Ida Saxton McKinley
Invalid First Lady
By Anne Adams
There have been several First Ladies who were invalids and because of that made only a few public appearances while their husbands were in office. Yet when we identify Ida McKinley as an invalid that is not what makes her unique. What sets her apart was how though afflicted by a condition that had to remain a secret to prevent social shame; she refused to remain secluded and tried as hard as she could to carry out a full social schedule. Yet despite all she accomplished it is likely that she could not have had done it without her husband’s devoted commitment to her – a dedication that never failed despite the fact that he was President of the United States.
Ida Saxton was born in June, 1847 in Canton, Ohio, the daughter of prosperous parents who definitely believed in educating their daughters. After graduating from a Pennsylvania girls’ school, Mary and her sister embarked on a long European tour. However, while her sister Mary was anxious to return home to marry her “beau,” Ida had no definite future plans. To give her something to do and also perhaps help her learn how to manage the resources she would eventually acquire, her father suggested she go to work in his bank, the First National of Canton. Though he may not have considered it, Ida’s new position would help her become acquainted with single male customers. One of these was William McKinley.
Actually Ida and McKinley had been previously acquainted, first developing their friendship as they met on Sunday mornings, walking to their respective churches. As they began courting, and their relationship grew more serious Ida developed an intense passion for him even to the point of jealousy. She could hardly bear to be away from him or have him be late for a meeting. McKinley was just several years out of law school and while serving as a local county prosecutor, he was also building up a private law practice. Finally he decided he could support a family and he and Ida were married in January, 1871. They moved into a house that was a gift from Mr. Saxton.
Their first daughter Katie was born in December, 1871, and within a few months Ida was again pregnant, but this time things did not go so well. First her mother died, sending the devoted daughter into nervous shock. Then when their second daughter was born in March, 1873 the baby only survived a few months.
As she recovered from all this, Ida also suffered from phlebitis that made walking difficult and painful. However, at the same time she also developed a more serous nervous condition that was determined to be epilepsy. Medical science at the time could not cure or even successfully explain epilepsy, so because of this lack of knowledge, as well as many misconceptions about it, such a diagnosis meant the patient and his or her family was socially stigmatized. Because of this many families kept the illness a closely guarded secret and McKinley followed this practice.
Because Ida’s “fits” or seizures could last just a few seconds or be serious enough to put her into a coma, McKinley responded to her condition with a totally devoted commitment. This meant that he not only provided the best care for her but he also remained available whenever she needed him. He learned what to expect when a seizure became imminent and was ready to quickly pull out a handkerchief and drape it over her face, hiding her gaping eyes and drooling lips. It was to become a lifelong practice.
While Ida’s epilepsy made such devoted attention vital and because common knowledge of her affliction would be detrimental to their future, McKinley came to prefer people thinking his devoted consideration of her was done for sentimental reasons. He was so successful with this pretense that not even family members suspected the truth. There was one story that when one of Ida’s nieces heard the word epilepsy the immediately assumed it was a slur from McKinley’s political enemies. Medically, doctors of the time could only reduce the severity of the seizures with a sedative.
At age 26 Ida was considered mentally and physically disabled and dependent on not just the sedatives but also on the totally devoted care of her husband. She learned to expect that he would rush home at the end of a workday or remain at home if she was really ill. While he made sure she had an attendant at all times, he also stressed she was to be humored and amused. It was the response of a truly compassionate man as they lived as normal a life as possible.
However, Ida’s illness did not prevent them from both seeking a legal and then a political career for McKinley and in 1877 when he began his first term in Congress Ida accompanied him to Washington. Tragically their surviving daughter Katie died at age four. There was additional support from family friends President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes who often invited them to the White House for social events. Ida enjoyed social events, as well as carriage rides with her attendant, but was also content to stay at the hotel where they lived. While McKinley was tending to his congressional business and with her attendant nearby, Ida contentedly embroidered or crocheted or knitted countless pairs of bedroom slippers – a pastime she would continue all her life. In fact later as First Lady she told a senator’s wife that she had knitted some 3000 yarn slippers, each pair given to the poor.
As Ida approached middle age her physical condition improved somewhat as McKinley left Congress to run for governor of Ohio. When he was elected in 1892 they took lodgings opposite the State House in Columbus. The story goes that she could see his office from her window and he made it a habit to wave at her from the window each afternoon at 3 p.m. and she would flutter a handkerchief in return. By 1896 as there grew interest in McKinley as a presidential candidate, some of his advisors expressed concern that Ida’s health might present a problem.
