The First Ladies of the United States are a surprisingly unhealthy group of women. While the rigors of public life are arguably analogous, longevity is valued in potential presidents but overlooked in their spouses. Notwithstanding the women’s relatively younger age and their proclivity to live longer, an equal number of Presidents and First Ladies– four to be exact– have died in office of natural causes. In every instance, the illness of a lady married to a president was initiated and/or aggravated by her participation in political life.
From depression to strokes to suicide attempts, it was hard to narrow the field of unhealthy First Ladies to just ten. Consideration was given to Betty Ford’s substance abuse and breast cancer, Helen Herron Taft’s stroke-causing aphasia, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe’s epilepsy and Lucretia Randolph Garfield’s battle with malaria. They still did not make the cut. The following is a list of the Top Ten Sickliest First Ladies.
10. Margaret Smith Taylor
While she vowed to voluntarily forgo society’s pleasures if Zachary Taylor survived combat, Margaret Smith Taylor’s poor health obviated that decision. By the time she reached the White House in 1849, she had seriously jeopardized her physical wellbeing by accompanying her husband during his duty in the Black Hawk, Seminole and Mexican Wars. Not only did she live in scant conditions, she often had various of her six children in tow. On just such an excursion in 1820, the Taylors lost their two youngest children to fever. Mrs. Taylor only partially recovered from the same affliction and remained in a delicate condition for her life’s duration.
Her poor health and wifely devotion kept Margaret Smith Taylor from hostess duties as the First Lady. Instead, she attended to the upkeep of her husband and gladly relinquished public appearances to her popular daughter, Mary Elizabeth Taylor Bliss. Her perennial absence sparked false rumors that she was a backwoods social recluse who smoked from a pipe and was locked in the attic. Mrs. Taylor had difficulty accepting Old Rough and Ready’s sudden, fatal gastric illness in 1850 and died two years later at the age of 63, purposefully passing into obscurity in the interim.
9. Eliza McCardle Johnson
The youngest First Lady to marry, Eliza McCardle Johnson began furthering Andrew Johnson’s minimal education soon after they were wed as teenagers (she 16, he 18) in 1827. Mrs. Johnson’s difficult labor of their fifth and final child doomed her to a life of poor health. She officially suffered from “consumption” which was then a general diagnosis for progressive bodily wasting. Her health was further declined by acute alcoholism, a condition which plagued the family and claimed the life of her son, Charles, when he fell from a horse in a drunken stupor.
While she avoided Washington, D.C. during her husband’s Vice Presidency, Andrew Johnson’s assent to Chief Executive upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination forced Mrs. Johnson to move. Stalling for four months, she eventually took up residence in the White House’s second floor and stayed there. She made only two public appearances during her husband’s four years in office, thereby thrusting her daughter, Martha Johnson Patterson, into the hostess role. After the President was impeached in 1869, her health never improved and she lingered for seven years until she was 65, only to watch the suicide of another son because of alcoholism and the death of her husband because of a stroke.
8. Louisa Johnson Adams
Having been raised on the Continent and developing European sensibilities, John Quincy Adam’s choice of bride raised patriotic eyebrows across the fledgling nation. Nonetheless, her worldly exposure served the son of the former president well in his attaché work. But travel took a hardship on Mrs. Adams– she was beset with multiple miscarriages, fevers, fainting spells and bouts of fatigue. She found her husband cold and without empathy for her feministic ideals, thus straining their relationship and her health further. Louisa Johnson Adams’ depression worsened when she accompanied him on an eight year European post, her husband insisting that his mother, Abigail Adams, raise their two eldest sons.
While acting as First Lady, Mrs. Adams was inundated with multiple political scandals arising from her husband’s dubious election and familial humiliations stemming from her sons’ chemical addictions and sexual misdeeds. She isolated herself in her bedroom, eating chocolate and unwittingly inhaling noxious fumes from the coal-fired heaters. She often succumbed to menopausal symptoms and skipped social engagements which she personally planned. After leaving office, her two eldest sons died suddenly, causing her to relive the death of her infant daughter decades earlier. In 1849, a physically debilitating stroke increased her depression but she lingered on for three years until her death at the age of 77.
7. Jane Appleton Pierce
Jane Appleton Pierce was never able to recover from depression which resulted from the death of her three children. Her first son died just days after birth, her second from typhus at the age of four and her third from a freak train derailment just prior to Franklin Pierce’s Inauguration. She believed God was punishing her family for her husband’s political aspirations and therefore detested political life. Jane Appleton Pierce did not attend her husband’s Inauguration and sunk into a deep depression upon her delayed arrival to the White House.
Because of an extended period of mourning over her son’s recent death, Mrs. Pierce was also absent from formal events for two years and asked friends and family to replace her. Instead, she secluded herself on the second floor of the White House, writing heartbreaking letters to her dead child. The First Lady’s presence was so sporadic that her departure from Washington, D.C. was barely noticeable. In an effort to buoy her sprits, the Pierces sailed around the Caribbean and Europe. The endeavor proved fruitless and she sank further into melancholy, eventually dying as a 57 year old recluse at her sister’s house in 1863.
6. Caroline Scott Harrison
Caroline Scott was plagued with respiratory troubles from an early age but her dancing brown eyes managed to catch those of Benjamin Harrison. He persuaded her to leave a Kentucky teaching post, return to the fresh Buckeye air and marry him in 1853. Three pregnancies, a miscarriage, his absence during the Civil War and a fall requiring surgery took a toll on Mrs. Harrison’s fragile health.
