Sarah Polk (née Childress) – The Long Widow
- September 4, 1803-August 14, 1891
- Tenure: 1845-1849
- Children: None
- Relation to President: Wife
Early Life: Sarah Childress was born to Joel and Elizabeth. Her father was a wealthy planter. Sarah received a basic education at Murfreesboro Common School before being tutored after hours by Samuel Black, principal of a boy’s school. Sarah then attended a girl’s finishing school and a girl’s school that focused on stringent academics. She enjoyed her time at school but had to leave when her father suddenly died.
Marriage: Sarah was twelve when she first met the nineteen year-old James K. Polk. They did not meet again until some years later. Polk was a 28 year-old member of the Tennessee State Legislature when he wed Sarah after a courtship.
Pre-Tenure: Polk and Sarah lived in his parents’ house for the first two years of marriage. Sarah took part in the social scene at the house but her mother-in-law was the leading woman of the place. She instead managed her husband’s correspondence and schedule. Sarah initially stayed in Tennessee whilst her husband served in Congress, but Polk was unhappy with their separation and asked her to come to DC. She lived in a boarding house and immediately formed good relations with male politicians in the city. The Polks became close to Andrew Jackson and were given the great honour of escorting him to Tennessee after his tenure was over.
Sarah also oversaw the family home in Tennessee. They were served by slaves and were seen as relatively ‘benevolent’ masters who kept families together and have them medical care. Sarah was a very religious woman but clearly did not see an issue with slavery.
When her husband was elected Governor of Tennessee, Sarah became his right hand woman. She handled correspondence, oversaw his schedule, sent supportive articles to political figures and reported what was said about him.
Polk ran for President in 1844 and gained the support of his mentor Andrew Jackson. Jackson had become displeased with incumbent Martin Van Buren. Sarah continued stumping for her husband. Music was banned during their journey to DC before the inauguration and stopped when she was at events due to her religious beliefs.
Tenure: Sarah was a deeply religious woman who despised dancing, music and gambling. No business was to be conducted on Sundays. This didn’t bother her husband as he didn’t like to be disturbed during work. Sarah also banned any alcohol other than wine being served at the White House. Wine was only given to dinner guests. Out of concern for money, Sarah fired several staff and replaced them with slaves.
Polk famously didn’t consult his cabinet a lot and didn’t enjoy speaking to the public. Sarah continued to be his supporter and informal secretary. She was the sole gatekeeper to the President to the resentment of Vice President George M. Dallas. Sarah was a strong believer in Manifest Destiny. A devout Christian, Sarah believed that God preordained each person into a certain role. She used this to justify slavery and the treatment of African-Americans.
Post- Tenure: The original plan was for the Polks to move onto Polk Place, Tennessee. Unfortunately it was not ready so the two temporarily travelled around before settling back in Murfreesboro. Three months after he’d left the Presidency, Polk was struck with cholera. His health had been up and down ever since a riverboat trip but he finally lost his life on the 15th June 1849.
It is believed that his last words were ‘I love you Sarah, for all eternity, I love you.’
Sarah was a widow for 42 years and continued to only wear black. She became somewhat of a recluse and only left home for church and some visits. The home became a shrine for her late husband. As the years wore on, Sarah became a little more social. She opened the Cincinnati Centennial Exposition and had a keen interest in technology. Sarah also received President and First Lady Hayes and President and First Lady Cleveland.
In 1850, Sarah informally adopted her niece Sarah ‘Sallie’ Polk. This came as a surprise to many but Sarah proved a loving guardian who opened her home to Sallie’s husband and child later on. Sallie inherited nearly everything after Sarah died.
Sarah died aged 87 and was buried with her husband.
Appearance and Character: Sarah was a dark haired woman with a sharp face and prominent nose. A photograph of an older Sarah shows an older woman with traces of former beauty. As a person, Sarah was extremely serious and deeply religious. She did not drink, dance, sing or gamble and refused to allow it in the White House. Her religious nature did not mean she was against slavery, however. Sarah absolutely adored her husband and the feeling was more than mutual. She was extremely political.
