicle, staring at her with a menacing glance. It left her spooked and unsettled.

As if she were some sort of good luck charm, Julia Grant had made the effort to live in camp with her husband.

From the time he took charge of the Union Army, Ulysses S,. Grant had received any number of threats on his life, yet had emerged unharmed. He’d managed to get through a life on the battlefield as if protected. The war was now over.

Grant was now becoming a national celebrity, which Julia insisted was the ordained path of his fate. She reveled in the cheers and applause with which he was met by the masses at public events.

And yet, despite the promise of enormous adulation from a theater full of admirers who were likely to give Grant a standing ovation along with Lincoln when they entered the presidential box, she felt compelled to obey her inner sense that some type of danger was imminent and must be avoided.

Julia Grant (left) had a fearful sense of doom for her husband had they accepted the invitation of Mrs. Lincoln to j

Julia Grant (left) had a fearful sense of doom for her husband had they accepted the invitation of Mrs. Lincoln to join her and the President at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 to see the play Our American Cousin. (LC)

Both the General and his wife did long for some private time alone with their children, then staying with relatives in New Jersey; it also provided Julia Grant with an acceptable reason for refusing the honor of being seated with the President and Mrs. Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865.

The Grants were already well on their way to New Jersey that night as the Lincolns arrive at Ford’s Theater to see the play Our American Cousins. It was later learned that the conspirators who assassinated the President that night believed Grant was to have also been there – and had every intention of murdering him too.

Ida McKinley escorted by her husband and doctor, 1899. (NFLL)

Ida McKinley escorted by her husband and doctor, 1899. (NFLL)

During her husband’s presidency, Ida McKinley was distorted into the caricature of a Victorian invalid who needed his perpetual protection, a useful tale which made William McKinley a “martyr” and won him votes on sentimentality.

In truth, Ida McKinley was vigilant in her protection of him. 

During the Spanish-American War when he stopped taking even carriage rides and went without sleep, she conspired with his staff to remedy this, terrified of the affect on his health.

At times, she panicked that he was tempting fate by his refusal to be guarded, based on his somewhat arrogant presumption that nobody would ever wish to harm him, despite the many world leaders who were being murdered at the time by a global network of anarchists.

A regular reader of astrological journals, it was easy for her to become further agitated when she inadvertently came across articles predicting situations where President McKinley might be harmed.

Yet, Ida McKinley’s premonition dated from before her husband was elected President in 1896. On the night of his election victory, while he was surrounded by jubilant friends and family, several noticed how “greatly distressed” she was.

Provoking her husband President McKinley to chuckle, Ida McKinley blocked photographers with a parasol as they entered the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition grounds. (LC)

Provoking her husband President McKinley to chuckle, Ida McKinley blocked photographers with a parasol as they entered the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition grounds. (LC)

Her friends later told reporter Edna Colman that “they were satisfied she had a premonition of his fate.” Embarrassed by her dark mood, McKinley made light of it, chuckling, “This little woman is always afraid someone is going to harm her husband.”

Ida McKinley yelled back at him in front of all their guests,  “Oh, Major, they will kill you, they will kill you!”

History’s later casting of Ida McKinley as behaving with irrational demands on her husband date from eyewitness accounts during the period he was planning a run for a second term. Having come to nearly the end of his first term without harm, she argued more stridently and reacted with overt hostility towards his intention, angrily frustrated at him for tempting fate by seeking a second term.

Mrs. McKinley in her Canton home. (NFLL)

Mrs. McKinley in her Canton home. (NFLL)

Forced to accept his decision or essentially forgo any further public role as First Lady, she acquiesced.

Still, as the first summer of his second term waned and Ida McKinley prepared to leave the restful privacy of their home in Canton, Ohio and journey with the President for his anticipated visit to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, her premonitions of five years earlier returned.

Her nurse admitted to the press at the time that it was “strange” just how intensely Mrs. McKinley objected to attending the exposition, yet “gave no reason for not wishing to go.”

Ida McKinley always strongly believed her husband would be killed as President. (Ohio Historical Society picture of ISM  at left)

Ida McKinley always strongly believed her husband would be killed as President. (left side, Ohio Historical Society)

Among the few examples of Ida McKinley’s handwriting are some lines she scribbled in a 1901 diary book her husband had given her as a New Year’s Day gift. She had barely used it.

Yet, some sense was strong enough to compel her to record her feelings as they readied to leave Canton for Buffalo.

As she wrote in the entry for September 1: “I wish we were not going away from home.”

The President and Mrs. McKinley nevertheless left Canton and arrived in Buffalo on September 4.  Two days later her husband was shot. He died eight days later, just as Ida McKinley had always sensed he would be.

It was former President Wilson, by then a victim of stroke, that his wife Edith Wilson feared would die - not the incumbent President, (LC)

It was former President Wilson, by then a victim of stroke, that his wife Edith Wilson feared would die – not the incumbent President, (LC)

By the night of August 2, 1923, Edith Wilson had been out of the White House for two and half years.

She had managed to help craft a false front for the public that her husband, the President, had only been suffering from “nervous exhaustion” upon returning from a cross-country speaking tour by train.

Of course, he had suffered a major debilitating stroke.

Keeping his as rested as possible while working with his physicians, she also successfully managed his presidency by approving routine matters and maintaining the myth that he was fully in charge.

She was lucky to further manage to get him out of the White House alive, the day his successor Warren Harding was sworn in on March 4, 1921.

Seen with his healthy, younger successor Harding, it was outgoing President Wilson's survival which was feared. (LC)

Seen with his healthy, younger successor Harding, it was outgoing President Wilson’s survival which was feared. (LC)

Yet she knew how fragile her husband really was, and her grave concern for his survival only intensified.

That night, however, Edith Wilson was overwhelmed with what she called an inexplicable feeling of “something ominous hanging over us.”

She went to bed, but remained there for only a few hours. The former First Lady was soon awakened by the cries of newspaper boys on the street, who shouted out the headline news that President Harding had died.

Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt proceed to the U.S. Capitol to hear President FDR declare war on December 7, 1941.

Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt proceed to the U.S. Capitol to hear President FDR declare war on December 7, 1941.

Curiously, on the afternoon of April 12, 1945, Edith Wilson was with the incumbent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, making a joint appearance at a fundraising tea at the Sulgrave Club of Washington.

While seated beside her predecessor, a club butler whispered to Mrs. Roosevelt that a call had come in from the White House, asking that she return there at once.

Eleanor Roosevelt never claimed she had the power of extra-sensory perception but she did state for the record that in that moment, she had a visceral foreboding.

Eleanor Roosevelt visits the grave of an American serviceman in Guadalcanal. (pacificwrecks.org)

Eleanor Roosevelt visits the grave of an American serviceman in Guadalcanal. (pacificwrecks.org)

With American and Allied military forces tightening the grip on the Axis during World War II on two fronts, any military move being made at the time could have proven decisive or disastrous.

Having visited what would prove to be nearly ten percent of the U.S. Armed Forces stationed in European and the Pacific bases, she was acutely conscious of wartime death.

