Three Presidential Tragedies (Other Than Assassinations)


When we think about presidential tragedies, we most often go straight to the assassinations - especially Abraham Lincoln and JFK. But those are certainly not the only disasters to happen to a president. These sad tales are sure to tug at your heartstrings.

Franklin Pierce

They say the death of your child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent. Poor Franklin Pierce suffered through the death of all three of his children and the subsequent depression his wife went through afterward. First, Franklin’s namesake, Franklin Jr., died just three days after his birth in 1836.

Although devastated, the Pierces gave parenthood another shot and were blessed with another little boy, Frank Robert, three years later. In 1841, another son was added to the household - Benjamin “Bennie” Pierce. The next two years were probably the happiest ones the Pierces ever knew - the family was healthy and Franklin had a prestigious job as a senator from New Hampshire.

But then dark days hit again: Frank Robert was stricken with epidemic typhus and died in 1943 at the young age of four. Pierce’s wife, Jane, became quite clingy to their remaining son, Bennie, and doted on him almost fanatically. Things went fine for the next 10 years, although Jane was rather upset when her husband was elected President of the United States in 1852. She wasn’t a fan of his political career and absolutely loathed Washington; spending at least the next four years there was not at the top of her list.

Turns out that was the least of her worries: in 1853, President-elect Pierce, his wife and his only remaining son were taking the train from Boston when their car derailed and rolled down an embankment. There were some injuries, but only one fatality: Bennie Pierce. His parents were absolutely devastated. Pierce became an alcoholic and Jane was so empty that staff referred to her as “The Ghost of the White House.” Pierce has never gone down in history as being one of our best presidents, but it’s pretty hard to fault the guy for being a little distracted. It’s no wonder that his own party campaigned for another candidate when election time rolled around four years later. Their slogan? “Anybody but Pierce.”

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln suffered similar losses. Abe was known to adore children and was thrilled to have four little boys of his own: Robert Todd, born in 1843; Edward Baker, born in 1846; William “Willie” Wallace in 1850; and Thomas “Tad” in 1853. Only one of these boys would make it to adulthood, although two of them did outlive Lincoln himself. Edward Baker - “Eddie” to his mother and “Eddy” to his father - died just a month shy of his fourth birthday in 1850. We’re still not exactly sure what killed him. Although it was called “chronic consumption” at the time, some historians now think that Eddy might have suffered from medullary thyroid cancer.

The Lincolns were terribly sad but didn’t waste any time continuing to expand the family: Willie was born just 10 months after Eddy’s death. When Abe was elected in 1961, he brought quite the rowdy bunch with him to the White House. Tad and Willie delighted in overturning furniture, imitating the soldiers on the lawn of the Executive Mansion and playing with the many gifts the American public showered on them. One of Lincoln’s visitors once walked into his office to find the Commander in Chief pinned to the floor in a playful wrestling match with his sons.

The happiness didn’t last long, though - after riding his pony in bad weather, Willie got really sick. Tad wasn’t doing too well either. After being sick for weeks, Willie died on February 20, 1862. Today, we think they boys may have contracted typhoid fever from drinking contaminated water. Tad cried for nearly a month straight after his brother’s death, and Mary was so distraught that her husband thought she might have been driven insane. Tad lived through the death of his father three years later, but died of tuberculosis at the age of 18 in 1871. No wonder Mary Todd Lincoln was thought to be a little odd later in life - after the death of three of her sons and the assassination of her husband, don’t you think she earned the right to be a bit eccentric?

Theodore Roosevelt

As outgoing and charismatic as Teddy was, you’d never guess that he was suppressing deep sorrow, but he was. Teddy met the love of his life, Alice Hathaway Lee, when Teddy was visiting her next-door neighbors. It was love at first sight for Roosevelt, who later wrote “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked.” That was October of 1878. By Thanksgiving, Teddy decided he was going to marry Alice, but waited until June to formally propose. She coyly held him off another six months, but eventually accepted. They fittingly announced their engagement on Valentine’s Day, 1880. She would be dead four years later. Alice and Teddy were happily married for about two and a half years when she got pregnant with their first child, a little girl they would name Alice. Sadly, the childbirth didn’t go so well (partially due to her undiagnosed Bright’s Disease) and Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt died two days later.

Coincidentally, Teddy’s mother died the exact same day. Roosevelt was completely distraught and didn’t know what to do with himself, let alone an infant daughter. He wrote a short tribute to her, saying “The light has gone out of my life,” and never spoke of her in public again. He got upset when others mentioned her in his presence and refused to talk to his daughter about her mother, telling her to go ask her aunt instead. In fact, T.R. wouldn’t even call his daughter by her given name, preferring to call her “Baby Lee,” and left her in the care of her aunt for a couple of years while he went off to North Dakota to try to pull himself together.

Roosevelt didn’t even mention his first wife in his autobiographies later in life, when presumably his wounds had some time to heal. He eventually remarried a childhood friend named Edith Carow, whom his first daughter Alice absolutely loathed. Alice remarked many times later in life that she felt as if her father had pushed her away her entire life and loved her “one sixth” as much as his other children.

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Along the lines of Children of Presidents, here is an interesting account from Robert Todd Lincoln biography:

There is an odd coincidence in regard to [Robert] Lincoln and presidential assassinations. He was either actually present or very near by three of them.

Lincoln was invited to accompany his parents to the Ford's Theatre the night his father was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, but declined and remained behind at the White House. He was informed of the President's assassination just before midnight.

At President James A. Garfield's invitation, Lincoln was at the Sixth Street Train Station in Washington, D.C., where the President was shot by Charles J. Guiteau on July 2, 1881 and was an eyewitness to the event. Lincoln was serving as Garfield's Secretary of War at the time.

At the President William McKinley's invitation, Lincoln was at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York where the President was shot by Leon F. Czolgosz on September 6, 1901, though he was not an eyewitness to the event.

In another odd coincidence, Robert Lincoln was once saved by Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, from possible serious injury or death. The incident happened at a railroad station in Jersey City in 1863, when Robert was traveling from New York City to Washington, and was recounted by Lincoln in 1909.
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Interesting article, but the centuries are messed up several times (one example, Frank Robert Pierce being born in 1839, and dying 4 years later in 1943.)
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