November first, the day after Halloween, is the religious All Souls Day in the Catholic faith. In the Mexican culture, it has usually been marked with iconography of skeletons and other unearthly representations of dead family members as the centerpiece of small shrines consisting of objects associated with the lost relative and candles kept lit in the dark.
It wasn’t one day each year but every day for nearly thirty years, however, that a President and First Lady remembered their two “lost girls,” daughters who died in 1873 and 1875.
William and Ida McKinley may have moved into the White House in 1897 without any living children but they did what it took to convince themselves and convey to others that their lost girls were still very much alive in a form other than physical.
In fact, at least one Senate wife who befriended the couple spoke of them as “ghosts in the long-ago moonlight.”
Eleven months after her wedding to young attorney William McKinley, the witty, worldly former assistant bank manager Ida Saxton had given birth to their first child on Christmas Day in 1871, naming her Katie, after her own mother. Mrs. McKinley had always been unusually close to her mother, many observers presuming they were actually sisters.
Two weeks before Ida gave birth to her second child in April of 1873, named for herself and known as “Little Ida,” however, her mother succumbed to a painful and terminal cancer. Some suggest that it was while managing the high steps of a closed coach or buggy while attending her mother’s cemetery burial that the pregnant Mrs. McKinley took a severe fall.
Whenever or wherever the fall might have taken place, the result was a spinal trauma and apparent concussion, with ensuing neurological problems. Just four years before, she had been hiking upwards of ten miles a day. Now she was beset with chronic immobility and late-onset epilepsy. She was just 26 years old.
Two weeks later, “Little Ida” was born in a condition that was described as “sickly.” She only lived for four months, dying of cholera.
With Ida seeking every possible medical treatment for her seizures and immobility, William McKinley particularly focused his care and love on their first-born, remaining daughter.
Even at just three and half years old, Katie McKinley was known for being highly animated, affectionate with her little dog, making friends with other children and going to visit them, and marked by a merry demeanor.
She was the very picture of health, her long, blond curls were thick and shiny, her blue eyes large and attentive, her cheeks pink and glowing. The child was developing a distinct personality.
A year and ten months after her baby sister died, Katie McKinley contracted scarlet fever and also died.
The unfounded fear of “passing on” epilepsy to an unborn child was the likely reason the McKinleys never had another child but they did the next best thing: they continued to think and speak daily about Katie McKinley. If she had died in the flesh, she was not permitted to pass away in their hearts and minds.
Oddly ghoulish as many people would find it, wherever Ida McKinley would live from that point on, she would place some of Katie’s clothes across her little rocking chair to display beneath the oil portrait later made of the child from one of the only two photographs taken of her.
She would also speak of Katie in the present tense, making reference over the years to the age she would now be were she physically present.
When her father ran for President, Katie McKinley appeared on campaign paraphernalia, the local Canton, Ohio photography studio which had made the only known images of her as a child rather presumptuously letting it be used on postcards, badges and buttons. Rather than protest this, McKinley and his wife were ecstatic about it, eager to have their daughter be part of their political epoch. Still, it often led the political delegations visiting Canton to mistakenly presume that Katie was, in fact, still alive in the more conventional form.
By willful insistence that Katie had come with them to the White House in “some form” and by mentioning and remembering her if even as a ghost or spirit, the President and Mrs. McKinley seemed able to better accept the fact that she would never return to them in physical form. And, truth be told, it may have proved comparatively healthier than never speaking of or acknowledging the trauma.
In numerous ways, Ida McKinley quite radically defied the conventional expectations of women by refusing to assume even ostensible interest in domestic matters. Likewise, despite her tremendous grief, she did not indulge in the era’s popular practice of having a dead child photographed before it was buried.
Despite even her belief in the Hindu tenet of reincarnation, Ida McKinley also resisted either posing with her “lost girls” before their burial or permit a ghostly impression of them superimposed onto one of her own.
Even her conception of her eldest daughter’s ghost was apart from the prevailing ideas on such specters, which were believed to be arrested in time at the moment of their death.
For the President and First Lady, Katie McKinley was no mere “angel baby” in the popular tradition of Victorian mourning beliefs but rather a ghost who was aging along the real-time passage of years.
When the President encountered a particularly poised woman in her late 20s, for example, he seemed almost mesmerized looking at her, as if she might be a manifestation in some odd way of Katie, who would have been the same age.
It was different with the ghost of “Little Ida,” who was still a new-born child without a developed personality when she died at four months old. She was the one cast not as a “real child of this earth,” but as the “Christmas angel.” She was later described by relatives who had met the baby as having “come to earth for only a little while…those who saw her could never quite believe that she was meant to be kept here, frail thing that she was…”
Close friends of the couple only further indulged the idea of their daughters still being alive as conscious spirits, with them in the White House.
Noticing how affected the First Lady became during the 1897 Easter Egg Roll on the White House South Lawn, which she watched with some friends and their children from the South Balcony, one of them soon after crafted a sugar egg with an enclosed diorama, spied through a hole in the egg, as a gift for the President and his wife.
The image showed Little Ida and Katie McKinley standing together, now both matured but still young, on the South Lawn. The McKinleys treated the little artistic effort as if it were a jeweled Faberge egg.
When Ida McKinley hosted the first known celebration of Valentine’s Day with a dance, including the first known playing of the new ragtime music, one of the guests accepted by sending a gift of her own.
She mailed to the McKinleys a heart-shaped card showing a golden-haired angel toddler, apparently to suggest the four-month old “Little Ida” who had never been photographed.
Since the McKinleys spoke quite openly of their maturing spirit of Katie and perpetually-infant angel Little Ida, it wasn’t long before the press began reporting the presence of the “lost girl” ghosts of the White House.
When the President and First Lady arrived for visits home to Canton, Ohio they never failed to make a pilgrimage to their cemetery to visit the final resting places of their daughters.
When they were in the White House, they sent lavish floral displays to be placed on the graves; this led to public disclosure of precisely where the headstones of the McKinley “lost girls” was located.
Photographers snapped it and the graveyard tableaux soon appeared on stereo-optical cards.
Tourists exploring the President’s hometown from as far away as California were sure to include a pilgrimage to Westlawn Cemetery for a snapshot of Katie and Little Ida six feet under.
Nobody at the time could have guessed that the First Lady’s keeping Little Ida and Katie McKinley alive by the sheer will of imagination affected anyone but her and her husband.
As he weighed military options while devising perhaps his most momentous foreign policy decision, however, the ghosts of his “lost girls” proved to be an emotionally powerful factor in the President’s thinking.
And it would come to alter the fate of millions of living people.
The dramatic account of how that occurred is detailed for the first time in this author’s new book, Ida McKinley: The Turn-of-the-Century First Lady through War, Assassination and Secret Disability, published today and available for sale.
It can be purchased here.