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Ida Saxton McKinley was the wife of the 25th President, William McKinley. She served as First Lady of the United States from 1897 to 1901.
There was little resemblance between the vivacious young woman who married William McKinley in January 1871–a slender bride with sky-blue eyes and fair skin and masses of auburn hair–and the petulant invalid who moved into the White House with him in March 1897. Now her face was pallid and drawn, her close-cropped hair gray; her eyes were glazed with pain or dulled with sedative. Only one thing had remained the same: love which had brightened early years of happiness and endured through more than twenty years of illness.
Ida had been born in Canton, Ohio, in 1847, elder daughter of a socially prominent and well-to-do family. James A. Saxton, a banker, was indulgent to his two daughters. He educated them well in local schools and a finishing school, and then sent them to Europe on the grand tour.
Being pretty, fashionable, and a leader of the younger set in Canton did not satisfy Ida, so her broad-minded father suggested that she work in his bank. As a cashier she caught the attention of Maj. William McKinley, who had come to Canton in 1867 to establish a law practice, and they fell deeply in love. While he advanced in his profession, his young wife devoted her time to home and husband. A daughter, Katherine, was born on Christmas Day, 1871; a second, in April 1873. This time Ida was seriously ill, and the frail baby died in August. Phlebitis and epileptic seizures shattered the mother’s health; and even before little Katie died in 1876, she was a confirmed invalid.
As Congressman and then as governor of Ohio, William McKinley was never far from her side. He arranged their life to suit her convenience. She spent most of her waking hours in a small Victorian rocking chair that she had had since childhood; she sat doing fancy work and crocheting bedroom slippers while she waited for her husband, who indulged her every whim.
At the White House, the McKinleys acted as if her health were no great handicap to her role as First Lady. Richly and prettily dressed, she received guests at formal receptions seated in a blue velvet chair. She held a fragrant bouquet to suggest that she would not shake hands. Contrary to protocol, she was seated beside the President at state dinners and he, as always, kept close watch for signs of an impending seizure. If necessary, he would cover her face with a large handkerchief for a moment. The First Lady and her devoted husband seemed oblivious to any social inadequacy. Guests were discreet and newspapers silent on the subject of her “fainting spells.” Only in recent years have the facts of her health been revealed.
When the President was shot by an assassin in September 1901, after his second inauguration, he thought primarily of her. He murmured to his secretary: “My wife–be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her–oh, be careful.” After his death, she lived in Canton, cared for by her younger sister, visiting her husband’s grave almost daily. She died in 1907, and lies entombed beside the President and near their two little daughters in Canton’s McKinley Memorial Mausoleum.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Ida Saxton McKinley’s spouse, William McKinley.