Jane Means Appleton Pierce
White House Shadow
While today there is no stigma to seeking professional help for depression, in the 1800s it was much different. A woman with an alcoholic husband, severe grief from the deaths of her children, or other emotional difficulties was often expected to suffer in silence. Or she might resort to becoming an invalid and even seclude herself from the outside world – even if she was the wife of the U.S. President. And such was the case with Jane Means Appleton Pierce – Mrs. Franklin Pierce – when she spent much of her husband’s term in depressed seclusion. She was a largely absent figure who only occasionally participated in official duties, thus causing one writer to call her “The Shadow of the White House.”
Jane was born on March 12, 1806 in Hampton, New Hampshire, the daughter of a Congregational minister. A quiet, even shy youngster who was taught at home, she showed an early interest and talent for music so much so that she one teacher urged her to make it her career. Still, she did not do so and even lost interest, as she grew older. When Jane was 13, her father died of tuberculosis, a disease that would affect Jane on and off for the rest of her life. The family settled in Amherst, Massachusetts and later there she met Franklin Pierce, a local law student. However, they did not marry for six years after meeting. There is some speculation that Jane’s family objected to Pierce’s interest in politics, considered socially undesirable at the time, as well his drinking – especially with other political devotes. They were very different temperamentally, and it was to prove an unhappy marriage. Biographer Margaret Bassett put it this way: “That she had no hesitation in accepting his proposal of marriage is evidence of his extraordinary magnetism and her own weakness of intellect.” Still, they married in 1834 when Jane was 28.
Since Pierce was serving in Congress at the time of their marriage, they soon moved to Washington. There they lived in a boardinghouse in the capital, while Pierce also began planning construction of a house for his family in New Hampshire for when Congress was not in session. However, it soon became clear that Jane did not care for their life in Washington or in any other house Franklin had planned and after the death of their first infant, she settled on living in the homes of relatives in Massachusetts. Pierce exercised great patience as he tried to meet her needs, treating her with great chivalry, perhaps seeing her as a delicate creation who required devoted tenderness. For her part, over the years Jane responded as best she could as she tried to depend on him rather than on her family.
Jane’s presence was enough to discipline Pierce’s behavior especially with his drinking as well as his political plans. After the death of their first son, Jane had blamed her husband’s political career for the loss and persuaded Franklin to give up his Senate seat. He became a very successful lawyer in Concord, even declining a post in the cabinet of President James K. Polk, saying that Jane’s health did not allow him to accept it.
Their second son Frank Robert was born in 1839, and their third son, Benjamin in 1841. However, Frank died of typhus in 1843 pitching Jane into even more emotional turmoil and she then turned her devotion to their surviving son Benny. He became the center of her life for the next several years, joining the family in regular attendance at church and religious exercises at home.
Perhaps their best years were those just after Pierce’s return from the Mexican War as a hero in 1848 but her happiness was to be brief. Unknown to Jane, in 1852 Pierce had begun a background bid for the presidency with the help of fellow politicos. Then in June, as the couple was taking a carriage ride a messenger arrived from the Democratic Convention in Baltimore with the news that Pierce had received the presidential nomination. Jane, who had completely oblivious to her husband’s background efforts, fainted at the news.
Jane was depressed and ill during Pierce’s campaign and while there is no way to know if she actually prayed for her husband’s defeat she did not encourage Benny to anticipate his father being elected. Yet at his victory Jane decided to return to Washington and cope as best she could. Then just after the New Year in 1853 they traveled to Boston for a family funeral and were returning to Concord when their train car became separated from the train. The coach hurtled down an incline and while Jane and Franklin were only slightly injured Benny was mangled in the wreckage.
The death of a child is tragic enough for any mother but for someone in such a precarious emotional state as Jane it was far more devastating. She soon came to believe that Benny’s death was a divine act that was somehow related to her husband’s election. In the throes of this reasoning Jane prepared to leave for Washington accompanied by a close friend Abby Means who was married to her uncle. She was in Baltimore at the time of the inauguration then arrived in Washington later but to enter a yearlong seclusion. One society leader recorded Jane’s impression on the city: “I never saw her, I never knew anyone who had seen her. We thought of her as a Mater Dolorosa, shrouded in deepest mourning, and we gave her a sacred place in our hearts.”
Actually Jane did attend small dinner parties in the second year of Pierce’s term and she did become involved in some public duties during the second part of his term. Yet when she did follow the White House social routine she did so while wearing a pained smile that was a constant reminder of her bereavement.
Though Jane conducted her duties as best she could, socially it was a dreary four years with such a depressed First Lady.
When Pierce’s term was over in 1857 the President planned to spend his retirement years devoting himself entirely to Jane and her needs. They traveled in Europe for two years, collecting art and other mementoes for a home Pierce intended to build in Concord. However, Jane could not settle in such a house, since there were too many reminders of her dead children. She had continued to mourn, even carrying around locks of her children’s hair in a box. After their return as Pierce continued an interest in politics and national affairs Jane withdrew more and more and her general health began to fail.
She could no longer travel after 1860, then declined gradually and died December 2, 1863 at the home of a sister – where she found refuge from a world she gradually sought to escape.
Pierce mourned the wife who was the object of his unique affection and often the one who helped him remain sober. Oddly enough, as biographer Basset put it: “His loneliness and struggle with alcoholism in his last years with an odd tribute to an odd woman, who, to the best of everyone’s belief, had never loved him at all.”
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.”