Margaret Taylor (née Smith) – The Frontier Woman
- September 21 1788–August 14, 1852
- Tenure: 1849-1850
- Children: Ann, Sarah, Mary, Octavia, Richard, Margaret
- Relation to President: Wife
Early Life: Margaret Smith was born to Walter and Anne. Extremely little is known about her early life so one can assume she lived the life of a comfortable family’s daughter. Margaret’s mother died when she was ten and as her sisters were considerably older, she lived with her grandmother a lot of the time. Her father died when she was sixteen so she moved to Kentucky to live with a married sister.
Marriage: Margaret was introduced to Lieutenant Zachary Taylor by a family friend. They married when she was 21 and he was 25.
Pre-Tenure: Margaret’s life as an army wife was not easy. She was forced to move around the country and live in uncomfortable terrain. Homes included tents and forts. Margaret was initially in good health but fell ill in 1820 along with daughters Octavia and Margaret. The girls died and Margaret remained sickly. Her surviving children would be sent to live in the city in order to ensure their health and education. When living in Wisconsin, Margaret made dairy products, farmed vegetables and raised chickens.
Sarah Taylor married a young man named Jefferson Davis in 1835 but died three months later of malaria. Margaret was devastated and Taylor refused to ever acknowledge David again. Davis was also heartbroken and made his second wife visit Sarah’s grave years later.
Margaret spent time as the only woman at Fort Knox but her husband was soon granted leave and the two planned travel. Unfortunately, hostilities meant that they had to go to a different base. In 1838, Margaret finally managed to go travelling with her husband. When they moved to Baton Rouge, Margaret restored an old cottage and the two finally shared a somewhat permanent home.
In 1845, Zachary Taylor was set to command the army during the Mexican-American War. Margaret decided to not join him at the front probably due to the danger. She prayed for her husband’s victory and reportedly promised to give up trivial pleasures if he survived. Taylor did and Margaret gained tremendous success as the wife of a hero. She joined him at a New Orleans parade in his honour.
Margaret famously begged her husband not to accept the nomination for Presidency and reportedly prayed for him to lose. Despite this, Margaret attended his inauguration but did not attend any of the other events associated with it.
Tenure: Margaret’s main job as First Lady was taking care of her family. She oversaw the management of the White House, especially the food and her husband’s diet. Margaret refused to perform social duties, leaving that to her daughter Mary.
She headed to church every morning without fail. Margaret would receive her guests at the private family suites upstairs. She also used socialising to support her husband and talk him up to other politicians. Margaret did attend some events and would mingle with the general public.
Taylor’s illness and death broke Margaret. As he died, she insisted that he was fine and had surveyed much work out on the front. After he died, Margaret had him put on ice so that she could behold him. She was so distraught that she couldn’t attend his funeral.
Post-Tenure: Margaret lived with her surviving children upon her widowhood. She made no public appearances apart from at her son’s wedding or remarks about her husband. Margaret did move from Mary’s house as she couldn’t stand the constant sympathy.
She was visiting her daughter in 1852 when she died suddenly. All of her correspondence was destroyed when the Union burned her home during the Civil War. Margaret was buried with her husband.
Appearance and Character: Margaret was of medium height. She had brown hair and brown eyes. Despite being brought up in wealth, Margaret proved a very capable frontier wife. She was not afraid to roll up her sleeves and do manual work.
Mary ‘Betty’ Bliss (née Taylor)- The Natural
- April 20, 1824–July 25, 1909
- Tenure: 1849-1850
- Children: None
- Relation to President: Daughter
Early Life and Marriage: Betty Taylor was born to Zachary and Margaret. She lived across the nation but was educated in Philadelphia at her mother’s insistence. Betty mainly lived away from her parents as Margaret did not want her on the front.
In 1848, Betty married a man named William Bliss. Bliss was an aide of her father’s. She served as the female spokesperson for the family upon her father reaching fame.
Hostess and After: Miss. Betty, as she was known, was an immediate success when she joined her father in DC. At the Inaugural Ball, Betty wore a simple white dress with a single flower in her hair. She was an extremely popular hostess and even had a popular dance song written for her. Betty was highly praised for her humour, dignity and poise.
Margaret Taylor was visiting Betty when she suddenly died. Betty became widowed a year later when cholera struck her husband. She married again five years later.
Betty died at the age of 85.
Appearance and Character: Betty was a brunette with a plump face. As a person, Betty was a talented hostess who was funny and dignified. She was not a particularly fussy person and was praised for her simplicity.
