Ellen Wilson’s Great Sadness


Ellen Axson Wilson, the first wife of Woodrow Wilson.

Ellen Axson came from a family prone to severe melancholy.

Ellen Axson: Family Caretaker

Ellen Axson (1860-1914), was born in Georgia, just as the Civil War was beginning. From earliest childhood, she showed a decided talent for art, but family obligations were demanding of her time and energies.

Young Ellen

Ellen Axson was only twenty when she became the caretaker of her family.

Her father, Samuel Edward Axson, was a Presbyterian minister who fought a lifelong battle with melancholia, to a point of requiring hospital care. When Ellen’s mother died, Ellen was twenty, and her father lapsed into a severe depression, and died in a sanitarium.

She was the eldest of four, widespread in ages. Her brother Stockton was six years younger; her brother Eddie, sixteen years younger with a pronounced stammer; and her baby sister Margaret was newborn, and indirectly responsible for her mother’s early death.

Ellen had hoped to teach art, once her high-school education was finished, but now further education or career was out of the question. Family needs came first.

She married Woodrow Wilson when she was twenty-five. From the beginning, they had agreed that Eddie would live with them permanently. Stockton would join them on his vacations from school.

Growing Up Wilson

From the first, the new couple never had an empty house. Because the age-gaps in her own family were not conducive to sibling “playmates”, Ellen and Woodrow had their three daughters within five years.

Eddie Axson was also a constant, and in the loving and stable Wilson home, his stammer abated. In addition, he began displaying his own talented hands and gift for mechanics.  By the time he was twelve, he could take-apart, fix and put-back practically anything. He graduated from Princeton University, studied further at MIT, and eventually became superintendent of a mining company in Georgia. In 1906, he had married and had a small baby. By that time, Woodrow Wilson had become President of Princeton University.


Dr. Stockton Axson, Ellen’s brilliant younger brother, who inherited the family genetic trait of severe depression.

Ellen’s other brother, Stockton Axson had received several advanced degrees, and was teaching English at Princeton University. He also had been in and out of various hospitals with the same clinical depressions that had afflicted his father.

Eddie Axson: The Tragedy

The young Edward Axson seems to have been spared the Axson melancholy gene of his father and brother, and, to a lesser extent, by both Ellen and Margaret.

Happy with his position at the Franklin Gold Mines and his growing family, in the summer of 1905, Eddie took his wife and year-old son on a day-outing. Here is where the story becomes conflicted. Some sources say, there was an accident on a ferry crossing the Etowah River; some sources say that the horses on the carriage Eddie was driving were spooked and plunged into the river. Whatever the exact specifics, the upshot was the same. Despite his valiant effort to save his family, Eddie Axson, his wife and baby son were all drowned. He was only thirty-one.

Ellen Wilson: The Abyss


When Eddie Axson drowned along with his young family, he was only thirty-one. Exact details have always been sketchy and conflicting.

Ellen Wilson, the sister-mother, was next of kin, and notified first. It fell to her to notify the rest of the family, to make the funeral arrangements, and to dispose of whatever needed to be disposed of.


Ellen Wilson was comfortable within her family circle, surrounded by those she loved.

Ellen had never been a woman who sparkled in society. Her wit and charm was considered, rather than spontaneous. She was happy to let Woodrow go “solo” on those occasions, where he could shine. She was content to bask in his love and her happy family life. Ellen may have even suspected her family “disposition,” but she fought it continuously, especially since Woodrow Wilson possessed an emotional neediness of his own, and she was needed “to rest him,” as he put it.

At one point, In a letter to a friend, Ellen mentioned being deeply distressed about the death of a mutual friend, remarking that “but for Woodrow’s sake” she mustn’t show it. She continued confessing that if she were the least bit sky-blue, he immediately became blue-black, and all her resources were needed to care for him “feeling her pain,” as it were.

Eddie’s untimely and horrific death plunged Ellen into a blue-black of her own – but not until whatever needed to be done was done.

The Blue-Black

Losing Eddie was like losing her own son. Responsibilities concluded, Ellen slipped quietly into her own world, and it was a silent world. There were no tears, no outpouring. No weeping or wailing.

According to her daughter Nell (Eleanor Wilson McAdoo) in her later memoir about her parents, Ellen barely talked at all. When asked if she want to go on a carriage ride, she might nod and go. But she did not engage or converse. She was in her own blue-blacks, and it needed to run its course.


A rare photograph of Ellen and Woodrow Wilson – together.

For the first time in her life, even her beloved artwork did not comfort her. Her easel was empty for a long time.

Woodrow was beside himself with worry – and his own neediness. He required comforting as well, and his wife was unable to comfort him. Ellen was unreachable and beyond comfort. She needed all her resources to heal her own wounds.

It took several months for Ellen’s deep pain to begin to subside, and for her to climb out of the abyss of grief. But she did, and in many ways, it would be her art that proved to be her greatest comfort and outlet.

Unlike Jane Pierce or Mary Lincoln, other First Ladies who succumbed to the devastation of their losses, Ellen was able to pick up the tatters and mend. She painted when she had time, and with her own children grown, her time was becoming her own. She entertained graciously and often, especially once Woodrow Wilson became New Jersey Governor. She became First Lady. And through all of it, including her own growing reputation in the art word, she was first and foremost Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.


McAdoo, Eleanor Wilson – The Woodrow Wilsons – Macmillan Co. 1937

Miller, Kristie – Ellen and Edith – University Press of Kansas, 2010

Saunders, Frances W. – Ellen Axson Wilson – University of North Carolina, 1985








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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