Harry Truman’s Mother-in-Law From Hell

bess and harry
Harry Truman was always an outspoken man who never minced words, but…

Madge Wallace

Young Madge Gates Wallace

Margaret Gates Wallace (1862-1952), called Madge from childhood, was perhaps the only exception.  Madge was the spoiled daughter of midwesterners George and Elizabeth Gates. George Gates was the owner of a large flour mill, and as a prominent and wealthy man, built a spacious Victorian home on North Delaware Avenue, the best neighborhood in Independence, MO.

David Wallace

Madge graduated from Independence Female College (more like a finishing school), studied music briefly at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and married David W. Wallace shortly before her 21st birthday, against her parents’ better judgment. Two years Madge’s senior, David was the handsomest boy in town, and at the time, held a minor post in the Kansas City Customs House. The Gates’ believed it was insufficient to support their daughter.

Always considered a pleasant fellow, Wallace hoped for Democratic patronage advancement, but between the political climate and Wallace’s heavy drinking, he never advanced. As expected, it created financial and emotional strife within the family despite having four children. Madge was frequently forced to rely on her parents for money.

Bess Wallace (1885-1982) was their eldest.  Brothers Frank, George and David followed; a sister died in early childhood.

The Strife Part

Bess Truman’s mother in earlier times.

Modern psychologists could easily make a case for Madge Wallace to have a “personality disorder” of some kind. She was unquestionably a difficult woman. Some said she had an exalted sense of her own “worthiness” and its lack in everyone else, including Yankees, Negroes, Jews, Eye-talians, the Irish, Republicans, etc. Some said she was inclined to bury her head in the sand and avoid facing her problems. Few people liked her.

Nevertheless, she had ample reason for dissatisfaction in her marriage – as her parents had predicted. Handsome and affable are fine, but David’s drinking, lack of financial stability and inability to get, keep and progress in a career made life extremely tense. Madge began taking lengthy “vacations” with her sister in order to avoid the tensions. The household management fell to Bess.

Young Bess

Young Bess Wallace

In 1903, when she was eighteen, her father stood in the bathtub and put a bullet in his brain. While he did not leave the proverbial “note,” he was deeply in debt. Perhaps he found living with Madge to be equally intolerable.

In 1903, “suicide” was scandalous. Whatever psychological problems Madge had before, were now exacerbated. Mumbling the ubiquitous “business reverses,” and unable to face the obvious stigma, Madge took the children to Colorado Springs for a year, to let the talk die down.

When they returned, they moved in with her parents.

By that time, the elder Gates’ were past seventy, Madge was incapable of managing the household, so the responsibilities fell to Bess, and would remain so for the rest of their lives. Any further education or “career” for her was out of the question.

Enter Harry

The house in Independence was originally the Gates’ house. Then the Wallace house. Finally the Truman house.

Harry Truman (1884-1972) always claimed he loved Bess Wallace since they were both five years old in little kid dancing school, and she was the only love of his life.

Born in Lamar, MO, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks, the farming Trumans were a far cry economically and socially from the affluent and pretentious Gates/Wallaces. Nevertheless, Harry and Bess were the same age and in the same class all the way through high school. They knew each other and liked each other, but it was a superficial relationship due to their youth, but mostly the socio-economic part. Different circles. When they graduated, they went their separate ways. College for him too, was out of the question; he needed to help with the farm. In the winter he found temporary jobs to get them through.

When he was in his early twenties, Harry was visiting a relative in Independence, who mentioned in passing that she needed to return a pie plate to Mrs. Wallace. Harry said he knew Bess, and offered to return the plate to her. He did, and so began a long, long courtship, punctuated by his service in World War I.

As expected, Madge Gates was not pleased about her daughter keeping company with  “Farmer” Truman (as she called him). He was far, far beneath her.

June 28, 1919

A month after Captain Truman was discharged from the Army, he and Bess finally married.  They were both well into their thirties.


Bess and Harry Truman on their wedding day.

Mrs. W. – small but very feisty.

Many years later, their daughter Margaret hinted that shortly before the wedding, Harry and Bess had their one-and-only mega-battle. She also hinted that neither of her parents offered details or explanations, but Margaret suspected that Harry understandably wanted a house of his own, and Bess insisted they live with Madge. Mrs. W. obviously could not live alone, and Bess was the only one who could live with her.  Margaret Truman added that they lived in the Gates house for the rest of their lives, “So Dad must have loved Mother very much.” He bought the package.

Uncharacteristically, he also never said an unkind word about Madge Wallace. Ever. Not when she insisted on sitting at the head of their dining room table all her life. Not even when she disdainfully insisted on calling him MISTER Truman, even when he was President.


Madge Wallace in the White House

Harry and Bess Truman never entertained guests in that house. They certainly couldn’t “banish her to her room” in her own house, but they could not chance near-certain embarrassment over what she might say to their friends.

Later and Later

Family put up with Madge Wallace because she was kin. She knew the neighbors, but had few, if any friends. But she had a widespread reputation in Independence as a difficult and peculiar woman. When she lived with Senator Harry and Bess in Washington, and even later in the White House, that same reputation was re-earned among new people.

Those close to him said that Harry Truman had the original mother-in-law from Hell.  He never said a word.


Truman, Margaret – Harry S Truman – William Morrow & Co., 1973

Truman, Margaret – Bess W. Truman – Macmillan Publishing, 1986





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