She kept up on the fate of the sons of many friends and relatives, always fearful of a report that one had been killed in combat.

She also had all four of her sons on active duty at the front. Any one of them might well be killed.

This was not what troubled her, however.

As she entered her car in the driveway of the Sulgrave Club and was rushed back to the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt had a premonition that her husband had died. (Smithsonian, left)

As she entered her car in the driveway of the Sulgrave Club and was rushed back to the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt had a premonition that her husband had died. (Smithsonian, left)

“I got into the car and sat with clenched hands all the way to the White House,” she recalled. “In my heart of hearts, I knew what had happened.”

She was right.

Her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died.

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The White House. (AP)

The White House. (AP)

The unearthly chants, muffled trumpeting and sharp, repetitive knockings that characterized the séance tactics of 19th century mediums to summon ghosts for the likes of Jane Pierce and Mary Lincoln were silenced by the early 20th century, and yet several First Ladies of that era nevertheless admitted to suddenly experiencing an immediate, visceral sense of spirits in the old house.

Eleanor Roosevelt posed in what is currently the Treaty Room, where she sensed Lincoln's ghost while she worked. (Life)

Eleanor Roosevelt posed in what is currently the Treaty Room, where she sensed Lincoln’s ghost while she worked. (Life)

Eleanor Roosevelt went on the record to publicly state that she did sense some type of “presence” while working in solitude in one of the presidential family rooms in the White House private quarters, leading her to believe she was not alone.

She was careful, however, not to say she saw an apparition or to use the word “ghost.”

It may be no coincidence that claims that some of her immediate predecessors saw or sensed ghosts in the White House stem from this same immediate period in history, when ludicrous Victorian tactics used to prove there was a “spirit world” had given way to efforts introducing “science” into the debate.

By the time of World War I, new allegations of “proof” emerged, no longer indicting anyone who believed in ghosts as irrational.  The great wave of White House ghost sightings came during the three decades following, approximately 1919 to 1945.

At least two claims were patently false.

The legend that Edith Wilson’s plan to landscape a portion of the South Lawn until she was spooked by the ghost of Dolley Madison, who protested the change to what had been her old rose garden is a great story, but easily dismissed.

In fact, it was not Dolley Madison who created the first White House Rose Garden but rather the first Mrs. Wilson, Ellen Axson.

Even if there is proof of ghosts, some basic facts don't support the tale of Dolley Madison's haunting the Rose Garden.

Even if ghosts are real, some basic facts don’t support the tale of Dolley Madison’s haunting the Wilson era Rose Garden.

A claim that Lou Hoover saw the ghost of Abigail Adams approaching the doors of the large and long East Room, where she had famously had her servants hang her family’s laundry to dry on ropes emerged years after she’d hosted a wedding shower there for one of her secretaries with laundry set up on clothing-lines there as a theme.

As the story about the party was repeated, it was recast as having a more secretive, ghoulish origin.

One story might be true.

Years after the fact, White House seamstress Lillian Rogers Parks reported that unearthly cries of childbirth pain were heard in the west end in the second floor presidential family living quarters of the “old mansion,”  meaning before its Truman Administration renovation.

Later, more fanciful versions state that it was Bess Truman who heard these cries and told her husband about them. In letters to her when she was back home in Missouri, the President’s proclivity to believe in White House ghosts of Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln was evident; the later, elaborated tales suggest that it was really he who declared the cries to be those of the ghost of Frances Cleveland, the only First Lady to give birth there, to daughter Esther in 1893.

Frances Cleveland, center, with the Trumans in 1947 - several months before her ghost was allegedly seen by them.

Frances Cleveland, center, with the Trumans in 1947 – several months before her ghost was allegedly seen by them.

If there was any truth in this, the ghost didn’t have much time to haunt: former First Lady Frances Cleveland died in October of 1947 and the Trumans moved out months later, during the 1948 presidential campaign, so the massive renovation of the old White House could begin. In fact, they had both first met Frances Cleveland just months before in Princeton – when she was alive.

The sounds Truman reported as being those of ghosts were more likely those of the old building’s structure giving out.

Grace Coolidge. (LC)

Grace Coolidge. (LC)

Claims of four living First Ladies sensing the spirit of one dead President are, however, authentic, being made by the women themselves.

In a series of American Magazine articles she authored about her life as First Lady, Grace Coolidge confessed to once glimpsing the ephemeral image of President Abraham Lincoln standing by a window in what had been his office (the present-day Lincoln Bedroom).

His momentary manifestation, Mrs. Coolidge reported further, had him looking out a window at Virginia in the distance, where he could once see across the Potomac River to a Civil War battlefield.

A Lincoln ghost hologram generated by engineers of the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

A Lincoln ghost hologram generated by engineers of the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

The room where Eleanor Roosevelt often worked, just to the west of the present-day Lincoln Bedroom, was a private study in the day of Lincoln, with a door connecting both places, a partitioned path permitting the President to move inconspicuously.

Eleanor Roosevelt had furnished this room with durable wood pieces made by the Val-Kill Factory, the upstate New York furniture enterprise she had helped create.  It was while working here alone and late at night that she felt Lincoln’s presence.

Perhaps it was the power of suggestion but two prominent European visitors who were overnight guests in suites at the east end of the second floor, near where the American First Lady worked, also felt what she did.

Lady Bird Johnson in the Lincoln Bedroom with photographer Edward Steichen and Lincoln scholar Carl Sandburg. (LBJL)

Lady Bird Johnson in the Lincoln Bedroom with photographer Edward Steichen and Lincoln scholar Carl Sandburg. (LBJL)

When she heard a knock on her bedroom door, Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina rose to answer it and claimed to see the ghost of Lincoln and fainted in reaction. Given the same suite to use during his visits, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was entering the bedroom from the bathroom and told of seeing Lincoln’s ghost seated beside the open fireplace.

Once, after watching a television documentary about Lincoln, admitted Lady Bird Johnson, she strongly sensed his presence in the long hallway of the private quarters, which ran from the west end of the family quarters to the east end where, in Lincoln’s day, his office had been located.

Jacqueline Kennedy in Halloween costume seated on the Lincoln bed, with her daughter, nephew and sister-in-law Jean Smith.

Jacqueline Kennedy in Halloween costume seated on the Lincoln bed, with her daughter, nephew and sister-in-law Jean Smith.

In 1961, during an interview with Life magazine, Jacqueline Kennedy said that while the President she admired the most was Thomas Jefferson, that it was Lincoln for whom she felt the greatest affinity.

She added that she often went alone to sit quietly in the Lincoln Bedroom and find solace amid the craziness of public life by being in his presence.

By the end of the 20th century, First Ladies no longer needed spiritualists or mediums to contact the dead. In fact, one particular First Lady proved rather successful in calling to mind the spirit of another First Lady.

