The death of any child before his time is a devastating blow to the parents.
Even into the 20th century, infant and child mortality were extremely high. With primitive pre-natal, obstetric or pediatric care and little attention to basic sanitation, one in four babies died before their fifth birthday. Another 10% would die before they reached puberty. In harsh wilderness environments, the incidence of early death was even higher.
Large families were common, however. Many women bore eight, ten or more children. With such physical strain coupled with normal aging, later children were frequently born weaker and more likely to succumb early.
Families were accustomed to small coffins.
The Typical Coolidge Gang
Calvin and Grace Coolidge were exceptions. Grace Goodhue (1879-1957) was an only child. Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) had only one sister, and she died young. “Only” children tend not to want “only” children. The Coolidges therefore had two sons, John and Calvin, Junior.
The Coolidges were as typical a New England family as one could find during the first quarter of the 20th Century. They lived in half-a-two-family-house in Northampton – in the western part of Massachusetts.
Calvin Coolidge was a middling attorney, who augmented his middling salary by holding middling public office. He was the long time Mayor of Northampton, a concurrent state legislator, and later Lt. Governor and finally Governor, much to his surprise and the dismay of the eastern Harvard crowd.
Mrs. Coolidge was a housewife and mother. She did most of her own housework, all of the cooking (never great), and sewed, knitted and crocheted with some skill.
She was also an affectionate and engaged mother. Calvin, while regularly in Boston on business, was pater familias. Once the boys approached their teens, they were expected to do family chores, and hire themselves out for the common jobs of childhood: shoveling snow, raking leaves and delivering newspapers.
Both Coolidge sons were athletically inclined and joined baseball teams. Grace liked baseball, and always would. It was she who played catch or pitched the ball for John and Cal Junior to hit. She also learned the mechanics and rules of baseball, and became a knowledgeable and ardent Boston Red Sox fan.
When Coolidge was around, he was an affectionate supervising parent. There is an old photograph that tells it all nicely: A 40-some-year-old Coolidge, wearing a tie, helping Cal Junior (also in tie) build a soapbox car.
Both sons were good students, but neither exceptional nor particularly bookish. They had joined the Boy Scouts. They were nice looking, sociable and popular with their peers.
Calvin Coolidge Junior (1908-1924) inherited his mother’s broad smile and outgoing nature – along with his father’s sahara-dry wit and deadpanned expression. But since both Coolidge parents were blessed with a sense of humor, it stood to reason.
Calvin the father became a surprise Republican Vice Presidential candidate in 1920. As a nationally unknown Governor of Massachusetts, he had burst into the limelight some months earlier during a Police strike in Boston, declaring There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.
Senator Warren Harding of Ohio was the surprise candidate for President, having said little other than wanting to “return to normalcy.” Both quotes resonated well with the electorate however, and they won in a walk!
The one often-repeated story about Cal Junior occurred shortly after President Harding’s sudden death in August, 1923, which elevated VP Calvin Coolidge into the top spot.
As expected, the fifteen-year-old boy had a summer job that year – as a farm hand on a tobacco farm in Connecticut, a labor-intensive and physically demanding job. The news had just come over the radio that Calvin Coolidge was now the President of the United States.
One of the other boys working on the farm commented to young Cal, “Boy, if my old man were President I wouldn’t been working here.” Cal retorted, “If your old man were my old man you would.”
The Tragic Death of Calvin Junior
Presidential son Cal Junior attended the Washington schools and blended happily into the capital scene, making friends, doing his schoolwork and enjoying sports. Very sixteen-ish. One of those sports was tennis, and the White House had a tennis court on the property.
In July, 1924 Cal was playing tennis. He wore his tennis shoes without socks, and rubbed up a blister. A common enough occurrence. Not worth bothering about. Certainly not worth complaining about.
But this blister was a blood blister, and it became infected. Penicillin and other antibiotics were still a few years in the future. The poison of the infection entered Cal’s bloodstream, and the boy declined rapidly. He was in pain, and delirious with fever that did not respond to the treatment of the day.
Doctors had been summoned immediately, but every effort they made failed. They could do nothing. The President and First Lady sat with their sick son, but they could do nothing. Cal Junior begged his father to “help him,” after all, he was the President. But the President was helpless. He could do nothing. Within the week, Cal died.
His body lay in state in the East Room of the White House, with an honor guard of Marines and sailors. There were contingents of Boy Scouts participating in the simple service. Flowers and wreaths poured in from across the country. Then his body was taken back to Plymouth Notch, VT for burial in the Coolidge family plot.
President Coolidge was never the same after his young son’s death. Silent Cal became even more silent. He remarked simply, “When he went, the power and glory of the presidency went with him.”
Coolidge, Calvin – The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge – University Press of the Pacific, 2004
Wikander, Lawrence & Ferrell, Robert (eds) – Grace Coolidge, An Autobiography, 1992, High Plains