Ida McKinley. (First Ladies Cookbook, Parent’s Press, 1965)
Among those wives who served as First Ladies during their husbands’ presidencies, Ida McKinley is perhaps the most interesting example in terms of signatures and handwriting.
Ida McKinley’s silver inkwell set atop desk in the Saxton-McKinley House, NFLL. (aboutstark.com)
As discovered from the process of researching and writing her only full-length biography, Ida McKinley: Turn-of-the-Century First Lady Through War, Assassination & Secret Disability (2013), over the course of her life she left few yet greatly varied examples of writing in her own hand.
As a young woman, Ida Saxton wrote often and at great length but in one 1869 letter admitted to her brother that she hated writing letters, not only because of the tediousness but because she was reluctant to set down her feelings and thoughts permanently for others to read, apart from those initially intended to read her letter.
The great bulk of her extant handwritten material are her letters to her parents and brother written during her six month tour of Europe in the second half of 1869.
The opening of a rare fully handwritten letter from Ida Saxton [McKinley] to her parents, 1869. (McKinley Presidential Museaum)
The conclusion and signature of a letter Ida Saxton [McKinley] wrote to her parents in 1869. (McKinley Presidential Museum)
A legal document relating to Saxton family property signed by both William and Ida McKinley. (NFLL)
From this same general period, however, there are no known handwriting samples known to remain from the nearly two years she worked full-time as first a clerk, and then as an occasional manager of her father’s bank in their hometown of Canton, Ohio.
There are, however, some legal documents pertaining to ownership and transfer of property she inherited from her father. Even on one deed where her husband also signed as a co-owner, Ida McKinley was scrupulous in affixing her own signature.
Following the death of her second child, “Little Ida,” in August of 1873, Ida McKinley was beset by a series of debilitating but inconsistent chronic health conditions, including late-onset epilepsy, compromised immune system and chronic immobility. From this point on, she wrote practically no full-length letters.
With a rising public profile as first the spouse of a U.S. Congressman and then Governor of Ohio, Ida McKinley received a large amount of incoming mail from merchants, journalists, social contacts and her husband’s constituents.
Often a clerk in McKinley’s congressional, then gubernatorial offices, or her personal maid, would respond by writing out the content of her dictated response, which she then signed.
One of William McKinley’s forged signatures of his wife. (historyinink.com)
In the early part of the McKinley presidency, her husband’s private secretary George Cortelyou wrote the body of some of her responses to the public, which she then signed herself.
Ida McKinley photo signed by her husband using her name. (collector.com)
As one who kept close ties to relatives and friends, Ida McKinley dictated personal responses to her husband; it was in his handwriting that these letters were written.
At one point during his congressional career, William McKinley actually began “forging” her signature.
When she attained national recognition during his 1896 presidential campaign, Ida McKinley posed for formal photographs that were sent to the public who wrote requesting her signed picture.
An autograph album clipping showing President McKinley’s autograph and his forged one of the First Lady’s. (amazon.com)
A large percentage of examples that remain of these indicate that they were signed more often by her husband on her behalf.
He continued this custom during his presidency, often signing her name to White House cards and even in autograph albums.
The presumption that President McKinley forged everything in his wife’s name, however, is misleading.
Over the course of her four and a half years in the White House, her health often went from excellent to extremely poor – and back again.
An authentic signature of Ida McKinley. (historyinink.com)
Examples of her authentic signature range in appearance. This seems reflected in the relatively small number examples of her signatures.
To date, there appears to remain only two extant letters she wrote entirely in her own hand during her incumbency as First Lady.
Both of these Mrs. McKinley wrote during the late summers of 1897 and 1898 to her beloved niece Mary Barber, the daughter of her sister Pina Saxton Barber.
A letter entirely written by Maud Healy who signed Ida McKinley’s name – and mistakenly sold as being written by the former First Lady. (Heritage Auctions)
In them, she reported on the summer activities, the weather, her travel plans and her hopes that Mary might possibly join her for at least part of the respite.
Ida McKinley’s routine of dictating her correspondence continued after the President’s death to assassination n September of 1901. Returning to live in her Canton, Ohio home, Maud Healy, one of her maids transcribed the former First Lady’s responses.
Sometimes Maud Healy identified herself as having written a letter for Mrs. McKinley. (pbgalleries.com)
On occasion, in the body of the letter she stated that “Mrs. McKinley wishes to say….,” while in many others she did not make this clarification.
In every known example Healy signed the letters as Ida McKinley.
On some occasions, she identified herself as “maid” or “assistant” beneath the Ida McKinley signature, or used the term “per MH,” indicating her initials.
She did not, however, do so consistently and many unwitting winners of auctions have bought what they thought were letters written and signed by Mrs. McKinley as a widow that were not.
A close-up of Ida McKinley’s genuine signature on a free franked envelope. (historyinink.com)jpg
One absolutely certain form of her authentic signature is found on the envelopes of letters she had sent during her years as a widow, up until her death in May of 1906.
Whether the envelope was addressed to an organization, a member of the public or one of her family members or friends, the name and address was written out by Maude Healy or one of two other maids who worked for her from 1901 to 1906.
An Ida McKinley free-franked envelope – although she did not writing the name and address of the recipient. (bennetstamps.com)
However, in the upper-left corner of the envelopes, usually in very small, cramped handwriting style there always appeared the name “Ida McKinley” or sometimes “Ida S. McKinley.”
The oddity here is that most other presidential widows placed their signatures in the upper-right hand corner of the envelope.
Having been granted by Congress the privilege of the “free frank,” meaning that as a presidential widow she did not need to use any postage on her outgoing mail, Mrs. McKinley felt it would be improper, perhaps illegal, if she permitted anyone else to sign her name or if she used a rubber stamp of her signature.