FLOTUS McKinley: White House Invalid

William and Ida McKinley. In his eyes, she was always the prettiest girl in Canton, Ohio.

Many historians claim William McKinley would have been a far greater president had he not been so distracted by his invalid wife.

Ida McKinley: Candidate’s Wife

Willi9am and Ida McKinley at their 25th Anniversary Party.

Shortly before the 1896 election, William and Ida McKinley celebrated their Silver Anniversary. More than six hundred guests attended a huge party as Ohio Governor McKinley’s closest political friends watched in horror. They realized that if he became President, his lame, epileptic and difficult wife would insist on become First Lady in fact, as well as in essence. McKinley was delighted however. If his frail wife wished to participate, he was happy to give in. He always gave in to her wishes.

His “front porch” campaign was a rousing success. Ida was thrilled to sit on the porch, crocheting and smiling at everyone who came to pay their respects to the husband she idolized. In a way, she became one of his greatest assets. How could anyone help but admire a man so obviously devoted to his semi-invalid wife? He won easily over the young William Jennings Bryan.

Ida McKinley:  White House Staff Nightmare

From the start there was gossip among the White House staff that “something wasn’t right with the new First Lady,” but the word “epileptic” was never used. One of McKinley’s first acts was to plan escape routes if Ida had a seizure and had to be carried quickly from the room. He had done this so many times and in so many places, he was an expert.

Ida had also developed an intransigent and demanding personality disorder making it impossible for a substitute to assume the hostess role. While nieces came to visit, sometimes for weeks at a time, Ida would not permit anyone to usurp what she believed was her rightful societal position.  Meanwhile her condition, usually treated with heavy sedatives, made it impossible for her to function in that role.

Ida McKinley loved ornate (and very expensive) clothing, even though it was years out of current style.

It therefore fell to the President himself to oversee many of the traditional First Lady duties, such as housekeeping decisions, menu planning, seating arrangements, and even where the coat racks would be placed. Ida was incapable of making those choices – and refused to relinquish them to anyone else except her already overworked husband.

The White House staff loved President William McKinley, who had a warm and generous soul. But whatever sympathy they might have had for his wife became intense dislike. It was not due to the phlebitis, which made her lame. It was not even due to her periodic “nervous faints” and the heavy sedation. It was her total self-absorption and lack of concern about anyone else, including the extra burdens she placed on the husband she so dearly loved.

The First McKinley State Dinner

President and Mrs. McKinley. He always sat next to her at a formal dinner party.

The First Lady was physically and dispositionally incapable of managing state dinners, which frequently numbered more than a hundred guests. Nevertheless, she insisted on attending, and the devoted President would deny his wife nothing.

In the late 1890s, the rigid rules and traditions of diplomatic protocol were practically on a par with war and peace. Guests were seated at a long or U-shaped table, with the President and First Lady seated in the middle – on opposite sides. This provided four places of honor: The President’s left and right, and the same for the First Lady.

At their first state dinner, McKinley was seated all the way around the table from Ida. If he needed to attend to her, he would physically have to run all around the room. His eyes were fixed on Ida. He barely ate. He barely conversed with his guests. He was beside himself with worry.

After that grueling experience, he did the unthinkable. He altered the seating protocol to be seated next to his wife. This threw the State Department into a panic, since they were the ones who had to rework everything – and make vague explanations.

If Ida ever knew what a headache she caused for the staff, it is unrecorded.

Ida McKinley and the Slippers

One of thousands of pairs of slippers that Ida McKinley crocheted – and gave to charity.

With hours of idle time on her hands for more than twenty-five semi-invalid years, Ida had developed a hobby of crocheting slippers. She made thousands of pairs during her lifetime. True to her nature and need for a strict routine, her pattern – and even the colors – seldom varied.

Ida gave slippers away to family, to friends, to slight acquaintances and even to perfect strangers. Mostly, she donated them to charity.

As First Lady, Ida McKinley provided at least one real contribution. The White House has always received hundreds of requests from organizations wishing donations. In the McKinley administration, no worthy cause was refused. They would receive a pair of Ida’s hand-crocheted slippers to auction or raffle off. It is estimated that thousands and thousands of dollars were raised.

Ida McKinley: The Last Years

William McKinley was assassinated six months into his second term. When he was shot, his immediate thought was for Ida. “Be careful how you tell her,” he told his aide. “Be very careful.”

To everyone’s amazement, Ida took the news calmly. Two nieces rushed from Ohio to help their aunt. The doctors kept her from the sick room, comforting her with their belief that her husband would recover. Within a week, however, his condition worsened. He insisted she be brought in for a final farewell. She sat by his bed and put her head on his chest. He placed his arm around her tenderly, just as he had done for three decades.

Ida went back to Canton, Ohio and lived six more years. She never had another seizure.

Sources:

  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
  • Foster, Feather Schwartz – Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories from the First Ladies’ Closet – Koehler Publishing, 2016
  • Hoover, Irwin Hood – 42 Years in the White House – Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1934
  • Leech, Margaret – In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959
  • Morgan, H. Wayne – William McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964

 

 

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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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3 Responses to FLOTUS McKinley: White House Invalid

  1. energywriter says:

    Another great story. It’s interesting that she had no more seizures after her husband passed. An obvious symbiotic relationship carried to extremes? sd

  2. rwwonwheels says:

    As a wheelchair user with Cerebral Palsy, I have never viewed Ida McKinley so harshly, for the following reasons: 1) In her time, disability was hidden (see how Franklin Delano Roosevelt deceived the public into thinking he could walk when he couldn’t); 2) She had several stillbirths and the death of a 3 year old; 3) She was born into a wealthy high-brow family. I’m not saying I would like Ida, but I feel sorry for all of her losses.

    >

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