By Jim O’Neal
Jane Means Pierce was known as “the Shadow in the White House.” She had always battled mild depression and, after her marriage to Franklin Pierce in 1834, things only got worse. In 1836, their 3-day-old son died and this heightened her melancholy and outright depression.
A second son also died early – 4 years old – from a bout of typhus and she bitterly blamed a mix of politics and Franklin’s excessive use of alcohol. Politics became anathema to her, but the worst was yet to come. When the Democratic Party selected Franklin Pierce to be their presidential candidate in 1852, Jane literally fainted at the news.
Then weeks after a trying election, tragedy struck again. On Jan. 6, 1853, while on a family train trip, their 11-year-old son Benny was crushed to death when the train derailed. A grief-stricken Jane was unable to attend her husband’s inauguration on March 4, 1853. She then spent the next two years virtually cloistered in the upstairs living quarters of the White House. She never fully recovered.
When she died in 1863 (aged 57), novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, a close family friend, summed up her life at the funeral: “Jane Pierce was never really of this world.”
After the depressing gloom of the Pierce administration, Washington society was delighted when the bright and cheerful “Democratic Queen” Harriet Lane became “First Lady” (the only one not married to a president). She was the favorite niece of bachelor President James Buchanan.
Lane had accompanied Buchanan to London when Pierce had appointed him Ambassador to the United Kingdom, where she partied with royalty at the Court of Saint James. Earlier, Buchanan had served as Secretary of State for James Polk and remains the last one to later be elected president.
Harriet Lane was perfect for the White House and later established her own reputation for philanthropy after donating her art collection to the Smithsonian and a “generous sum” to Johns Hopkins to establish a home for invalid children. This was the first children’s clinic in the United States associated with a medical-school hospital.
Ironically, her uncle is primarily remembered for his inability to prevent this nation’s bloody Civil War, and perennially shows up on lists of the worst presidents, an honor that is well deserved.
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].