Abigail Fillmore (née Powers)- The Educator
- March 13, 1798-March 30, 1853
- Tenure: 1850-1853
- Children: Millard, Mary
- Relation to President: Wife
Early Life: Abigail Powers was born to Lemuel and Abigail. She was the youngest of seven children and her father died very soon after her birth. The Reverend left his children a cultivated, rich library in which to learn from. The Powers family was nevertheless very poor and Abigail was the first First Lady to have worked.
Abigail was educated in a one-room schoolhouse but received an extensive education at home. The Powers had a deep love of learning and Abigail benefitted from this. She was instilled with a passion for reading.
She worked as a teacher after leaving school.
Marriage: Abigail met Millard when he was her oldest student, only a year younger than herself. He’d had a basic education on the frontier and had been an apprentice so sought to have a broader range of knowledge. The two shared a love for reading and soon became romantically involved. Fillmore’s family suddenly moved away and the two corresponded by letters for three years. They eventually married after he’d established a law practice.
Pre-Tenure: Abigail worked as a teacher for a year and a half between her marriage and first pregnancy. This made her the first First Lady to have a job and independent income when married. She remained at home whilst her husband served in the New York State Legislature. Abigail cultivated a huge library of books. The family then moved to Buffalo where Abigail learned French.
Abigail joined her congressman husband in DC while the children stayed with relatives. She enjoyed the political and intellectual scene in the capital but did not like the pretentiousness of society. Abigail would often sit in on Congress and learn as much as she could about bills. She enjoyed physical exercise but a badly broken ankle that didn’t heal properly caused her to walk on crutches for two years. This caused her lifelong pain.
Tenure: Abigail did not campaign for her husband or even attend his inauguration. She remained in Buffalo. When she arrived in DC, Abigail proved well-life. Abigail took pains to help ordinary citizens who came to her for help, such as a woman who needed help finding an optometrist. A photograph of Abigail was widely reproduced on a postcard. Abigail was appearance conscious and ensured she had help on hand to make her look her very best.
She enjoyed joining her husband in public. Abigail was also a very social person who enjoyed parties and meeting citizens. She hosted many of the most famous entertainers of the time such as Swedish singer Jenny Lind and many famous authors such as Washington Irving.
Abigail was a pioneer of new technology but her most famous addition to the White House was its permanent library. She managed to persuade Congress to give her the funds to do so and set about cultivating it personally. Works ranged from Shakespeare to government publications.
Though she was not a known abolitionist, Abigail did not like slavery and urged her husband not to sign the Fugitive Slave Act.
Post-Tenure: Abigail caught a cold at the freezing cold inauguration of Franklin Pierce. This turned into a fever, then bronchitis and then pneumonia. Abigail was forced to sit up in bed to protect her lungs but this did not work. She died only 24 days after her husband left office. Abigail was widely mourned by the people, the press and politicians.
Her husband remarried to a widow named Caroline McIntosh five years later.
Appearance and Character: Abigail was of medium height with auburn hair and blue eyes. A photograph of her in her 50s shows a serious faced woman in a large dress. Abigail was a very kind, political woman who always gave her husband advice. She had a passion for learning and books that she kept with her for life. Abigail was quick to help others who she thought needed it.
Advocacy: Helping others
Mary ‘Abbie’ Fillmore – The Musician
- March 27, 1832-July 26, 1854
- Tenure: 1850-1853
- Children: None
- Relation to President: Daughter
Early Life: Mary ‘Abbie’ Fillmore was born to Millard and Abigail. She was only six when she was separated from her parents and was sent to live with her Aunt Mary. Abbie hoped to be reunited with her parents and brother- Millard Jr lived separately to them- but her mother told her that education should come first. Surviving letters show a loving relationship between mother and daughter.
Abbie was a scholar in the vein of her mother. She was excellent at geography from an early age and also loved literature and music. Abbie was given formal schooling in both Massachusetts and New York. She was about to take up a teaching position but this changed when her father became President.
Tenure: Abbie took over as hostess when her mother took ill. She was praised for her self-assuredness, modesty and ease. Abbie enjoyed performing on the guitar, harp and piano when guests came over. She enjoyed horse riding and spoke several languages.