A composite imagine making humorous reference to how Hillary Clinton famously called on her imagination to think about Eleanor Roosevelt's reactions to what she was then experiencing as First Lady. (papermasters.com)

A composite image making humorous reference to how Hillary Clinton famously called on her imagination to think about Eleanor Roosevelt’s reactions to what she was then experiencing as First Lady. (papermasters.com)

It was not the return of Eleanor Roosevelt in ghost form at all, but the “spirit” of the woman that Hillary Clinton sought to draw from as an inspiration, upon the recommendation of Jean Houston, a psychologist who had also studied theology and leader of the “human potential movement.”

The two women were working together on a book project of the First Lady when Houston suggested that she imagine how Mrs. Roosevelt, who Mrs. Clinton especially emulated, might react to any number of obstacles that she encountered as First Lady.

A cartoon of the 2008 presidential campaign making satirical reference to Hillary Clinton's channeling of Eleanor Roosevelt.

A cartoon of the 2008 presidential campaign making satirical reference to Hillary Clinton’s channeling of Eleanor Roosevelt.

When the public first learned of this, however, the story which hit the media was that Hillary Clinton was regularly channeling the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt for conversations.

Knowing the best way to dismiss a wild story was to use self-deprecation, the First Lady began cracking that she had just talked over with Eleanor whatever issue the press asked her about that day.

As she noted in a July 23, 1996 letter to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, “Given the latest flap over my ‘imaginary conversations’ with Mrs. R, I’ll be sure to pass on your greetings the next time we talk!”

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The White House. (time.com)

The White House. (time.com)

The White House telephone operators are legendary for their ability to reach anyone in the world, no matter how remotely out of touch they may be.

A number of First Ladies, however, have seemed to do even better with their ability to reach those out of this world and in that mystical realm which is so much a part of the ghoulish pranks and traditional celebration of Halloween.

Mamie Eisenhower had the State Dining Room decorated with paper Fifties Halloween decorations for a 1956 autumn luncheon. (Eisenhower Library)

Mamie Eisenhower had the State Dining Room decorated with paper Fifties Halloween decorations for a 1956 autumn luncheon. (Eisenhower Library)

Halloween was not celebrated as a fun holiday at the White House until First Lady Mamie Eisenhower hosted a 1950s luncheon and had the state floor reception rooms decorated with paper and cardboard  witches, black cats and skeletons, corn stalks and pumpkins.

An entire century before that, however, there were tales of ghosts rising in spirit form, beckoned by the bells, horns, rapping, letters, prayers, dreams and beseeching hysterics of several First Ladies.

It is perhaps unsurprising that it was during the Victorian Age,  when a societal preoccupation with death and mourning took root and questionable methods arose to provide the inconsolable with methods to contact dead loved ones on the “the other side.”

None who lived in the White House were as obsessed with thoughts of a morbid nature than was Jane Pierce.

Jane Pierce in later years, perpetually wore black mourning clothes. (NH Historical Society)

Jane Pierce in later years, perpetually wore black mourning clothes. (NH Historical Society)

From an early age her letters to family members fixate on illness, debility and death. When her two youngest sons died, a morose pall settled on her, but she lived in a permanent state of depression after the horrific death of her eleven-year old son Bennie. The trauma occurred after her husband Franklin Pierce was elected President in November of 1852 but before his March 1853 Inauguration.

The boy and his parents were traveling a short distance by train in Massachusetts, when their rail car overturned into an embankment.

An English railroad derailment into an embankment, like the January 1853 one which killed Bennie Pierce. (wikipedia)

An English railroad derailment into an embankment, like the January 1853 one which killed Bennie Pierce. (wikipedia)

All the passengers were thrown from their seats but metal and wood smashed the skull of the president-elect’s son,, killing him instantly.

Mrs. Pierce briefly glimpsed her dead son in this condition, a sight which haunted her thoughts as long as she lived.

Beyond the grief of personal loss, however, Bennie Pierce’s death left his mother overwhelmed with guilt.

Nothing distracted Jane Pierce from a determination to contact her dead son and convey the depth of her love and beg his forgiveness for withholding the fullest measure of it when he was alive.

Benny Pierce and his mother. (NH Historical Society)

Benny Pierce and his mother. (NH Historical Society)

The First Lady’s initial effort to contact Bennie seemed to be a psychological beckoning in the form of one long, emotionally wrought letter to him, composed in January of 1853, asking him to come to her so she could further explain her failings as a mother.

She then invited the famous young spiritualists of the era, the Fox sisters, to hold a White House séance so she could reach Bennie.

Jane Pierce and the famous spiritualist duo, the Fox sisters.(LC; Missouri History Museum)

Jane Pierce and the famous spiritualist duo, the Fox sisters.(LC; Missouri History Museum)

Whether it was her letter or the séance, Mrs. Pierce did find relief. She would soon report to her sister that her dead son came to her in two successive nights of dreams.

Jane Pierce shared the grim experience of losing a young child to death with the very next presidential wife, Mary Lincoln.

Like her predecessor, Mrs. Lincoln had already suffered the trauma of losing a young son before becoming First Lady.

A Lincoln Presidential Museum depiction of Mary Lincoln at the sickbed of her son WIllie. (flickr)

A Lincoln Presidential Museum depiction of Mary Lincoln at the sickbed of her son WIllie. (flickr)

In February of 1862, while her husband led the Union during the Civil War, Mrs. Abraham Lincoln watched helplessly as her eleven year old son Willie died of typhoid fever: there was little public sympathy for her, the rational being that she had the privilege of at least being with her son when he died while most of the nation’s other mothers were losing their sons to battlefield death.

 Artist and author Michelle L. Hamilton depicted Abraham and Mary Lincoln during a White House seance.

Artist and author Michelle L. Hamilton depicted Abraham and Mary Lincoln during a White House seance.

Responding to the loss as Jane Pierce had to hers, Mary Lincoln began consulting a series of mediums, attending the séance circles of Cranston Laurie, and inviting Nettie Colburn Maynard, William Shockle and another identified in the record only as “Colchester of Georgetown” to conduct these “calls to the dead” in the White House Red Room.

On at least one known occasion, President Lincoln was in attendance.

Mary Lincoln told her sister that her two dead sons Willie and Eddy visited her, coming to the foot of her bed. (LC)

Mary Lincoln told her sister that her two dead sons Willie and Eddy visited her, coming to the foot of her bed. (LC)

Laurie was apparently the most successful in uniting the First Lady with her dead son’s spirit because he was permitted to became intimate enough with her to use clairvoyance, detecting that there were enemies around her who must be replaced: to the politically keen Mary Lincoln this claim served to bolster her sense that Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase was being disloyal to the President.

While Jane Pierce reported that her son did return to her in dreams, Mary Lincoln claimed that the spirits of her dead sons took actual ghost form and manifested in her White House bedroom.

An image of Lincoln in his coffin (pinterest).

An image of Lincoln in his coffin (pinterest).

As she wrote her sister Emilie about Willie: “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed with the same, sweet adorable smile he has always had; he does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him.”

The famous photograph of the widowed Mary Lincoln with the loving hands of her husband's ghosts protectively on her shoulders.

