Only after he had died while he was President did the general public finally learn what most of the White House press corps knew, but had tacitly agreed not to disclose: while leading the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair.
Having been struck by polio shortly after losing the 1920 presidential election as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, FDR struggled in his determination to again walk independently.
He never again did, but he managed to convey the visual impression that he did walk. His legs were encased in heavy steel braces and he learned to swing them from his hip joints just enough to have his feet move in front of him. He rested one arm on a cane and leaned up against a person whose arm was offered as an escort, almost always being his son “Jimmy.”
Only those privy to the private quarters of the White House or the Roosevelt homes in Hyde Park, New York or Warm Springs, Georgia ever saw him getting around from room to room by using his wheelchair. In fact, he had no other choice but to use the “rolling chair” for any independent mobility.
Further, he had his automobile customized so he could drive it, further suggesting to the public which saw him either in person or in newsreels that, except for something of a limp or weakness, he was perfectly mobile.
And while it was publicly acknowledged that he had been struck with polio, a fact often repeated in the media during the time of his January birthday for its annual fundraising drive, there was never a direct link made in the public mind between his polio and the paralysis which it caused in most of its victims. Roosevelt might appear with others in wheelchairs at the Warm Springs rehabilitative center he created to help others in the effort to attempt regaining mobility, but he himself refused to be photographed in one himself.
Roosevelt had been elected President during the Great Depression with all hopes and expectations that he would have the foresight and fortitude to lead the nation out of the economic disaster.
Certainly in this context one can understand why he purposefully sought to conceal the truth about his physical condition from the public.
Yet a third of a century before he lived in the White House, another resident made no effort to conceal her dependency on a wheelchair for a period of her tenancy there. Not only did she display no shame whatsoever about her chronic immobility, but she openly discussed with reporters how it affected her.
Ida McKinley had three primary health issues during most of her adult life, the most visible and obvious being a weakness on her right side stemming from the traumatic fall in the spring of 1873.
The resulting injury affected her spine and often left her leg in pain or with numbness. The severity of this waxed and waned over the years. From descriptions of its affect, it also seems that her sciatic leg nerve was almost always a problem.
Perhaps if intensive physical therapy or pilates or yoga been around, the First Lady would have been doing it in the White House – but she was a century too early for most of that.
Just like Franklin D. Roosevelt did, Ida McKinley also had to depend on a cane to hold herself steady on one side, while relying on the strong arm of the President to lean on during those times when the condition especially flared up.
Of course, the public expectations not merely of a presidential spouse but a woman of what was once described regularly as “the weaker sex” made it less of a political liability to have a First Lady either using a cane or leaning on someone’s arm or both than it did for a President, as FDR correctly assessed.
Yet much of the subtext in newspaper and magazine commentary about Mrs. McKinley during her husband’s 1896 presidential campaign suggested that she was too much of an “invalid” for the public to expect her to fulfill the physically exhausting tasks of a First Lady, such as standing for hours on end and shaking hands with the public at receptions, descending the grand staircase to host weekly events in the state room or appear at fundraising events or lead public awareness campaigns at various institutions in support of her “project.”
Ida McKinley would have none of that. First, she demonstrated how she often still rose and walked independently on many occasions, often forgetting herself that there were times that she at least needed her gold-headed cane for steadiness.
On other occasions, like her arrival in Washington’s train station for her husband’s inauguration, she refused to rely on a cane, another person or an offered wheelchair. The next night, at the Inaugural Ball in the Pension Building, she steeled herself to climb endless marble stairs without any help. While it served as immediate proof that she was often capable of doing so, it also took its toll. At the end of the night, as she determined to make the “grand march” through the crowded ballroom, she only made it about halfway across – and then fainted.
Then, she adapted her chronic immobility to all of the traditional duties of First Lady. While she did host numerous weekly receptions in the state rooms of the first floor of the White House if the guest list was large, the old hydraulic elevator was often on the blink and unreliable.
Instead, she more frequently held receptions with a smaller number of guests and hosted them in the oval study of the family quarters, where she simply had to walk down the West Hall from her sitting room.
Among the various public welfare issues which Ida McKinley supported as First Lady, the effort to help unmarried, widowed and divorced women who had to depend on themselves for their survival was of primary interest. She especially helped support the Crittenden Missions, which gave shelter, sustenance but also education and practical work skills to former prostitutes, homeless and other women particularly rejected by society. While she was unable to make personal appearances at the missions or its fundraising events, she took up what she called “my work,” the knitting of thousands of wool slippers and donated pairs of them for auctions or sales by the organization, the items commanded astronomical sums.
At lengthy receptions where there were sometimes thousands of people in lines waiting to shake her hand, Ida McKinley greeted the guests while seated in a chair next to the President who stood. There were several occasions when she kept a flower bouquet in her lap to discourage handshaking but this was not the routine but rather the exception, in contrast to the popular misconception about her.
The now-popular caricature of her as a perpetual, querulous and demanding invalid stems from the fall of 1899 to the spring of 1901 when other contributing health factors converged and began to radically deteriorate her condition.
It was within this confine of time that the First Lady did begin to depend on a “rolling chair,” to get in and out of the White House, through rail stations, hotels and theaters.
From the first McKinley Inauguration in March of 1897 through June of 1899, however, Ida McKinley was vigorous enough to make independent trips to New York and Baltimore, attend functions outside of the White House and go about without any aid from the President.
What is true, however, is that President McKinley changed the traditional protocol of seating at formal White House dinners. Rather than seat across the table from the First Lady, he insisted on being seated right next to her.
Further, the White House staff would ensure that a clear path was kept from her seat the elevator in case she had to abruptly be escorted from the table up to the family quarters.
That the McKinleys sat next to each other has also further engrained a popular myth about them, perhaps the most caricatured and embedded in presidential lore.
In one letter, future President William Howard Taft recounted that McKinley placed a napkin over his wife’s head when her face suddenly contorted. There are two other specific first-hand accounts of this occurring.
Yet both of those, like the incident Taft reported, took place in the private home of the McKinleys. It never once happened at a White House state dinner or any other formal event where the public was in attendance.
Yet the very reason why President McKinley never once had to place a napkin over the face of Ida McKinley at a state or other large public dinner leads to a far darker decision he made involving his wife, a well-intentioned but devastating act which has never been investigated in more than the century which has passed since he did so.
The story of what the President was doing to harm the First Lady, as well as the far more secret disability and the ends to which he went to keep it from ever being publicly learned is finally disclosed in full detail in the new biography Ida McKinley, which can be purchased here at the National First Ladies Library.
- The Never-Was McKinley Kittens (Part 4) (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The White House “Lost Girls” Ghosts & Their Presidential Policy Influence (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Remnants of McKinley’s Canton, Ohio: Photo Gallery (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Burns explores Roosevelt legacy in new documentary (sacbee.com)
- Ken Burns explores Roosevelt legacy in new documentary (dailyherald.com)
- The Teddy Cats: Slippers & Quartz Roosevelt, (Part 3) (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Only Known Existing Film Of FDR Being Pushed In A Wheelchair (buzzfeed.com)