Ida Saxton McKinley
Biography: 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
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.