On Monday, June 10, two days after her birthday (and a few days before his own) Ida McKinley’s new biographer, author of this website, will appear on the C-Span First Ladies series, the second such one, following discussion of Lucretia Garfield, Ellen Arthur and Molly McElroy on May 20.
The new book, Ida McKinley: Turn-of-the-Century First Lady through War, Assassination & Secret Disability will be published in November of this year, jointly by the National First Ladies Library and Kent State University Press, Pre-orders are now available thru Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
For over a century, in fact since her tenure as First Lady (1897-1901), Ida McKinley has been grossly miscast in popular American mythology as the quintessential Victorian invalid on the fainting coach. Ida McKinley: Turn-of-the-Century First Lady through War, Assassination & Secret Disability draws on previously untapped documentation from archives across the country to finally present her not as a caricature but a person.
In this first-ever full-length biography of her untold story, she is not the passive victim as she has continued to be depicted, but rather a frank and witty person who confronted the overwhelming challenges which fate placed in her path and embraced the public role of First Lady, a status she believed she had deservedly earned.
Ida Saxton was an unusual person even before she met and married the man whose eventual election to the presidency placed her before the eyes of the nation.
With a passionate curiosity for the larger world outside of her hometown of Canton, Ohio, she pursued a level of education for a period far longer than even most men of the day enjoyed.
With a skill for finance and management, she rose through the ranks of her father’s bank to the role of manager in his absence, believing that a professional career ensured a woman’s future security in the event that no one else would.
She extensively explored Europe, visiting not only familiar landmarks but encountering impoverished working-class women and a disabled artist, developing empathy for all people whose existence was a struggle.
Physically fit to a degree unheard of for women at the time, she hiked upwards of ten miles a day.
Her life forever changed when she fell in love with the unworldly but ambitious attorney William McKinley. Their marriage gave him entrée to her powerful family, influential in all aspects of business in Canton and helped launch his political career.
Within five years of their union, however, Ida McKinley suffered the emotional traumas which forever shadowed her: the death of an infant daughter and her three-year old first-born child Katie. Ida McKinley maintained Katie’s memory as a daily aspect of life, keeping her items and image on display and often speaking of her as if she were still alive.
In the period between the deaths of her two children, Ida McKinley was first struck by a sudden onset of seizures, a condition which could often lead to momentary unconsciousness.
While neurological breakthroughs were just then advancing, public ignorance about those who like Mrs. McKinley were derided as “epileptics” led her husband to begin crafting a nuanced perception of the facts. Keeping her disability secret protected both her privacy and his methodical ascent to national power.
A well-intentioned effort to eliminate the possibility of Ida McKinley from experiencing a seizure during his 1896 campaign and the initial years of his presidency by personally dispensing powerful medications without professional supervision, however, unwittingly worsened her condition.
Ida McKinley presents the previously unpublished medical details of her epilepsy (reviewed by National Epilepsy Foundation board members for accuracy) and other chronic health issues, creating a more complex but accurate view of the presidential marriage than the sentimental McKinley romance intended for popular consumption and political appeal which continued to be perpetuated for over a century.
Beyond their mutual commitment, Ida’s decisive publicity efforts not only give context to a public grasp of the tariff issue which defines him as Congressman but ennobles him during a financial scandal as Governor.
Previous chroniclers have also studiously ignored the public record proving that her physical limitations did not deter the power of her determination.
In Ida McKinley, the record of her public activities during the entire first half of the Administration is finally presented. Her empathy for women of all races who had to support themselves prompted her to encourage higher education for women and to become the first known incumbent First Lady to support women’s suffrage.
A wide range of musical tastes inspired her innovative entertainment programs at formal White House dinners. Love of travel even led Ida McKinley to become the first incumbent First Lady to enter a foreign country.
Thriving amid the intense stress of the Spanish-American War, impervious to public shame over the murder of her Lothario brother and the sordid trial which followed it, fighting to survive her own sudden brush with death in San Francisco, Ida McKinley shows this First Lady enduring a tumultuous series of episodic drama with an iron will previously unrecognized.
Proving how a First Lady’s emotional influence can result in political power, Ida McKinley shows this president’s wife interceding on government and military appointments. From helping his Rough Rider cavalry to assume a lead role in the war to her approval of him being chosen as vice president, this new work is the first to credit her part in Theodore Roosevelt’s rise. New material also details Ida McKinley’s accurate analysis in her early mistrust of War Secretary Alger whose wartime mismanagement ends in scandal.
Importantly, Ida McKinley examines evidential testimony of how her belief in reincarnation may have influenced what is arguably the President’s most consequential foreign policy decision, to seize the Philippines as a U.S. territory after liberating the islands as Spanish colony, rather than grant them sovereign independence.
For the first time, Ida McKinley also reveals the previously unknown 1899-1900 episode of marital crisis which developed as the President ignored his wife’s opposition to a second term to instead secretly plan his re-election campaign.
Contradicting the indelible but inaccurate impression of her as a selfishly dependant wife, Ida McKinley provides a well-documented narrative in her previously unexplored capacity as the protective spouse, alarmed by his work habits and careless vulnerability to assassination in a new global age of anarchism.
Along with the part played by emerging technologies, and the First Lady’s interactions with turn-of-the-century figures like Susan B. Anthony, Admiral Dewey and Booker T. Washington, Ida McKinley’s also shows her as a modernist.
The book further traces the First Lady’s public boldness in the fleeting days of hope following the shooting of her husband and recovers the lost tale of her generosity towards African-American waiter Ben Parker, whose attempt to stop the assassination was expunged from the official record. Ida McKinley concludes with the surprising but previously unknown details of her last three years, proving the human capacity for change even in the eleventh hour.
The Ida McKinley episode with the author airs on C-Span on Monday, June 10 at 9:00 pm eastern time.
- Canton, Ohio: William McKinley Museum (divertingjourneys.wordpress.com)
- McKinley shot in N.Y. (goerie.com)
- Unique Names For Dogs (thesmallbizreport.wordpress.com)
- C-span Exclusive Series: First Ladies (durhampostdispatch.us)
- First Ladies: Lucretia Garfield (c-span.org)
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