Death in the White House

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

All families suffer various trials and tribulations, and the First Family is not immune from the same tragedies that happen in other families. Probably the worst experience a parent must face is the death of a child. If the death strikes a child of the First Family, they must suffer the tragedy in the full view of the public. They do not have the time to stop and grieve and recover. This unthinkable grief has struck several First Families.

John Adams was the first President to lose a child while in office. His oldest child was once considered the most outstanding of the entire family. In a coldly reserved family, Charles Adams was an outstanding personality. Engaging, witty and more personable than the other members of his family, Charles became a successful lawyer. Unfortunately, Charles became an alcoholic. He died of alcoholism on November 30, 1800, just as it was becoming clear that President Adams had lost his bid for re-election. President John Adams took his defeat hard. His departure for Massachusetts the night before his successor’s inauguration is well known. How much harder must this period have been for him when you consider he was also dealing with the tragic loss of his oldest son who supposedly had everything to live for?

His successor also faced the loss of a child while in office. Thomas Jefferson, whose wife had died many years earlier, surrounded himself with family. His two daughters and their children lived with him at his home, Monticello, in Virginia and at the White House. One of his daughters acted as his official hostess for a time. His daughter Mary “Polly” Jefferson Eppes died in April 1804, shortly after giving birth to her second child. She was only 25 years old at the time. Thomas Jefferson continued to raise her children at the White House, and later at Monticello.

Although not yet President, Franklin Pierce was President-elect and preparing to move to Washington when his only surviving child, Benny, died. Benny was not yet 12 years old when he died in a train accident. The family was traveling to Boston to shop in preparation for their move to Washington the following month. The train jumped the tracks and rolled down the embankment. Only one passenger was killed. At first, Franklin thought his son was merely stunned, as he looked unharmed. But something had fallen on his head and killed him instantly.

Benny had been bright, popular with both his peers and adults, and the main focus of his slightly unbalanced mother. With his death, his mother went over the edge. She moved into the White House, went to her room upstairs, and rarely came out. She wrote notes to her dead son and read the bible. She often asked the White House servants to go to church for her sake. The grieving President had to endure the stress caused by his wife’s grief-induced mental illness as well as his own grief. Hailed for his decisive leadership in his home state of New Hampshire before his election, he became a weak and indecisive leader. This weakness was largely responsible for the growing sectional problems and especially the armed conflict known as Bleeding Kansas. His administration was held in such disrepute that he became the only elected President to this day to be denied re-nomination by his own party.

In the dark days of the Civil War, one of President Lincoln’s only joys and greatest sources of relief from the pressures was his 11-year-old son, Willie. William Wallace Lincoln was shy and bookish. He dressed in a miniature officer’s uniform and drilled other children in his own White House militia. He was especially close to his father and Abraham Lincoln took great delight in Willie and his antics. On February 20, 1862, Willie died of fever with the President at his bedside. Lincoln broke down and cried, spent some time alone with Willie, and then went back to his office and continued working. Willie was the only child of a President to actually die in the White House.

The next child of a President to die was Calvin Coolidge, Jr. He had returned home from school to spend his summer vacation with his parents and his older brother. He proved to be a lively favorite of the White House staff and press corps. The family was very close, and greatly enjoyed each other’s company. One afternoon in late June, Cal played tennis with his older brother. He developed a blister on his toe, the result of playing too much tennis without socks. Thinking the blister would heal on its own, he didn’t mention it. By the time he showed it to his parents, he was in pain and feeling weak. That night, he developed a high fever. The White House doctor put him to bed. The twin beds Cal and his brother were using were the same ones used by the Wilsons when the first Mrs. Wilson died and by Mrs. Taft when she was close to death after suffering a stroke. No one on the staff, however, could remember which of the two had been actually used by those First Ladies.

From this point, Cal’s condition deteriorated rapidly. By July 4th it was clear the infected blister had led to blood poisoning. The next day, the President gave a speech while suffering almost unbearable emotional stress. Cal was slipping into periods of unconsciousness and hallucinations. Early on the morning of the 6th, the doctors declared his condition hopeless. There was nothing more they could do for the boy. In a last desperate attempt, they decided to try to remove the poison through surgery. Cal was carried on a stretcher down the grand staircase of the White House and taken to Walter Reed Hospital. At 10:30 on the night of July 7th, with his parents at his bedside, Cal died. President Coolidge was re-elected later that year. But he said that when his son died, “the power and the glory went with him.”

The last Presidential child to die, so far, was Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, who died on August 9, 1963. He was two days old. The Kennedy’s never had a chance to have more children. President Kennedy was assassinated in November of that same year.

Those who have never had to endure such a tragedy can only imagine the pain of losing a child. But how much worse must the pain be when you have neither the time nor the privacy needed at such a time. But when you live in the White House, time and privacy are luxuries you don’t have.