Reprotedly she realized this and to prove she would not be a detriment to her husband’s political plans she planned a major social event. To celebrate the McKinleys’ 25th wedding anniversary, she put on a large party with so many invited guests they had to entertain them in two shifts because their home was too small. Ida successfully played hostess for 600 people over 6 hours.
Presidential candidates at that time did not travel but remained at home and their supporters came to them. When McKinley did this it was called the Front Porch Campaign since he would address visitors as they surged around their Canton home. Ida bore up well with all the visitors and when McKinley was elected, despite occasional bad spells she did feel up to traveling to Chicago for a Washington wardrobe.
Previous First Ladies with medical problems or illnesses had lived in secluded privacy without criticism but Ida would not consider that possibility. She intended to enjoy her time as First Lady, although her health didn’t always cooperate. This became evident at the Inaugural Ball. After an exhausting day with all the Inaugural events she suffered a seizure while leading the Grand March at the ball and was removed to a cloakroom unconscious. When she woke up she was returned to the White House.
There would be more seizures, but if one occurred in the midst of a reception the White House staff learned to deftly and carefully assist her out of the crowd and upstairs. She was determined to follow her schedule as closely as possible, even when making the traditional entrance down the main staircase at an event proved painful for her. At state receptions she sat in a chair with her hands folded, and nodded a greeting to visitors as McKinley introduced them. At state dinners, though the protocol officials would have preferred to place guests according to rank, McKinley insisted on placing Ida next to him. This way he could quickly cover her face with the ever-present handkerchief in case of a seizure. One time future president William Howard Taft was a witness to this procedure when he was at a formal dinner. He was chatting with McKinley when he heard a hissing sound. The president had already covered Ida’s face, and continued his conversation as if nothing had occurred. Her seizure over, Ida relaxed, removed the handkerchief and resumed conversing with Taft and her husband. Still, despite the seizures, Ida good-humouredly cooperated with the White House Staff as they escorted her where necessary and remained content amidst all the attention.
Late in 1898 Ida had a serious relapse after a family tragedy. A discarded mistress murdered Ida’s brother and after a spectacular trial the woman was acquitted. Ida had tried to ignore the scandal but after the trial she suffered the most serious seizure she had had for many months. Then the next summer in 1899 she developed a deep depression and McKinley took her on various trips to help her recover. He even took her back to Canton to see their honeymoon house that he had purchased for her. By that autumn of 1899 Ida had recovered.
Two years later in 1901 after McKinley’s second inaugural, they set out on a national tour. However, Ida acquired an infection that made her seriously ill and when the tour reached San Francisco she lingered near death till she recovered enough to return to Washington, without completing the rest of the tour. One of the cancelled stops was to have been a Presidential visit to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. When Ida recovered enough to return to Canton for a visit, McKinley decided to go ahead with the Buffalo speech. Ida accompanied him and enjoyed the sightseeing at the Exposition.
McKinley’s secretary, George Cortelyou, fearing that the President might be in danger from assassination by an anarchist, had removed from the president’s schedule an appearance at a reception at the Exposition. However, the President insisted on appearing, but tragically Cortelyou’s fears proved correct. With a gun in his hand covered by a handkerchief, Leon Czolgosz approached the president as if to shake his hand and fired at him. As he had his entire life McKinley’s first thought was for Ida. “My wife,” the mortally wounded president gasped to his secretary, “Be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her – oh, be careful!”
McKinley would succumb to an infection caused by the bullet, but as he lingered for the next 8 days he was mostly concerned about Ida and it was he who comforted her and not the reverse. She sat by his bed for the few minutes as she was allowed, clutching his hand and when she was removed for a while she waited in panic until she could return. As the end neared the feverous McKinley embraced her as best he could and weakly recited the words of the old hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
Ida was strong enough to attend all the funeral and burial services, and then returned to Canton. There in the home of a sister she died in 1907.
It is often proverbial that someone who has suffered has a great sensitivity to others who struggle, and such could have been the case with Ida McKinley. A friend wrote about her: “Her greatest charm was her perfect sincerity and thoughtfulness for others. No day passed over her head without her doing something for someone…Her friends endeavor to keep from her knowledge many instances of illness or sorrow because she immediately makes a personal matter of them and is untiring in her interest until all is well again.”
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”