The famous photograph of the widowed Mary Lincoln with the hands of her husband’s ghost on her shoulders.

The assassination of her husband led Mary Lincoln to find her only solace in an even more adamant belief in spiritualism.

She reportedly joined a “spiritualist commune” for several days during a New England trip, and famously posed for “spirit photographer” William Mumler, who then created an image of her husband’s ghost with his hands protectively on her shoulders.

Offering her the only comfort she experienced in her years as a widow, Mrs. Lincoln believed it was authentic.

“A very slight veil separates us from ‘the loved and lost,’” she wrote to a friend, “though unseen by us, they are very near.”

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Priscilla Tyler. (University of Alabama)

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)

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 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.

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)

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.

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)

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)

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.

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.

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,

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)

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.

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)

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)

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)

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)

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.

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.

 

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The poster for the film Kisses for My President (1964), a comedy about the first woman President and her husband the first First Gent.

The poster for the film Kisses for My President (1964), a comedy about the first woman President and her husband the first First Gent.

The question arises more frequently than one might imagine.

A fictional first woman President takes the oath of office as a fictional First Gent looks on.

A fictional first woman President takes the oath of office as a fictional First Gent looks on.

If the first woman elected President of the United States and is not widowed, divorced or single, will it be her or her spouse that the National First Ladies Library focuses on, in keeping with the mission of the institution?

Obviously, that elected official will not be a First Lady – but rather a President. And if she has a husband, then he he won’t be a First Lady – but rather a “First Gent.”

The subject came to public attention again, in passing and in a lighter vein,  with the recent death of the actress Polly Bergen.

One half-century ago, as President Lyndon B. Johnson was running for his own full term in 1964, Polly Bergen starred in the comedy Kisses for My President, the first feature film to feature the first woman President.

The book often considered the launch in the popular culture of the “Women’s Lib” movement, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, had only been published months before Kisses for My President was released. It was an era when the film’s premise of a woman actually being elected and then serving as an American President seemed so absurd that the movie couldn’t be produced as anything but a comedy.

A President who looked exactly like a First Lady.

A President who looked exactly like a First Lady.

Even though Bergen’s Leslie McCloud carries out her duties as the chief executive, her appearance is decidedly that of a First Lady of that era in the immediate aftermath of Mamie Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy: white gloves, matching pillbox, monochromatic day suits.

The focus, however, is less about Madame President Leslie Harrison McCloud and more about that man she married.

Bergen’s co-star Fred MacMurray depicted another “first” in political film history, the “First Male First Lady,” as the movie poster declared.

His character of Thad McCloud was a rather hapless presidential spouse, wandering around the White House uncertain about his what his public role should be.

When he stumbles into the East Wing, he discovers his staff of a Social Secretary and Personal Secretary, who cluck and coo to him that his life could be “one mad social whirl” if he was willing to preside over ribbon-cutting ceremonies and attend fashion show luncheons fundraisers.

Lillian Bronson as Miss Currier and Norma Varden as Miss Dinsendorff depicted the two heads of the First Lady's staff, inherited by the First Gent, who instruct him on his social calendar.

Lillian Bronson as Miss Currier and Norma Varden as Miss Dinsendorff depicted the two heads of the First Lady’s staff, inherited by the First Gent, who instruct him on his social calendar.

MacMurray’s character is too polite to challenge this presumption of public expectations, responding only with a politely quizzical raising of his eyebrows.

At the time of the film’s public release it was still a year away from the nation watching as new kind of First Lady was evolving under the months-old tenure of Lady Bird Johnson.

With her commitment to  civil rights and environmental protection legislation, Mrs. Johnson soon introduced a more publicly overt level of political activity and policy advocacy.

As always, a presidential spouse had unaccountable influence and access to the most powerful person in the world - even in the movies.

As always, a presidential spouse had unaccountable influence and access to the most powerful person in the world – even in the movies.

In contrast, while Thad McCloud exercises his marital prerogative of advising his spouse on her work, just like all First Ladies had done in real life, he only does so privately.

Had Kisses For My President been made a decade after it was, the shift in public perception of gender roles might have made for a more comfortable film version of the first First Gent.

Here is a short video considering the former President becoming the future First Gent and some moments from Kisses for My President:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yIBWkrJEJi4&feature=youtu.be

The movie is of the “fish out of water” genre, placing a humble and reserved white American male in a business suit in the position of what is expected to be a middle-aged matron of leisure who’s world is dominated by fashion, flowers and parties.

Kisses for My President was certainly not fine drama nor laugh-riot comedy, but it actually serves a more interesting purpose now, as a window into the general public perceptions of proper gender roles of married American men and women, as exemplified by the couple in the White House.

The ABC-TV series Commander in Chief was only the second mainstream media fictional depiction of a woman US President, ran from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2006.

The ABC-TV series Commander in Chief was only the second mainstream media fictional depiction of a woman US President, ran from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2006.

 

First Gent has a private moment with Madame President.

First Gent has a private moment with Madame President.

Certainly closer to what is likely to be the reality was the depiction of First Gentleman Rod Calloway, played by actor Kyle Secor, in the first television drama series about the first woman US President, entitled Commander in Chief. With actress Geena Davis in the lead role, the series ran just eighteen episodes, from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2006.

This TV First Gent is certainly more substantively engaged than the caricature type MacMurray intended. The Rod Calloway First Gent is a political player himself, having served as Connecticut state attorney general and with rank in the U.S. Army.

The First Gent holds the Bible for the first woman President.

The First Gent holds the Bible for the first woman President.

Much as First Ladies like Florence Harding, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, and Nellie Taft did, this First Gent has had a role in his spouse’s rise to power, only his was made official.

In the script’s backstory, it is learned that Calloway had served as Chief of Staff to his wife when she was serving as Vice President of the United States, the venue through which she inherits the presidency due to the Chief Executive’s death.

The First Gent scolds a teenage son.

The First Gent scolds a teenage son.

Nevertheless, like Thad McCloud, Rod Calloway is unsettled by having to assume a ceremonial role in public, and he gives serious consideration to accepting the offer of baseball commissioner in nearby Baltimore until his wife convinces him that his role as presidential counselor is vital to her success.

Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen and Kyle Secor as First Gent.

Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen and Kyle Secor as First Gent.

IAlthough her appointing him Presidential Strategic Planning Adviser would be a difficult move in reality (putting a presidential spouse on the federal payroll), this fictional presidential spouse’s run-ins and power-plays with Madame President’s Chief of Staff certainly ring true to the history of conflicts between First Ladies and male Chiefs of Staff.

It was only two years after the series was pulled by the network that reality finally trumped fantasy – or nearly it.

Hillary Clinton delivering a speech at the White House

Hillary Clinton delivering a speech at the White House

With the candidacy for her party’s presidential nomination, the former First Lady and then-US Senator Hillary Clinton grasped the closest of the various women who have tried before, in either serious or symbolic efforts, to win the American presidency.

Through it all, the media was just as equally fixated on her husband – himself, of course, being a former President of the United States – Bill Clinton.