Post-Tenure and Death: Abigail Fillmore died only 26 days after the presidency ended so Abbie became her father’s companion. She joined her father in public, most famously when she arrived on horseback at the Grand Excursion. Sadly, Abbie was visiting her grandfather when she took ill. Abbie died of cholera at 22.
Appearance and Character: Abbie had dark hair. She was a very intelligent woman with a love for the arts, horse riding and languages. Abbie performed well as a hostess.
Jane Pierce (née Appleton) – The Reluctant
- March 12, 1806–December 2, 1863
- Tenure: 1853-1857
- Children: Franklin, Frank, Benjamin
- Relation to President: Wife
Early Life: Jane Appleton was born to Jesse and Elizabeth. She was taught at home and surviving letters show almost illegible handwriting. Jane had a talent for the piano but did not pursue it into adult life, to the chagrin of one of her tutors. She lost her father when she was thirteen and was thus sent to live with relatives.
Marriage: Jane met Franklin Pierce, a young lawyer, at an unknown date. Despite opposition from her family, the two wed when Pierce was almost 30 and Jane was 28- quite old for the time.
Pre-Tenure: Despite Jane’s melancholy nature, the two shared a loving marriage. Pierce understood his wife’s delicate nature and treated her with kindness. Their first son, Franklin, died when he was only days old. The next son, Frank, was four when he died. These tragedies made the already fragile Jane even more withdrawn and depressed. Jane hated DC but did attempt to take on the social role of a Congressman’s wife. She often took solace in visiting her aunt and sisters. Jane also begged her husband to leave politics and apparently had already made him promise to quit just before his nomination. Like Margaret Taylor, she prayed for her husband’s defeat. She also fainted when she heard that he’d won.
Jane suffered perhaps her most horrific tragedy on the way to her husband’s inauguration. The family was travelling to DC when the train hit rocks, derailing several cars and sending them fifteen feet below the tracks. There was only one casualty- the only surviving Pierce child, eleven year-old Benjamin ‘Benny.’ He’d been standing up to look out the window and this essentially decapitated him. Pierce tried to prevent his wife from seeing their son’s mangled body but Jane sadly did.
Tenure: Jane did not attend her husband’s inauguration as she remained in mourning with her family in Baltimore. The traditional inaugural ball was also cancelled. Jane did not arrive in DC until later. She spent the first two years in the White House residence and did not socialise, leaving it to other women.
Jane officially received her first guests in January 1855. Before then, Jane was known as ‘The Shadow on the White House’ and ‘The Phantom First Lady.’ She did become a little more active in this time and did renovate the White House. Jane, who did not like slavery, also encouraged her husband to release a notable abolitionist from his Kansas prison. To his credit, Pierce did.
Unfortunately, the once close relationship between husband and wife soured in the White House. The two argued often though Pierce still ensured that his ill wife was taken care of properly.
Post-Tenure: The Pierces left the White House in 1857. The two initially stayed apart, as Pierce was settling accounts in New Hampshire and Jane was visiting her sister in Massachusetts. They then joined together to visit the Caribbean and Europe to help Jane’s health. Unfortunately, their relationship continued to sour and they continued to argue.
The two also had opposing views on the Civil War. Pierce favoured keeping the Union together whilst Jane thought slavery needed to be abolished no matter what.
Jane died in her sister’s home in 1862. She was buried beside her two youngest sons. Her husband, suffering from the effects of alcoholism, died in 1869. He was buried with them.
Appearance and Character: Jane was a very slim woman with a serious demeanour. Her hair was often in ringlets and parted in the centre. She also had a sharp nose. Jane was an extremely serious woman who suffered through depression throughout her life. She had always been a sad, serene person even as a child. Despite this, Jane was an extremely kind person who treated White House staff well and pushed for abolitionism. She loved her family.
Harriet Lane (later Johnston) – The Graceful
- May 9, 1830–July 3, 1903
- Tenure: 1857-1861
- Children: James, Henry
- Relation to President: Niece
Early Life: Harriet Lane was born to Elliot and Jane. The family was relatively well-off, as evidenced by the luxurious Lane home. It is believed that she attended a school in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania in about 1838 but there’s no evidence of this. After her mother’s death, Harriet attended a school in Lancaster. She was given a fine education but chafed against the strict rules of the women who ran it. Harriet’s father died during her time there and she was taken in by an uncle. She soon left that school after she requested that she be taken in by her favourite uncle, James Buchanan.
