Ida McKinley had suffered through one of the worst years anyone could imagine. The trauma would be permanent.
The McKinleys Move to Washington
Losing both their small children, and having his young wife’s health permanently impaired by phlebitis and “unnameable” epileptic seizures all in the space of a year was traumatic to William McKinley (1843-1901). Ida’s profound depression combined with uncontrollable fears and hysterical outbreaks was difficult to bear for a man who dearly loved his increasingly frail wife.
Believing that a change of scenery would be beneficial, McKinley ran for a Congressional seat in 1876 – and won. He sold their dear house, with its sad, sad memories. Since housekeeping was much too taxing for Ida, both physically and emotionally, they took residence rooms at the Ebbitt House Hotel in Washington, DC. A full-time nurse-maid was engaged. At only thirty, Ida could not be left alone. When they needed to return to Ohio, they stayed with her family in Canton.
McKinley served as a popular and well-respected congressman for fourteen years. His ability to make friends easily would never fail him. His colleagues knew little of his home-life, save that Ida McKinley (1847-1907) was a semi-invalid who suffered from some kind of nervous condition. Their private social life was limited to a handful of select friends.
William McKinley Adapts to Ida’s Condition
Most people today would classify William McKinley as a major league enabler. He denied Ida nothing that was in his power to give, whether it was material or emotional. Most of their contemporaries who knew them considered Ida a major league cross to bear. Both estimates are generally accurate.
McKinley gave up everything in the way of personal pleasures to devote himself to his wife. He seldom went to the fraternal organizations he had loved. He gave up his one recreation – horseback riding – to be with Ida. If he wasn’t in his office or on the floor of Congress, he was home. He took special care to let her know if he might be detained; any deviation from a strict schedule made her hysterical with fear. He had learned that if Ida was not assuaged immediately, it could result in some of her worst symptoms.
McKinley had developed a unique method of controlling his own response to her “fainting spells,” responding with such nonchalance that he actually controlled the responses of witnesses to an episode. If she were standing, she might fall; if seated, her face would freeze in a grotesque mask. If she were eating, she would dribble. Since an attack would be preceded by a few seconds of a strange hissing noise, the always-alert McKinley would throw his handkerchief or napkin over her face to a) shield her from embarrassment and b) shield onlookers from shock. Remarks about these “handkerchief” episodes turned up in the diaries or letters of their contemporaries.
While it may have been a peculiar and unsettling experience, in its own way it accomplished exactly what McKinley intended: Ida was spared humiliation. When she recovered after a minute or two, she merely removed the handkerchief, blotted her lips and continued as if nothing extraordinary had happened. Those in her company were also spared their own embarrassment. Even more important, they could take their cue from McKinley himself. He had handled those situations so casually that his friends were grateful to follow his lead.
Ida’s medical conditions had spawned a petulant, jealous and strangulating personality disorder. Her world had become increasingly small, centering entirely on herself, her husband and their life together. Her demands were usually petty and insignificant, but they were immediately indulged by her husband.
She had some fine qualities, however. She maintained her delicate and petite looks, and her husband was always proud of her appearance. If she liked you, she could be caring and generous. Ida was also was sincerely sympathetic to those who were ill or bereaved, and often sent flowers or other tokens – sometimes even to strangers. She had a small circle of friends, mostly wives of McKinley’s colleagues, who were kind to her. Mainly because they loved him.
During those years William McKinley served in Congress, Ida’s on-again, off-again health issues were his major concern. He spared no expense in finding doctors who might be able to help his unfortunate wife, and went so far as to take her to New York and Philadelphia, where it was said, the “best doctors in the country” practiced their profession.
Phlebitis is a medical condition of blood clots, usually in the knee. It was serious then, and could be fatal. It is still serious today but it can be treated effectively. In the 1870s, the only treatment available was rest, elevation, compresses, and a cane if needed. And pain medication, also if needed. Ida needed both from time to time.
Epilepsy has been known since Biblical times, but it always bore a stigma. The doctors who were consulted by the McKinleys no doubt recognized Ida’s affliction immediately, but would never call it by its “rightful name”, sparing her humiliation by couching it in terms like “a nervous condition,” or “fainting spells.” Again, no treatment other than very rigid adherence to routine (no surprises), and powerful opiates – when and if necessary.
When Ida was up to it, the McKinleys socialized in very controlled environments. When she was not up to it, they stayed in their rooms. Sometimes they sat in the dark for hours, since the light bothered the frail woman, who had grown to depend completely on her husband.
For twenty years Congressman William McKinley danced devoted attendance on his wife, who was always “the prettiest girl in Canton, Ohio” in his eyes, and who he still loved deeply.
- 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