There was no hiding his overt commitment to his wife’s victory or that his experienced political advice was a factor she relied upon.

Bill Clinton has already assumed on numerous occasions the sort of role one might expect a First Gent to take.

Bill Clinton has already assumed on numerous occasions the sort of role one might expect a First Gent to take.

The potential role that Bill Clinton might have played had Hillary Clinton won her party’s nomination and then the general election can only be a matter of speculation as it will be again, perhaps, if she determines to run again for the 2016 nomination.

And while the potential of his assuming such a role would be utterly unique in American popular culture and certainly interesting from the perspective of what it may reflect on evolving gender roles, let alone marital politics, Bill Clinton’s potential First Gent role must really remain in a category by itself for, after all, he is no mere man, or husband but rather a former President of the United States.

That represents such an absolutely, utterly unique condition that resists being quantified into any neat, little category.

As she did for him during his presidency, Bill Clinton has been a supportive spouse at public ceremonies to his wife in her jobs as US Senator and Secretary of State. (Getty)

As she did for him during his presidency, Bill Clinton has been a supportive spouse at public ceremonies to his wife in her jobs as US Senator and Secretary of State. (Getty)

Yet for the very facts that Bill Clinton is long familiar to the world as a President with a spouse who was an overt political partner and as a former President who has appeared at numerous public ceremonies and political events in a secondary, supportive but subordinate role behind his wife in her roles as Senator and then Secretary of State, he has already cast a conception of just what a 21st century first First Gent would do.

A flip of the familiar campaign button slogan often using the name and face of a candidate's wife to endorse her husband's presidential ambition.

A flip of the familiar campaign button slogan often using the name and face of a candidate’s wife to endorse her husband’s presidential ambition.

Add to this his long history of non-partisan domestic projects and global initiatives through his foundation and one finds he has conducted charitable efforts in a manner not too differently than a 21st First Lady would.

Until the United States has the real experience of a woman President and the likely simultaneous scenario of its first First Gent, the question has everyone from political scientists to satirists speculating on just what he would, could and should do.

A bumper sticker offers one possible title.

A bumper sticker offers one possible title.

A sarcastic take on what a woman president's husband might be called.

A sarcastic take on what a woman president’s husband might be called.

There is even debate about what to call him, ranging from the reasonable one of “First Gentleman” most often seen on tee-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers to the sarcastic one of “Mr. First Lady.”

And just in case Hillary Clinton does become the second President Clinton, Bill Clinton had already weighed in on the matter as well, musing that, in a nod to the traditional title given women presidential spouses as well as his own Scottish heritage.

A 2008 presidential campaign button referencing former President Clinton's choice of the ideal title for a woman president's husband,

A 2008 presidential campaign button referencing former President Clinton’s choice of the ideal title for a woman president’s husband,

He’d like to simply be called “First Laddie.”

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Jane Irwin Harrison, presidential daughter-in-law and First Lady for the briefest Administration. (Grouselands)

Jane Irwin Harrison, presidential daughter-in-law and First Lady for the briefest Administration. (Grouselands)

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.

A later depiction of William Henry Hrrison's Inaugural Ball figured both Anna Taylor, at far left,and Jane Harrison, at right, in the background as part of his entourage.

A later depiction of William Henry Harrison’s Inaugural Ball figured both Anna Taylor, at far left,and Jane Harrison, at right, in the background as part of his entourage.

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.

An aerial view of Berkeley Plantation in Virginia where William Henry Harrison was born and where his daughter and White House hostess Anna Taylor later lived. (Berkeley)

An aerial view of Berkeley Plantation in Virginia where William Henry Harrison was born and where his daughter and White House hostess Anna Taylor later lived. (Berkeley)

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.

Members of the Harrison family who came to Washington, son John, grandson Benjamin, daughter Anna Taylor, the President and Jane Harrison. Indiana Historical Society)

Members of the Harrison family who came to Washington, son John, grandson Benjamin, daughter Anna Taylor, the President and Jane Harrison. (Indiana Historical Society)

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.

Jane Harrison in what is believed to be the only photograph made of her.

Jane Harrison in what is believed to be the only photograph made of her.

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.

An earlier Smithsonian mannequin depicting Jane Harrison in the Inaugural gown she wore to her father-in-law's 1841 Whig Ball. (Smithsonian)

An earlier Smithsonian mannequin depicting Jane Harrison in the Inaugural gown she wore to her father-in-law’s 1841 Whig Ball. (Smithsonian)

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.

Elizabeth Irwin Harrison, mother of Benjamin Harrison, sister of Jane Harrison - or, daughter-in-law to one President, mother to another.

Elizabeth Irwin Harrison, mother of Benjamin Harrison, sister of Jane Harrison – or, daughter-in-law to one President, mother to another.

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 Findlay. (Smithsonian)

Jane Findlay. (Smithsonian)

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.

A locket containing the only known photo of Jane Findlay, now in the Smithsonian collection.

A locket containing the only known photo of Jane Findlay. (Smithsonian)

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.

Two different deathbed scenes of President Harrison both incorrectly identified a Niece as being present.

Two different deathbed scenes of President Harrison both incorrectly identified a “Niece” as being present.

 

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.

The only Harrison deathbed illustration correctly depicting two women, one rightly identified as his daughter Mrs. Taylor.

The only Harrison deathbed illustration correctly depicting two women, one rightly identified as his daughter Mrs. Taylor.

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.

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First Ladies Never Married to Presidents: Angelica Van Buren

Angelica Van Buren while White House hostess for her father-in-law, whose bust is seen in the background. (White House)

Angelica Van Buren while White House hostess for her father-in-law, whose bust is seen in the background. (White House)

She had it all, wealth, intelligence, education, inheritance, beauty, social status and every possible privilege that a South Carolina plantation background could afford her, and yet Angelica Van Buren with her signature corkscrew curls and swanlike neck, likely harmed more the presidential re-election campaign of her father-in-law than she did help it.

A Smithsonian mannequin on which a gown of Angelica Van Buren was once displayed.

A Smithsonian mannequin on which a gown of Angelica Van Buren was once displayed.

Born the day before Valentine’s Day in 1816, it’s easy to perceive her as a character out of a romantic novel, but she would fulfill the literary requirements of a tragedy as well: her father plunged to his death with her nephew when their train crossed a bridge that collapsed. Her sister endured spousal abuse.

Deborah Grelaud. (askart.com)

Deborah Grelaud. (askart.com)

During her five years as a boarding student at Philadelphia’s Madame Grelaud’s Seminary for Young Ladies (1831-1836), the future First Lady adopted the nickname of “Angelique,” a choice which provides a significant clue to her growing obsession with all things refined and French, a quality inculcated by the school founder Deborah Grelaud, a French native of Haiti who fled there during its 1793 revolution.

Students were rigorously trained entirely in French and educated on European art, literature and culture.

The exorbitant tuition ensured it would be an institution only for the daughters of the elite class, including of presidential families, like Martha Washington’s great-granddaughters, James Monroe’s daughter Maria and the future wife of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Angelica Singelton as a student.

