The Invalid FLOTUS: Ida McKinley


Ida Saxton McKinley was said to be the prettiest girl in Canton, Ohio.

Ida Saxton: Pampered Child

Ida Saxton (1847-1907) was the eldest of three children born to James and Catherine Saxton of Canton, Ohio. Saxton was the town banker, lived in a fine house, and enjoyed a reputation as one of the town’s leading citizens.

Ida, arguably one of the prettiest girls in Canton, was the recipient of all the amenities of “the pampered life” of pre-Civil War America: fine clothes (which she would always love), and a solid education in preparation for a substantial marriage. At the end of the Civil War, that education included a fashionable finishing school in Pennsylvania, followed by a Grand Tour of Europe. Then mostly to occupy her time, her father created a position for her at his bank, and she eventually was promoted to teller.

Most Cantonians would acknowledge Ida’s petite figure and good looks, but the general consensus was that she was self-centered and once she “set her head,” she was relentless until she got her way. That this would become a severe personality disorder was far in the future.

Ida Saxton: McKinley’s Bride

William McKinley (1843-1901) was, and would always be considered one of the nicest men around. He came from a poor, rural Ohio family, but one that was filled with affection and deep religious beliefs.

young wm mik

Young William McKinley was good looking, not-very-tall, but with a warm and ingratiating personality.

At age eighteen, he enlisted in the Union Army immediately after the fall of Ft. Sumter, and served four full years, becoming a brevet “major” – a nickname that would follow him for life. Opting for a career in law, he made Canton his home, and he was successful from the start. Not the least reason for this accomplishment was his genuine affability. He joined every fraternal and civic organization in town, and was liked by everyone.

He was twenty-seven when he met the petite twenty-three year old Miss Saxton, and the attraction was powerful. Their courtship was the customary round of parties, socials, picnics and outings. McKinley opened an account at the Saxton bank, and every few days would make a small deposit – and bring a large bouquet for the bank’s pretty teller.

James and Catherine Saxton were delighted when their daughter announced her engagement to the Major.  They adored him.

Ida and William McKinley: The Happy Times

Once they married in early 1871, the new bride and groom enjoyed four wonderful years together in a house that the delighted father-in-law was happy to bestow as a wedding gift. Right before their first anniversary, the McKinleys became the proud parents of a baby daughter they named Katie.

Their active social life in Canton’s “younger set” continued with invitations and activities. But more often than not, the Major was content to come home and spend his evenings with his pretty wife and infant daughter.

little katie

One of the McKinleys’ greatest tragedies was losing little Katie before her fourth birthday.

Marriage and parenthood agreed with both of them. Two years later, they looked forward with pleasure to the new baby Ida was expecting.

Ida and William McKinley: That Bad, Bad Year

Ida McKinley’s pregnancy was a difficult one this time, made worse by the unexpected death of her mother. Her grief was consuming, perhaps extreme in its emotional upheaval, which likely affected her condition. When their second daughter (named Ida) was born, it was a grueling ordeal, and Ida was very ill for weeks. Baby Ida was born sickly, and would die within months.

ida in better days

Even after illness left her frail, Ida would always retain some of her wistful beauty.

Childbirth left Ida McKinley with three life-altering conditions that would change the pretty young woman into a petulant, pathetic and morose semi-invalid.

First, she had developed phlebitis, a condition of blood clots in her knee, not uncommonly related to childbirth.  It was then and still is, a serious and often life-threatening situation. It is treatable today, but in the 1870s, the only treatment available was rest and leg-elevation. At twenty-seven, Ida McKinley needed to walk with a cane.

Secondly, she developed epilepsy, with both grand and petit mal seizures. No expense was spared in trying to find medical help for the afflicted young woman, but in those days, the term “epilepsy” bore a stigma. Doctors recognized the condition immediately – it had been known since Biblical times – but they would never mention it by name. It was always couched in phrases such as “a nervous condition” or “fainting spells.”

And, if the above weren’t enough of a torment for the afflicted woman, little Katie would sicken and die before her fourth birthday.

ida in checks

By the time Ida McKinley was twenty-seven, she was a semi-invalid.

All this led to Ida’s third life-altering condition. Her understandable depression took deep root, and she became obsessive about herself, her husband, and their life together. Her world became smaller and smaller with room for little else. She became totally dependent on McKinley for everything, even the smallest details. Her love for him, while true and deep, would become strangulating.

Through it all, and for the next twenty-five years, William McKinley would put Ida first in his life, devoting himself to her comfort – and every whim in between. He never complained, and never chastised her for her tantrums and frequently irrational behavior. In truth, he would become a part-time psychiatric nurse to his frail and increasingly difficult wife.


  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
  • Leech, Margaret – In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959
  • Morgan, H. Wayne – William McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964



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.
This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Invalid FLOTUS: Ida McKinley

  1. energywriter says:

    Another interesting story. Life was really rough back then. sd

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s