The Family Feud of the Second Mrs. Harrison

Benjamin Harrison and his second wife, Mary Lord Dimmick created a near-scandal when they married, and the family never forgave them.

The Twenty-Third President’s Menage

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President Benjamin Harrison, 23rd President, sandwiched between the non-successive terms of Grover Cleveland.

When Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) came to the White House in 1889, he brought a large extended family: Caroline, his wife of nearly forty years, his grown daughter Mamie and her family, and his grown son Russell and his family. Then Caroline wanted to bring her elderly father along. He was nearly ninety, frail and failing. She worried that hundreds of miles away in Washington, she might never see him again.

The old man was then living with Carrie’s widowed sister, which meant that if Grandpa came, so did her sister. Then there was her sister’s widowed daughter, whose husband had died tragically shortly after their marriage. She would have to come too. All in all, eleven Harrisons came to live in the White House.

Domestic Life of the Harrison White House

Both the Harrison daughter and daughter-in-law had small children, and were occupied with their own households. Carrie’s sister kept busy caring for their aged father. Of all the First Ladies, Caroline was the most domestic.  A whirlwind of activity, and superb housekeeper by nature and inclination, she whipped the mansion into the best shape she could, considering the rats, termites, rot and a host of other damages connected with a nearly-100-year-old building.

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First Lady Caroline Harrison. She was a “bustling” woman, a superb housekeeper and talented water colorist.

It would be Carrie Harrison (1832-1892) who provided the impetus for wanting to tear down the old house and rebuild an elegant Presidential Mansion. Congress agreed to look into it, and formed a committee to review architectural designs. Mrs. Harrison was on that committee. The designs were examined, but Congress decided to provide funds to repair the old home of Jefferson and Lincoln, rather than raze the building entirely. Caroline Harrison was again instrumental in its repair, which included having it wired for electricity.

Carrie also kept busy with another project: detailing an assortment of odds-and-ends of Presidential dinner services she had discovered collecting dust in the attic. Since she was a talented china painter herself, she was fascinated by the old crockery, and began the collection that is widely reproduced, and one of the highlights of any visit to the White House.

She had also been invited to become the President-General of the newly formed Daughters of the American Revolution. She had ancestors who had fought, but it was her husband who had the real pedigree. His great-grandfather, another Benjamin Harrison, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, an early Governor of Virginia, and one of George Washington’s chief adjutants.   Mrs. Harrison was delighted to assume the leadership. She was always a take-charge woman.

The Widowed Niece

mary dimmick harrison

Mary Lord Dimmick was Caroline Harrison’s widowed niece. She became close to her “Uncle Ben” during his presidency.

With the Harrison family pretty well occupied, that only left Mary Lord Dimmick, Caroline’s widowed niece, at loose ends. She was thirty-something, and needed occupation for her time. With her Aunt Caroline constantly busy with White House remodeling, the DAR, her china painting, plus all her First Lady activities, Mary found a niche for herself as an ex-officio social secretary to her busy aunt. She helped with the correspondence and receptions, and occasionally filled in at appointments.

harrisons and grandkids

President Benjamin Harrison was frequently photographed with his grandchildren. It is said that the journalists wanted to make him more “human.”

Benjamin Harrison had a well-deserved reputation for being a “cold fish,” and even his best admirers noted his total lack of warmth and friendliness. Newspaper photographers tried to “humanize” the aloof man by publishing pictures they took of the President playing with his three-year-old grandson. Occasionally they observed Mary Dimmick walking in the gardens with her Uncle Ben, who occasionally needed a brief respite from his duties. Still, he remained a chilly person.

Caroline Harrison Dies

It came as a surprise in early 1892, when Caroline Harrison became ill. She had been a particularly active First Lady, happy to lend her time, name, talents and energy to a long list of worthy causes, but her health deteriorated rapidly. She had consumption – or tuberculosis, as we know it today.

The President, concerned with his wife’s failing health, was extremely lackluster in his efforts to win a second term. Even though Carrie was sent to recuperate in the cool Adirondack Mountains of New York, it did not help.   She died only a month before the Presidential election of 1892. Harrison was not reelected.

A Remarriage and An Estrangement

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Mary Lord Dimmick Harrison, the second wife of Benjamin Harrison. She never served as First Lady.

Former President Benjamin Harrison returned home to Indianapolis to practice law. He was past sixty, and lonely – an odd feeling for a remote type of individual. Mary Dimmick (1858-1948), his late wife’s niece, was also at loose ends. Both her grandfather and her mother had died while they were living in the White House, and she had no close family of her own. In those days, a woman of her station was not expected to work. Or live alone.

Mary Dimmick and Benjamin Harrison had no blood between them, but they had grown fairly close during those White House years. Harrison had a large house, and he did not wish to spend his remaining years alone. For Carrie’s niece to move in as his “housekeeper” or “ward” would have raised many eyebrows. Four years after Caroline died, the former president married Mary Lord Dimmick. He was in his middle-sixties, she in her late-thirities.

Russell and Mamie, Harrison’s children and Mary Dimmick’s blood first cousin, were scandalized. They were furious at their father’s actions, not so much that he wanted to remarry, but who he wanted to marry. They declined to attend the wedding of their father and their cousin, who was now their step-mother. A year later, when Harrison and his new bride had a baby, the estrangement of the family was complete and permanent.

Benjamin Harrison had grandchildren who were more than a decade older than his new baby Elizabeth, who was also their aunt.

Russell and Mamie never spoke to their father again. When Benjamin Harrison died a few years later, they never came to his funeral.  And Mary Lord Dimmick Harrison lived to be nearly ninety.

Sources:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/benjaminharrison

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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