Angelica Singelton as a student.

Letters from this period reveal Angelica with a balance of style and substance, as devoted to the art of writing as she was to the design of fashionable clothing in luxurious materials.

The elderly Dolley Madison. (Heritage Auctions)

The elderly Dolley Madison. (Heritage Auctions)

After graduation, Miss Singleton came to Washington with her sister Marion in December of 1837, with familial ties. Her mother’s brother had served as President Jefferson’s private secretary and lived with him in the Executive Mansion, and her first cousins included former First Lady Dolley Madison, a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Congressman.

In March of 1838, Mrs. Madison brought the Singleton sisters to a private White House dinner hosted by widower President Martin Van Buren, with his four unmarried adult sons also in attendance.

Abraham Van Buren. (LC)

Abraham Van Buren. (LC)

The draw between the southern belle and the president’s eldest son Abraham, a swashbuckling West Point graduate and brevet major of the Seminole Indian War, who wore a sash and sword, was likely intense for it was only a matter of eight months before they were married at the family plantation of the 22 year old in South Carolina.

Right after the wedding, the newlyweds went home to the White House where the bride was escorted by the President at formal private dinners and he asserted her assumption of the highest rank of women from other political families in attendance.

The press and the general public got to meet the new Mrs. Van Buren at the 1839 New Year’s Day.

President Van Buren. (randomologyofmoi.tumblr.com)

President Van Buren. (randomologyofmoi.tumblr.com)

That day, she received guests alone in the oval reception room (not yet designated the Blue Room). Her physical beauty and conversational skills made her instantly popular.

Despite the fact that no evidence suggests she influenced the President on domestic agricultural or abolition policy, the new First Lady symbolized the southern states rights demographic of the Democratic Party which was growing hostile to the potential threat of abolition while the President continued to placate abolitionists of his powerful New York base. Van Buren found his daughter-in-law served the political advantage of abating his increasingly tenuous hold on factions of his party.

Angelica Van Buren's aunt Sally Stevenson, US Minister to England's wife. (Social Life in the Early Republic, 1902)

Angelica Van Buren’s aunt Sally Stevenson, US Minister to England’s wife. (Social Life in the Early Republic, 1902)

It was the following autumn, when she and the president’s son made their delayed European honeymoon that her more politically inexpedient behavior emerged. Inspired by her heavy reading on European court life, Angelica Van Buren naively delighted in being received as the Queen of the United States in the royal houses of England and France.

There being no criticism in American newspapers of Angelica Van Buren’s gallivant with the royals at the time, she was inspired to create a similar court life the next year at the White House. Still, her aunt Sally, married to U.S. Minister to Great Britain Andrew Stevenson, was disturbed by how enamored her niece had become with royal life.

During her time in England, her uncle Stevenson drew her into an international scandal after being denounced by Irish patriot Daniel O’Connor as not merely an owner of enslaved people but a “slave breeder.” Although O’Connor ignored Stevenson’s challenge to duel, it reflected poorly on the U.S., fueled by the President’s refusal to recall him because he was the First Lady’s uncle.

The controversy prompted the abolitionist U.S. Whig Party to attach a negative association to Angelica Van Buren as they geared up for their 1840 challenge to defeat Van Buren for a second term in the 1840 presidential election.

An illustrated British journal deppicted President Van Buren, his son Prince John and dauighter-in-law Angelica at a family gathering.

An illustrated British journal deppicted President Van Buren, his son “Prince John” and daughter-in-law Angelica at a family gathering.

When the general public next interacted with Angelica Van Buren again, at the 1840 New Year’s Day Reception, she received them in the formal and stiffly-held poses of the “tableaux,” a technique used in the European palaces by royal family members who held large bouquets of flowers in their lap and refused to any longer shake their hands in the expected democratic custom.

The French Minister withheld his customary criticism of the commonness of American behavior to instead praise Angelica’s “distinguished manners” and claim she would be popular “in any country.”

A depiction of Angelica Van Buren on the White House South Lawn. (ebay)

A depiction of Angelica Van Buren on the White House South Lawn. (ebay)

Mrs. Van Buren missed being hit by any direct criticism, soon enough vanishing from public sight for the expected “confinement” of her first pregnancy. Her first child was born in the White House on March 27, 1840 but died five days later.

Pregnant a second time that fall, during the President’s re-election campaign, she nevertheless proved to be a contributing factor to his loss.

As the nation endured a deep economic depression, newspaper coverage of Mrs. Van Buren’s receiving style at the New Year’s Day reception, as well as the anecdotal claim that she intended to re-landscape the White House grounds to resemble the royal gardens of Europe were used in a political attack on her father-in-law by a Pennsylvania Whig Congressman Charles Ogle.

He referred obliquely to her as part of the presidential “household” in his famous “Gold Spoon” speech. The attack was delivered in Congress and the depiction of the President as living a royal lifestyle was a primary factor in his defeat for re-election.

Melrose House, Angelica Singleton Van Buren's family plantation home in Sumter County, South Carolina.

Melrose House, Angelica Singleton Van Buren’s family plantation home in Sumter County, South Carolina.

There was also a growing feel among some in the country at the time, however, that those like Angelica Singleton Van Buren, who’d been educated at institutions like Grelaud Seminary or lived in among Philadelphia’s elite class, were part of a new concept of “American upper class,” and antithetical to the ideal of democracy. Southern families settling there were blending with the city’s wealthy merchant class base who tended to be traditional, conservative Anglophiles. This coalescing defied regionalism and was a reaction to the growing movement empowering the working-class. Part of this emerging “upper-class” identity was the “French-centered” education, a status symbol restricted to all but the wealthy. Those seeking to establish access to education for all classes of women charged that the emphasis on European culture of institutions such as the Grelaud Seminary demeaned the new nation’s majority of more common citizens.

Bedroom of Angelica and Abraham Van Buren.

Bedroom of Angelica and Abraham Van Buren.

After leaving the White House with her husband, brothers-in-law and father-in-law, Angelica Van Buren assumed management of the former President’s home in the Hudson River Valley, which he used as headquarters for his intended return to elective national political office. Angelica and Abraham Van Buren and their three sons moved to their own home in New York City in 1848, along with her niece Mary who she raised as a daughter.

During a lengthy trip to Europe, she became exposed to various reform movements to help the laboring classes, inspiring her to undertake charity work upon her return.

Angelica Van Buren in later years. (LC)

Angelica Van Buren in later years. (LC)

Her new conscientiousness about the powerless of society was bolstered by the shocking realization of how her beloved sister, physically abused and financially exploited by her husband, had no legal recourse based solely on her gender.

Angelica Van Buren survived most of her family, including all of her siblings, and nearly every niece and nephew and her husband.

None of her three adult sons had any children and thus she leaves no descendants. She died in 1878, choosing to be buried not in South Carolina but beside her husband in the New York borough of the Bronx.