Once her husband captured the Presidency despite losing the popular vote, Caroline Scott Harrison was productive in spite of her depleted lung capacity. She modernized the White House by installing electricity and popularized china painting. Her mood took a grave turn when rumors surfaced that her husband was having an affair with her cousin and secretary, Mary Lord Dimmick. Mrs. Harrison took refuge for a summer in the Adirondacks to cure both her depression and tuberculosis. It did not work– she died in the White House a few weeks after her return at the age of 60.
5. Ida Saxton McKinley
Ida Saxton McKinley never overcame the deaths of her two young daughters and mother within a five years period. She thereafter experienced fainting spells and epileptic bouts which are historically suspected to be mentally-induced. Luckily, William McKinley was incredibly devoted to his wife and insisted on her inclusion in social affairs despite her condition. Breaking from the tradition of being seated at opposite ends of the table, Mrs. McKinley was always at her husband’s side during White House dinners. He would place a napkin over her contorted face when she experienced a seizure, gracefully ignoring her and then removing it when she recovered.
Her debilitated state caused wildly vacillating moods and frequent absences from the public eye, fueling rumors that she was insane. Nonetheless, his devotion to an “invalid” wife curried favor with voters and helped him to secure a second term. Abdicating many of her hostess duties to the Vice President’s wife, Jennie Hobart, she spent vast amounts of time sedated and crocheting slippers which were auctioned for charity. After President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, her seizures disappeared but she remained in a deep depression until her death six years later at the age of 59.
4. Ellen Axson Wilson
Bright’s Disease, Depression
While her husband was a two term president and remarried in office, Ellen Axson Wilson died after being the First Lady for only 17 months. Not only was her premature death at the age of 54 tragic, her early life was fraught with misery– her mother died in childbirth, her father went insane, she was branded as a man-hater by potential suitors and her brother and his young family were killed in a freak carriage accident.
While she considered suicide, Bright’s Disease would ultimately take Mrs. Wilson’s life. She developed chronic kidney problems after the birth of her youngest daughter, Eleanor, in 1889 and fought a lifelong battle with chronic depression. Because of her health problems, the First Lady depended on her daughters, cousin and a social secretary to assist with hostessing. After depleting her fragile health by throwing her daughter a lavish wedding, she suffered a fall in her White House bedroom and never recovered, fading away for five months until her death in 1914. Her memory would soon be eclipsed by the second Mrs. Wilson, Edith Galt, who was her flamboyant opposite.
3. Mary Todd Lincoln
Polyform Mental Illness
Mrs. Lincoln’s unusual behavior suggests that she suffered from a myriad of aliments including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, paranoia, migraine headaches and diabetes. Some of her problems may also have stemmed from an 1863 accident in which she was thrown from her carriage and knocked unconscious. Whether inborn or acquired, her general condition was exacerbated by the tragic, sudden deaths of her young son and husband. Even during their lives, she was plagued by the passing of several family members fighting for the South in the Civil War and accusations that she was a Confederate sympathizer. Her extravagant spending on White House renovations furthered her poor public perception and concomitantly increased her mental illness.
Following her departure from the White House in 1865, Mrs. Lincoln was further traumatized by the death of another son and thereafter displayed signs of insanity. After an episode in which she attempted to jump out of a window to escape a non-existent fire, she was committed to the Bellevue Insane Asylum for four months. Mary Todd Lincoln was eventually adjudicated sane. During this period, she twice attempted suicide with a combination of what she believed to be laudanum and camphor but was actually a placebo concoction. She eventually died of natural causes at the age of 63 in 1882.
2. Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson
Mrs. Jackson was the first First Lady previously married and the first First Lady never to serve in the White House after her husband’s election. Interestingly enough, the two events may have been related. Much to her embarrassment, during the presidential campaign, the press concentrated on Rachel’s divorce from Lewis Robards and an alleged affair with Andrew Jackson. The Jacksons claimed Rachael sought refuge in Mississippi from her abusive then-husband, while his political opponents asserted that she abandoned her mate and eloped to Mississippi with Andrew Jackson. The Courts ultimately agreed with her first husband and she was branded a bigamist adulterer.
Because of the sensationalization of her personal life in the public forum, Mrs. Jackson spent much of her husband’s 1828 campaign distraught and depressed. Her tenuous emotional state was further stressed when she learned of her son’s death the same year. Both traumas weighed heavily on her heart, literally and figuratively– Mrs. Jackson had a pulmonary condition diagnosed three years earlier. After purchasing a gown for her husband’s Inauguration, Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson had a near-fatal heart attack in the street. She seemed to recover but died a few months later in the arms of her husband at the age of 61, just three days before Christmas.
1. Letitia Christian Tyler
Letitia Christian Tyler holds the dubious honor of being the first First Lady to die while still holding the title. Her parents also passed at an early age and her inheritance ultimately funded John Tyler’s political ambitions. Despite the pattern of premature death, Mrs. Tyler and her progeny were seemingly robust– she birthed seven children, all of whom survived to adulthood. But when she was just 49 in 1839, Mrs. Tyler suffered a debilitating stroke and never fully recovered.
Because of her partial paralysis, Mrs. Tyler took some time getting from Williamsburg to Washington, D.C. when her husband succeeded to the presidency upon William Henry Harrison’s death. There, she held court from her bed, giving verbal instructions on the running of the White House and visiting frequently with family. She made one brief public appearance when her daughter was married within the confines of the White House. She suffered a second stroke in 1842 and lingered for a few months, waiting for her son to return to her bedside. She died shortly before his arrival at the age of 52 with the rose she intended to present him in her crippled hand, gazing out at the White House lawn.
By Suzy Duvall