Ida Saxton McKinley
Date of birth : 1847-06-08
Date of death : 1907-05-06
Birthplace : Canton, Ohio, USA
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-08-05
Ida Saxton McKinley, also known as Mrs. William McKinley born June 8, 1847 in Canton, Ohio, United States - died May 6, 1907 in Canton, Ohio, United States was the First Lady of the United States.
Whether the campaign material was buttons, pamphlets, or posters, Ida Saxton McKinley's image appeared as often as that of William McKinley, her husband and, eventually, the twenty-fifth president of the United States. She was the first wife of a candidate to be the subject of a campaign biography even if it was only to quash rumors that she was insane and was endowed with wealth, beauty, intelligence, and an animated personality. As the wife of the President, she garnered more public recognition than any woman of her time, yet Ida Saxton McKinley's life had long before lost its sparkling promise. A barrage of emotional tragedies and physical illnesses had left her an invalid years before she could enjoy the advantages of First Lady.
The "Belle of Canton"
Ida Saxton was the much admired daughter of James Saxton, president of the local Stark County Bank and third wealthiest man in the industrial town of Canton, Ohio. Well-educated at various academies in New York and Ohio, she graduated from Miss Eastman's Seminary, a finishing school in Media, Pennsylvania. Ida returned home in 1868 and became active in the community, raising money for the Presbyterian Church, of which her father was an elder. She was voted most popular actress in a local church-benefit performance in the spring of the same year and became widely known as the "belle of Canton."
In an effort to both indulge and further educate Ida and her sister Mary "Pina," Mr. Saxton sent his daughters, along with a female chaperone, on a grand tour of Europe for eight months. They returned, as one biographer wrote, "as glorious conquerors with their loot, lace and coral cameos." The Saxton girls' chaperone, however, was relieved to find the trip at an end, as she had found Ida so rambunctious and difficult to restrain that she had considered running off. Not surprisingly, as bright and energetic as she was, Ida upon her return home felt stifled and bored in Canton. In order to allay her discontent, and in collusion with her father, she took the unconventional step of securing a job.
At that time, it was highly unusual for a woman of means to seek paid employment, but the Saxtons were free thinkers and, with the wholehearted support of her father, Ida obtained a position in his bank as a teller. "I want her to be able to support herself if trouble comes her way," her father had explained in the face of scuttlebutt about the family's solvency. Delighting in her work, Ida was soon promoted to cashier and may even have been a branch manager.
In 1867 the young lawyer William McKinley moved to Canton from Niles, Ohio, in order to establish himself in business. By all accounts, Ida was extremely attractive and fashionable, slim with light blue eyes and thick auburn hair. McKinley, a decorated war hero, couldn't help but notice the Queen of Hearts at the 1868 masquerade ball that October. For her part, Ida was smitten by the attentive McKinley.
Marriage Bells, Death Knells
After gaining the appointment to county prosecuting attorney in 1869, Ida and William became engaged. They married in January 1871 before 1,000 guests at the Saxtons' newly renovated church. By December they'd had their first child, Katherine. Two years later a second daughter, Ida, was born in March. What would seem the continuation of a charmed life became the harbinger of tragedy.
Within two years, from 1873-1875, Ida McKinley lost her mother, with whom she was close, her four-month-old daughter Ida, and her three-year-old Katherine. In addition, she'd developed phlebitis (inflammation of a vein) in her leg, which made it difficult for her to stand; epilepsy, then an untreatable and debilitating illness marked by unpredictable cerebral seizures; and fell into a serious and lifelong depression. The belle of Canton was wracked with grief and plagued with physical ailments. She was not yet thirty.
While remaining sympathetic to her condition, her husband threw himself into politics. With the incalculable support of former President Rutherford B. Hayes, with whom he had fought during the Civil War, McKinley was voted into Congress and served from 1877 to 1883, and later from 1885 to 1891. He became governor of Ohio in 1893. In 1897 he was elected President of the United States. Throughout McKinley's political career, Ida remained close by his side and, though ill, attempted to put her health aside and carry out the responsibilities of First Lady.
A White House Convalescent
The woman who moved into the White House in January 1897 bore little likeness to the belle of Canton. Ida was ghastly pale, her hair gray and closely cropped, and she was often under the influence of sedatives. Yet she bore up under her duties. In First Ladies, historian Betty Boyd Caroli says Ida became "one of the most demanding invalids in American history," yet her husband, like her father, remained completely obliging. The First Lady insisted on accompanying the President whenever possible, and wanted to be frequently seen in public beside him, even if she'd been rendered incapable of the small talk and entertaining expected of her. McKinley gained a reputation as a doting husband, seating Ida in a blue velvet chair on receiving lines, outfitting her with exquisite gowns, diamond rings even scented bouquets or some knitting to make it clear she wouldn't be able to shake any hands. Despite being in violation of White House protocol, McKinley had his wife seated beside him at state dinners. In an effort to protect her dignity, he even covered her face with a white handkerchief whenever she was in the throes of a seizure, continuing in conversation until the convulsions had subsided. At no point did Ida or the President wish for the First Lady to be kept in the shadows. Whether this was a result of Ida's appetite for public attention or her commitment to stand beside her husband is unknown. But White House guests and political reporters remained discreet, making few references to the First Lady's health and then referring to her epilepsy only as "fainting spells."
Family life was subdued in the McKinley White House. In private, the First Lady spent time in her childhood rocking chair crocheting bedroom slippers for acquaintances, waiting for her husband to complete his day's work. In the evenings he'd often play cards with her, or see to his paperwork. Always attentive, the President took care to make sure his wife was as comfortable as possible. While McKinley's assistant secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt said, "McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair," the amiable President was steadfast in his protection and adoration of his wife.
McKinley's presidency was characterized by unprecedented imperialism. Hawaii was annexed in 1898. That same year, McKinley led the country into its first overseas war the Spanish-American War (much to the approval of Roosevelt), which was won in only a few months, and gained the country its first overseas possession (the Philippines). In China the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion exploded, in part in response to McKinley's open-door trade policy. McKinley was reelected in 1900. But his term was interrupted by the two fatal bullets from the gun of an unemployed mill worker. McKinley had gone to Buffalo to speak at the Pan-American Exposition. After being shot in the chest the President turned to his private secretary George Cortelyou, and urged that care be taken in informing his wife of the shooting. "My wife, be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her oh, be careful."
In a rare moment of personal strength, Ida returned with the President's body to Ohio, where she oversaw the construction of her husband's mausoleum and a memorial monument. She died six years later. The National First Ladies Library, designated a National Historic Site by Congress, opened in 1998 in the Canton childhood home of Ida Saxton McKinley.
View the full website biography of Ida Saxton McKinley.