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First Ladies Never Married to Presidents: Sarah Jackson

Sarah Yorke Jackson, daughter-in-law of President Andrew Jackson and, briefly, his White House hostess. (The Hermitage)

Sarah Yorke Jackson, daughter-in-law of President Andrew Jackson and, briefly, his White House hostess. (The Hermitage)

Andrew Jackson actually had two First Ladies and never married either of them.

One was his wife’s niece, Emily Donelson, who did as planned and assumed the role of hostess in the presidential mansion at Washington.

Sarah Yorke Jackson in younger years, during her tenure as White House hostess. (The White House)

Sarah Yorke Jackson in younger years, during her tenure as White House hostess. (The White House)

The other was his daughter-in-law, Sarah Jackson, who it was planned would assume the role of hostess in the president’s plantation in Nashville, but a sudden fire there had her also coming to live in the presidential mansion.

For the first time in history, there were two women serving simultaneously with equal status as White House hostesses, neither of whom were presidential spouses.

Sarah Jackson’s story is one that has never been widely disseminated, but it is unusual.

Orphaned at 15 years old, raised by two maiden aunts in Philadelphia, Sarah Yorke and her two sisters Jane and Marian were heiresses to great mercantile fortune, established by their father, like his own father, was a sea captain who travelled the globe and were familiar with the cultures of Africa and Asia.

Her grandfather’s grandfather had been a Quaker in England, a follower of William Penn who immigrated to the American colony of Pennsylvania when he learned of the religious freedom it offered those of his sect.

Andrew Jackson, Jr. (The Hermitage)

Andrew Jackson, Jr. (The Hermitage)

She was born in July of 1805 but practically nothing his known of her childhood.

Sarah’s narrative becomes more definitive after her wedding to the President’s adopted son and namesake, two years after his presidency began. Jackson was unable to attend the ceremony in Philadelphia but greeted her with literally open arms on the North Portico of the White House, commencing a series of dinners and receptions to honor her, at which she wore her wedding gown.

She and Andrew, Jr. spent the winter of 1832 in the White House.

In the late spring of 1832, a pregnant Sarah and her husband headed down to the President’s Nashville plantation.

That November, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter named after her late mother-in-law.

She was fully recovered and in a joyous mood when she returned to the White House for her father-in-law’s second Inauguration on March 4, 1833.

She stayed through summer and accompanied the President on his summer vacation in Virginia, after which she proceeded home to Tennessee.

Sarah Jackson gave birth to her second child in the spring of 1834 at the Hermitage plantation, after which a fire broke out and destroyed part of the plantation house. This prompted the return of Andrew, Jr., Sarah and their two-year daughter and seven-month old son.

An old postcard depicting the Hermitage.

An old postcard depicting the Hermitage.

Interestingly, she made the northern trip by stagecoach along with Emily Donelson so that there would be no rumors of one or the other being the “official” or primary hostess of the White House.

Nevertheless, the President did declare that Sarah was “mistress of the Hermitage,” a home he considered more important to him personally than the White House.

Even if they were intended to be treated with the same status in relation to the President, Emily Donelson did dominate the White House simply by the nature of her tenure there since the beginning and her wide circle of Washington social contacts.

There was never any known rivalry between the two of them and they even co-hosted a children’s Christmas party at the end of 1835.

Sarah Jackson's pearl-encrusted guitar which she likely used to entertain friends and family in the White House. (The Hermitage)

Sarah Jackson’s pearl-encrusted guitar which she likely used to entertain friends and family in the White House. (The Hermitage)

Sarah Jackson again returned to the Hermitage in the spring of 1836.

That summer Emily Donelson also returned to her adjoining plantation but was terminally ill.

It’s unclear if Sarah Jackson visited with her fellow First Lady in the fall of 1836 before she returned to Washington and Emily died at home, but it is highly likely.

With the end of the Administration nearing, Sarah Jackson was now back at the White House as the sole hostess there for President Jackson and she oversaw the packing of his personal possessions for shipment home to the Hermitage.

Sarah Jackson ran the household at the Hermitage for the former President until his death in 1845, giving birth to three more sons there. Pressed by the debts he left, she and her husband relocated to Mississippi just before the Civil War.

The bedroom of Sarah York Jackson, one of two First Ladies during her father-in-law's presidency.

The Hermitage bedroom of Sarah York Jackson, one of two First Ladies during her father-in-law’s presidency.

After the war, the state of Tennessee bought the Hermitage to preserve as an historic site but permitted this relatively obscure First Lady to continue living there until her death in 1887.

Although Sarah Jackson did not play an important role in the White House, she did ensure the physical and emotional comfort of her legendary father-in-law during his increasingly infirm and disabled retirement, playing a vital role that was entirely private and personal rather than political and public.

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Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Simply by making an entirely social decision and sticking to it, Andrew Jackson’s First Lady Emily Donelson, niece of his late wife, managed to impact the political climate of his presidency and come into open conflict with him.

In fact, were it not for Emily Donelson’s status in the presidential household and the rigid obstinacy of her decision, the famous “Peggy Eaton Affair” would have never occurred.

Rachel Jackson, one of her portraits in the collection of the Hermitage.

Rachel Jackson, one of her portraits in the collection of the Hermitage.

Although the President’s wife Rachel Jackson had died less than three months before her husband’s presidency began, she had made definitive plans about how she would carry out her role in the White House.

Anticipating the arrangements later made by Letitia Tyler, Peggy Taylor and Eliza Johnson, all presidential spouses from the southern states, Mrs. Jackson intended to have her young, well-educated and socially sophisticated relative – in her case, niece Emily Donelson – appear in public and assume the visibility of hostess at social events where guests were strangers to her.

Many people know the details of the tragic romance between Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel, who had believed that she was legitimately divorced from her first husband Lewis Robards at the time she married Jackson, her second husband.

Not until she and Jackson had established a household together did they discover she was technically a bigamist, her divorce papers never having been processed.

A.J. Donelson. (The Hermitage)

A.J. Donelson. (The Hermitage)

This error, be it a matter of innocence or negligence, was nevertheless judged with harsh morality and Rachel was labeled a “wanton woman” and her bigamy used by Andrew Jackson’s political opponents as a poor reflection on his own character.

So emotionally pained was Mrs. Jackson that she seems to have intended to limit her public interactions which might expose her to the keener ridicule by which Washington society has always been known, and which she declared to be vain and irreligious. Her heart condition also made long receiving lines difficult for her to breath.

The new President formally designated Emily Donelson as his White House hostess, something no previous chief executive had done. At only twenty-one years old, Emily Donelson was one of the youngest women to serve as First Lady.

A sampler stitched by Emily Donelson. (Tulip Grove Plantation)

A sampler stitched by Emily Donelson. (Tulip Grove Plantation)

The daughter of Rachel Jackson’s brother John and born in a town which was named with her own family name, Emily Donelson had the opportunity to pursue a sophisticated education, graduating from the Nashville Female Academy.

Unlike that of her aunt, she became an expert in grammar and had an elegant handwriting.