Buchanan placed Harriet and her sister Mary in a Virginia (now West Virginia) boarding school. This allowed them to be close to him in DC and away from her hated previous school. Harriet did well in this institution and proved to be a bright, happy student.
Pre-Tenure: Harriet became her uncle’s companion and female hostess. Despite her youth, Harriet made a positive impression on Sarah Polk. One photo shows her with President and Mrs. Polk along with society grand dame Dolley Madison, showing that she was popular. Harriet preferred to spend summers with her uncle than go to popular destinations, bringing them close together. They’d spend hours every evening reading newspapers and discussing politics. Harriet joined her uncle in meetings and cared for his home.
She spent time in England and immediately became a favourite of Queen Victoria. One of Victoria’s courtiers, Sir Fitzroy Kelly, courted her. Despite the forty year age gap, Kelly was extremely wealthy and powerful. Victoria liked the match and hoped Harriet would agree to stay, but the young woman disagreed and returned to America.
Tenure: Harriet joined her bachelor uncle when he arrived at the White House. Unfortunately, her older brother died of a stomach illness only a month after the inauguration. Buchanan caught the illness but survived. This put a damper on the social season until later in the year. Harriet was given free reign in redecorating the house and hosting events.
Harriet was not always skilled in hosting. Music was not arranged, some decorations were lacking and the food was sometimes inadequate. Still, Harriet was praised for her skills despite her youth. She refused gifts offered to her for protocol reasons- she hated that and it was often seen as an insult to those who presented her with them.
She was unmarried during her tenure and enjoyed flirtations with many men. Harriet was pursued by John Van Buren, the former President’s son, but was not interested. She was reticent in marrying quickly and her uncle advised her to be careful lest she marry a man who made her unhappy. Harriet continued to be a popular hostess who inspired songs and even had a ship named after her.
She became a fashion icon, with women around the country copying her lower neckline. Harriet continued to be intellectually curious, was interested in charity and reportedly in favour of Native American rights. She was part of official delegations when diplomats came to call. Harriet also befriended Prince Edward of England when he came for a visit.
Tensions looked as the Civil War appeared on the horizon. Harriet ensured that those with opposing views never sat near one another at functions. She never favoured any group and instead continued to host receptions without any issues.
Post-Tenure: Harriet remained with her uncle and was loyal to the Union, though she was certainly no fan of Lincoln or his wife.
She married at the relatively late age of 35 to a banker named Henry Johnston. They’d met years prior but had become re-acquainted. Harriet initially didn’t want to leave her sick uncle, but Buchanan encouraged the relationship and the two soon got engaged. They married in January 1865 and honeymooned in Cuba. Harriet soon became pregnant.
The family lived with Buchanan during the summer until Buchanan died in 1868. She inherited his homes and possessions. Harriet funded the newly opened Johns Hopkins after becoming interested in its research. Sadly, she lost both her sons in the space of a year.
Johnston and Harriet decided to establish a pediatric and respite home for poorly children. The plan was put on hold when Johnston suddenly died in 1884. Harriet grieved but soon bounced back. She helped establish the country’s first children’s unit at Johns Hopkins and fund the staff that would work there. She stipulated there would be no discrimination against anyone who needed help, ignoring the racial restrictions at the time. Harriet sadly did not see its completion due to her 1903 death. It opened fully in 1912.
In later years, Harriet continued to travel around Europe. She became interested in art and opened schools for both boys and girls. Harriet attended the now King Edward’s 1902 coronation, having remained friends with him.
Harriet died in 1903. The Harriet Lane Home at Johns Hopkins became a prominent institution and pioneered many operations and treatments that are still in use today.
Appearance and Character: Harriet was described as a tall and lovely looking lady. Her hair was auburn and her eyes were a violet blue. As a person, Harriet was a kind and devoted woman. She forewent early marriage and a social life in favour of caring for her beloved uncle. Harriet sometimes put her foot wrong but was generally an excellent hostess. Both men and women liked her, including the notorious picky Queen Victoria. Harriet was also deeply intelligent, interested in science and politically minded. She had a deep love for children and ensured that future kids wouldn’t die like her sons did. Harriet flouted the class and racial restrictions at the time, ensuring all children would be treated.
Advocacy: Education, children’s health, Native American rights and erecting a cathedral.