Few people may know there was a President Warren G. Harding, let alone that he spent the last days of his life in the presidential suite of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, where he died suddenly on the evening of August 2, 1923.
Even fewer, however, might know about the fact that from Sunday, May 12, 1901 until Saturday, May 25, 1901, the President of the United States, his executive staff and four Cabinet officers ran the executive branch of the federal government from a white mansion that was the White House of the West Coast, even overlooking a Lafayette Park as the one in Washington did.
This one was located on the corner of Clay and Laguna Streets in San Francisco, and joining there with William McKinley were his Secretary of State John Hay, Interior Secretary Ethan Hitchcock, Agriculture Secretary Wilson, and Postmaster General Charles Smith.
They had been making a transcontinental tour of the United States, with major stops in Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, Austin, El Paso and Los Angeles. Their stop in San Francisco, however, was not intended to be so sudden or last so long.
In fact, it was due to the sudden near-death experience of the First Lady.
Ida McKinley‘s public schedule during the trip had been curtailed by her physician who insisted on her rigorous adherence to regulated rest and a carefully-maintained diet as a way of attempting to avoid her from having any of her unpredictable epileptic seizures.
Mrs. McKinley, however, felt especially well and managed to wrangle out of her doctor’s control now and then.
In Memphis, for example, she delivered her second known public remarks at an event after attending a dinner in her honor in defiance of the President, his Secretary and the White House Physician.
Confined to her hotel room in New Orleans while the President and Cabinet and their wives took a Mississippi River cruise, she spoke bluntly to an enterprising reporter who managed to find his way to her unguarded suite. There she told of how intently she had opposed the President’s second presidential campaign. In this age of anarchism and the assassination of world leaders like the President of France, Czar of Russia, Empress of Austria, Prince of Iran and Queen of Korea, she feared that her husband was soon to be killed.
In El Paso, while again confined to the train while the President made a speech on the American side of the bridge which led into Mexico, she spontaneously accepted the invitation of a group of local women who had helped plan a brunch in her honor – across the bridge. Without informing her husband or his staff, she coaxed her doctor into joining her across the border into Juarez, Mexico.
In doing so, on May 6, 1901, Ida McKinley became the first incumbent First Lady to visit a foreign country, with or without a President.
Along the way, Mrs. McKinley had also insisted on shaking hands with the hundreds of citizens who turned out to meet her and “the Major,” as she called her husband.
Often wearing some of her famous diamond rings, the constant gripping and clasping to her hands made small cuts in her fingers. she began to complain of feeling especially hot as the train crossed through Arizona and New Mexico territories, but thought little of it due to their then being in the arid and dusty southwestern desert.
In Los Angeles, she took part in public events but again complained, this time about feeling tired and being hit with dysentery. As the presidential party proceeded north along the California coast, she began to greatly weaken. The President and White House Physician had been so focused on avoiding the conditions which might provoke a seizure that they failed to keep in mind her compromised immunity. The small finger cut had become infected and rapidly flushed through her entire system, giving her blood poisoning.
Among those in the presidential party was Henry T. Scott, president of the ironworks company that built the battleship Ohio which the President was scheduled to dedicate. He not only offered to immediately contact his physician and through him other medical specialists but also insisted that they take possession of his San Francisco mansion at Clay and Laguna streets.
Arriving in San Francisco, the First Lady was so weak she had to be bodily lifted into a wheelchair.
The President intended to keep all his scheduled appearances in San Francisco and treated his wife’s condition with optimism for a full recovery.
As the First Lady began to worsen, however, he began to curtail his schedule.
From Clay and Laguna, with more than half of his Cabinet there with him, he used an office suite of Scott’s in the house to conduct what national business he could manage to focus on.
He also used Scott’s stationary to hand-write notes to friends and relatives updating them on the true condition of the First Lady, which was far worse than what the press was told.
Crowds began to gather, along with the White House press corps which had been part of the presidential party. He never indicated anything but optimism about his wife’s condition.
Delegations of Chinese-Americans, Italian-Americans and German-Americans stopped by the house to present declarations of prayers and floral arrangements for the First Lady.
The President occasionally came outside to take some air by strolling around the perimeter of Lafayette Park.
He also continued to make a few appearances, skipping a long dinner, for example, but reviewing a parade on Market Avenue, taking a carriage ride through Golden Gate Park and speaking to Spanish-American War veterans at the Presidio.
Most of the time, however, he remained at his wife’s bedside holding her hand. She went in and out of consciousness.
What had been a situation of cautious optimism had now grown to one of extreme alarm.
Soon, not only the entire nation but the entire world was focused on the San Francisco White House at Clay and Laguna, with telegrams arriving from foreign heads of states and the diplomatic corps.
Ida McKinley’s temperature rose to 104 degrees. She had a sudden “sinking spell,” meaning a dramatic drop in her pulse. She became entirely comatose.
As fog hung low over the city into the wee hours, the silhouettes of nurses moving through the sick room, were reported by journalists staying up all night.
Under the headline, “At Death’s Door,” the Washington Star reported on Thursday, May 16 that, “Mrs. McKinley is slowly dying unless all human knowledge is at fault. There is not one chance in a hundred that she will recover and be taken back to Washington alive.”
And later that morning, as word spread through San Francisco that the First Lady had indeed died, flags were lowered in the city to half-mast.
Except that she hadn’t died although in less than four months from that day, her husband would be the one “not…taken back to Washington alive,” killed by an assassin’s bullet.
By that time, the world, the country, and even California soon forgot that for thirteen days, San Francisco was the headquarters of the nation’s executive branch of government, with a President and First Lady taking up residence there.
In this first year of the new century, the age-old proprieties about maintaining a woman’s privacy on matters of health and body were rapidly disintegrating and the media, on behalf of the public, was demanding to be kept informed of the truth regarding the First Lady’s health.
For the first time the detailed narrative of this previously untold but dramatic chapter of presidential history is revealed in the new biography Ida McKinley: The Turn-of-the-Century First Lady Through War, Assassination and Secret Disability, which can be purchased here.
- A First Lady Survives Presidential Assassination Plus Rare Funeral Images (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Never-Was McKinley Kittens (Part 4) (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Living with Disability in the White House & The Napkin-Covered Face Myth (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The White House “Lost Girls” Ghosts & Their Presidential Policy Influence (carlanthonyonline.com)
- What Is Google Building Out in San Francisco Bay? (curiosidadesnainternet.com)
- The Remnants of McKinley’s Canton, Ohio: Photo Gallery (carlanthonyonline.com)