The “Lost Girls” Ghosts of a President & His Wife Who Affected Presidential Policy

The Canton, Ohio headstones over the graves of "Little Ida" and Katie McKinley, the long-dead daughters of the President and his wife, became a tourist attraction during his presidency.

The Canton, Ohio cemetery headstones over the graves of “Little Ida” and Katie McKinley, the long-dead daughters of the President and his wife, became a tourist attraction during his presidency.

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.

William and Ida McKinley in their White House bedroom.

William and Ida McKinley in their White House bedroom.

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.”

Ida McKinley in 1870.

Ida McKinley in 1870.

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.

One of the only two pictures taken of Katie McKinley before she died at three and a half years old.

One of the only two pictures taken of Katie McKinley before she died at three and a half years old.

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.

Katie McKinley. (NFLL)

Katie McKinley. (NFLL)

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.

Ida McKinley. in later life, with the cherished rocking chair of her long-gone daughter Katie.

Ida McKinley. in later life, with the cherished rocking chair of her long-gone daughter Katie.

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.

The First Lady stands beneath Katie McKinley's image.

The First Lady stands beneath Katie McKinley’s image.

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.

An 1896 campaign souvenir card showed not only William and Ida McKinley but their long-dead daughter Katie.

An 1896 campaign souvenir card showed not only William and Ida McKinley but their long-dead daughter Katie.

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.

An example of the "ghost baby" photos popular in the Victorian age, where a dead child was posed to look as if asleep and a permanent image of them made before they were buried and their faces forgotten.

An example of the “ghost baby” photos popular in the Victorian age, where a dead child was posed to look as if asleep and a permanent image of them made before they were buried and their faces would otherwise be forgotten.

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.

A Victorian mother with her dead child's image superimposed on her lap as a ghost.

A Victorian mother with her dead child’s image superimposed on her lap as a ghost.

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.

A "lost child" posed in its bassinet before burial.

A “lost child” posed in its bassinet before burial.

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.

A friend gave the McKinleys a diorama Easter egg showing Katie and Little Ida on the White House South Lawn.

A friend gave the McKinleys a diorama Easter egg showing Katie and Little Ida on the White House South Lawn.

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.

A Valentine's Day angel card sent the McKinleys, likely to represent "Little Ida."

A Valentine’s Day angel card sent the McKinleys, likely to represent “Little Ida.”

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.

A snapshot of the McKinley daughters burial place marked by their name in flowers.

A snapshot of the McKinley daughters burial place marked by their name in flowers.

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.

One of the stereo-optical cards made of the lost girls' graves.

One of the stereo-optical cards made of the lost girls’ graves.

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.

A tourist poses with the markers for Little Ida and Katie McKinley. (McKinley Presidential Library)

A tourist poses with the markers for Little Ida and Katie McKinley. (McKinley Presidential Library)

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.

The President and Mrs. McKinley at the summit of Mount Tom in western Massachusetts, June 1899.

The President and Mrs. McKinley at the summit of Mount Tom in western Massachusetts, June 1899.

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.

Ida McKinley, the new biography by the website author.

Ida McKinley, the new biography by the website author.

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.

in First Ladies and Family, William McKinley and Ida McKinley

First Ladies and Family William McKinley and Ida McKinley

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Frosty7530 November 14, 2013, 2:22 pm

    This is a sad, but fascinating story. It seems that many Presidents lost children, either before or in office. The one’s I’m aware of are the Lincolns, the Eisenhowers (who lost a little boy at age 2 or 3?), Mrs. Kennedy lost her 2 day old baby while still in the WH, and President H.W. and Mrs. Barbara Bush who lost a little girl at age 4 or 5. Pres. & Mrs. Bush have both written movingly about that loss. It’s easy to think of our leaders as coming from wealthy, genteel backgrounds and knowing little about adversity. They say nothing is worse than the loss of a child, for a parent. It’s amazing how well these people recovered from such sadness, with Mary Lincoln being the exception.

    I look forward to reading this book on Mrs. McKinley. She also lived in one of my favorite time periods, the 1990′s – turn of 20th century.

    Reply
  • Joleatha Chestnutt January 31, 2014, 1:54 pm

    I think I have a rare old picture of President McKinley

    Reply
    • Carl Anthony February 28, 2014, 1:36 am

      Thanks for writing. You might contact the National First Ladies Library archivist Michelle Gullion about the McKinley image. Her email can be found on http://www.firstladies.org.

      Reply

Leave a Comment