William McKinley: The Sneezing Fit

William McKinley was one of the best liked Presidents.

President William McKinley was a genial and popular man. He had a long list of personal friends.

William McK: Mister Nice Guy

William McKinley (1843-1901) was a nice fellow – and a good fellow. At 18, he enlisted in the Union Army and served the entire four years, rising from private to major.

A devout Methodist, young Billy did not smoke, drink, play cards, gamble, dance, swear or chase women. Despite this absence of the vices of camaraderie, he was immensely popular with the soldiers, who liked and respected him.

As a young attorney, he joined all the fraternal and civic societies, along with the Republican Club, the Grand Army of the Republic (Veterans all!) and the Methodist Church.  He was welcome everywhere.

Ida Saxton McKinley, “the prettiest girl in Canton, Ohio, according to McKinley.

At 27, he married Ida Saxton, the daughter of the town banker, and “the prettiest girl in Canton, Ohio,” according to the bridegroom. For four years they were a happy couple, and proud parents of little Katie, born a year after their marriage.

That Horrible Year.

Ida’s second pregnancy was difficult. Her mother died.  Their baby was born sickly and died weeks later. Childbirth left Ida with phlebitis. And epileptic seizures. Then little Katie sickened and died before her fourth birthday.

Katie McKinley died shortly before her fourth birthday.

This year of relentless woe plunged Ida into a deep and understandable depression and transformed the pretty young woman into a demanding semi-invalid, whose focus on herself and her husband became (according to contemporaries) “strangulating.”

Phlebitis. And Epilepsy.

In the 1870s, both phlebitis and epilepsy were known to the medical community – but treatments were vague, and cures did not exist.

Phlebitis is not an uncommon residual of childbirth. It is basically blood clots, usually formed around the knee. It is serious to the point of fatal, even today; but now it can be effectively treated. The only treatment available then was rest, elevation, a compress, and perhaps something for pain. At 27, Ida McKinley walked with a cane.

Epilepsy has been known since Biblical times, but it was a word that bore a stigma. The McKinleys spared no expense seeking medical treatment, and even traveled to Philadelphia and New York, where the best doctors in the country were said to practice.

THe McKinleys spared no expense to find treatment for Ida’s “condition.”

No doubt the doctors recognized Ida’s problem, but it was never mentioned by name. It was couched in such euphemisms as a “nervous condition” or “fainting spells.” Some people still whispered about the “falling down” sickness.

Doctors could offer nothing other than powerful barbiturates for severe symptoms, and recommendations for a rigid routine: no excitement, no surprises – and no stress.

Bottom line. Ida McKinley had become a petulant semi-invalid, whose husband doted on her every whim, petrified that if she did not get her way, it could precipitate an attack.

H.H. Kohlsaat

H.H. Kohlsaat, Chicago newspaperman and friend of William McKinley.

Herman H. Kohlsaat (1853-1924) was a Chicago businessman and newspaper publisher of the Chicago Times Herald and the Chicago Evening Post. In the 19th century, long before movies, radio, television and the internet, newspapers were the mainstay of disseminating news – and forming public opinion. All the major cities had several papers. Some were devoted to promoting partisan politics, much like today. By 1890, Kohlsaat had converted his newspapers from Democratic to Republican viewpoints.

One of his “pet” interests was maintaining the “sound money” gold standard, as opposed to the free-silver issues of the Midwestern Democrats. McKinley was an ardent “sound money” man.

During the twenty years William McKinley spent on the national scene, as long-time Congressman and then Ohio Governor, he made scores of friends, Kohlsaat among them.

It was no secret that Ida McKinley was a semi-invalid; and most McKinley intimates were generally tolerant of her obsessive absorption of his time and energies. Despite his sincere cordiality with dozens of men, McKinley kept a distance when it came to his private/personal life. There are only a few instances when he acknowledged the constant strain he was under from worrying about Ida’s health.

The Sneezing Fit.

Ida McKinley was a frail semi-invalid as First Lady, and was the primary concern of her devoted husband.

William McKinley became President in March, 1897, and by the end of that year, was confronted by growing tensions in Cuba, where long-time harsh Spanish rule was fomenting violent reaction among the Cubans. Freedom-loving Americans were sympathetic to the Cubans who were trying to shed their Spanish oppressors.

Fanned by a jingoistic press, many Americans were eager for a war with Spain. President McKinley was not.

The thought of war with Spain was particularly upsetting to McKinley, who had experienced war first hand.

In need of a frank discussion with a good friend, he wired Kohlsaat, and asked him to come to Washington. The Chicagoan took the next train, but it was delayed, and he reached the White House hours after he was expected.

He was then ushered into the East Room, where a musical entertainment was in progress. McKinley caught his eye and slipped off to greet his friend. He told Kohlsaat to wait for an appropriate lull in the program, pay his respects to Mrs. McKinley, and then join him in a nearby room.

When Kohlsaat entered the room, he found a distraught President, who unburdened himself about the threat of possible war. He had spent four years in the Union Army. He had seen the carnage at Antietam. He dreaded the thought of sending American soldiers to fight – and die – in Cuba. He admitted that he hadn’t slept more than three hours a night for weeks.

Then he burst into tears, confessing that he was also sick with worry because Mrs. McKinley was “doing far too much,” recklessly scheduling luncheons and teas and musicales, without care to her delicate health. It was a very rare admission of his preoccupation with his wife.

Having unburdened himself, the President regained his composure and said he needed to rejoin his wife, because “she was among strangers.”

Herman Kohlsaat then advised his friend to blow his nose hard, and dab his eyes when he rejoined the gathering. This way, he could tell Mrs. McKinley that he had a severe fit of sneezing – which caused his eyes to water.

That’s what friends are for.

Sources:

Leech, Margaret, In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959

Morgan, H. Wayne – McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964

https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/williammckinley

https://millercenter.org/president/mckinley

https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/first-ladies/idamckinley

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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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2 Responses to William McKinley: The Sneezing Fit

  1. energywriter says:

    And, we think we have stress. We know he lost the argument about war with Spain, the war that made TR a hero. sd

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