When she was seventeen years old, Emily married her first cousin “A.J.” (named for Andrew Jackson), the son of Rachel Jackson’s brother William. Since A.J. was raised as a son by Andrew and Rachel Jackson (but never formally adopted) Emily was truly like a daughter to the President-elect and his wife.

A West Point graduate and lawyer, A.J. Donelson would come to work in the White House as the President’s Private Secretary.

Teenager Emily Donelson attended the January 8, 1825 ball given for Andrew and Rachel Jackson by John Quincy and Louisa Adams, depicted 47 years after the event. (Harper's)

Teenager Emily Donelson attended the January 8, 1825 ball given for Andrew and Rachel Jackson by John Quincy and Louisa Adams, depicted 47 years after the event. (Harper’s)

Despite her youth, however, Emily Donelson was already familiar with the White House, having been entertained there by the President and Mrs. Monroe in the winter of 1924-1825, and had also been a guest of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa in their home.

Managing her loyalty to Andrew Jackson while befriending his hated political rival John Quincy Adams would prove to be a remarkable feat for the then-eighteen year old woman. It was a trait that served her well in the White House.

The mob scene outside the White House on Jackson's 1829 Inauguration Day.

The mob scene outside the White House on Jackson’s 1829 Inauguration Day.

In fact, this young First Lady, who dazzled crowds by appearing in an amber-colored gown at her uncle’s inauguration would befriend both past and future White House residents.

She came to know Martha Jefferson Randolph, Martin Van Buren and James Polk, the latter two serving as godfathers to two of her four children born in the White House.

Emily Donelson named her first child, born in the White House, after her late aunt, the widowed President's wife. (Tennessee State Museum)

Emily Donelson named her first child, born in the White House, after her late aunt, the widowed President’s wife. (Tennessee State Museum)

Initially, due to a period of mourning for her late aunt, there was no great entertaining in the Jackson White House but from the moment the social events began there was trouble with Peggy Eaton, wife of the President’s Secretary of War and a close friend to Jackson.

Mrs. Eaton had first met a young Emily Donelson during the 1824-1825 social season in Washington, when the former joined the Jacksons and stayed as guests in the boardinghouse run by Peggy’s father. At the time, Peggy was married to a captain who was then away at sea and his absence apparently gave her license to behave flirtatiously with many other men.

Peggy Eaton. (geni.com)

Peggy Eaton. (geni.com)

Despite this both Andrew and Rachel Jackson approved of Peggy and were happy when she, later widowed, married John Eaton.

Emily Donelson, however, refused to consider the Cabinet wife deserving of social respect. She joined the other socially prominent women who were married to Cabinet members and refused to accept invitations from Mrs. Eaton or to acknowledge her at parties or even treat her with any politeness.

A political cartoon suggesting President Jackson's approval of Peggy Eaton, scandalously dancing and showing her ankles, at a Cabinet meeting. (New York Historical Society)

A political cartoon suggesting President Jackson’s approval of Peggy Eaton, scandalously dancing and showing her ankles, at a Cabinet meeting. (New York Historical Society)

Emily received an angry letter of rebuke from the War Secretary.

He correctly pointed out that the social ostracizing his wife was experiencing was how Rachel Jackson had been treated, due to her previously being a bigamist.

Emily responded by defending her aunt and never mentioning Peggy.

Then Secretary of State Martin Van Buren tried, telling Emily she was being influenced by the older Cabinet wives.

In response, when Van Buren held a dinner for the Cabinet and their spouses, Emily and the other women refused to attend. Only Peggy came.

Peggy Eaton in later years. (LC)

Peggy Eaton in later years. (LC)

It was no insignificant social matter by 1830, when President Jackson learned that the wives of diplomatic representatives of foreign countries were now considering a boycott of the American Cabinet wife. President Jackson was furious with his niece.

When she returned with her husband to Tennessee that summer, the President did not want encourage her to return to the White House unless she relented. She refused to.

The main hall at Tulip Grove, home of A.J. and Emily Donelson. (The Hermitage)

The main hall at Tulip Grove, home of A.J. and Emily Donelson. (The Hermitage)

Furthermore, she also refused to stay at his Nashville estate, retreating to her Tulip Grove plantation instead.

Jackson wrote that “there being no lady of the House, there was something wanting,” but Emily refused to apologize or acquiesce to his wishes.

He took the actions of Emily Donelson and also the wives of his Cabinet members as an act of political insubordination.

President Jackson meeting with his Cabinet.

President Jackson meeting with his Cabinet.

The “Peggy Eaton Affair” ultimately was a factor in his firing his entire Cabinet and replacing them with more loyal members.

Not until a year later, when John and Peggy Eaton moved to Spain where he served as U.S. Ambassador there did the matter resolve.

In the fall of 1831, Emily Donelson returned to the White House as First Lady but weakened by tuberculosis she returned home and died there four months before the end of the Jackson Administration in 1837.

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by Patricia Krider

The bronze medal for biography awarded by the Independent Publishers Book Award for the biography of First Lady Ida McKinley.

The Independent Publishers Book Award bronze medal for biography was awarded to the biography of First Lady Ida McKinley.

Ida McKinley: The Turn-of-the-Century First Lady Through War, Assassination, and Secret Disability, by Carl Sferrazza Anthony (The Kent State University Press/Published in cooperation with The National First Ladies Ladies’ Library), was recently awarded a bronze medal in the Biography category of the 2014 IPPY Awards, during the annual American Booksellers Association convention.

I was honored to attend the award ceremony on May 28th in New York City and to accept this prestigious award on behalf of Carl, the National First Ladies’ Library and Kent State University Press.

NFLL Executive Director Pat Krider at the Independent Publisher Book Awards, June 2014.

NFLL Executive Director Pat Krider at the Independent Publisher Book Awards, June 2014.

The Independent Publisher Book Awards, also known as the IPPY Awards, is an annual book awards contest conducted to honor the year’s best independently published titles. The awards are open to independent authors and publishers worldwide who produce intended for an English-speaking market. The Independent Publisher Book Awards are intended to bring increased recognition to the thousands of exemplary independent, university and self-published each year. Since the inaugural contest in 1996, over 5,000 books have received IPPY Awards. The Independent Publisher Book Award is considered one of the highest honors for books published by independent publishers.

Mary Regula, founder and president of the NFLL at a  Congressional Club event.

Mary Regula, founder and president of the NFLL at a Congressional Club event.

Ida McKinley, the first full-length biography of the wife of William McKinley who served as U.S. President from 1897 to 1901, was an original idea by the NFLL Founder and President Mary Regula.

In 2006, the organization commissioned NFLL Historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony to execute the project, and underwrote the costs of the research, writing and editing of the book. It was published in November of 2013.

The Saxton-McKinley House (NFLL)

The Saxton-McKinley House (NFLL)

The Saxton-McKinley House, a property of the National First Ladies Historic Site, is now fully restored and was the home of Ida McKinley and her family, perhaps the only residence inherited through four generations of women. It also served as the longest place of residence to William McKinley.

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