Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen

Apart from John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson is the only President to have been married to two different women during his actual Presidency.

President Wilson moved into the White House in 1913 with his first wife, Ellen Louise Axson, whom he had married in Savannah, Georgia in 1885.  Ellen Wilson was a free spirit — far ahead of her time with her independent streak.  An accomplished artist, Ellen set up a painting studio on the third floor of the White House and sold paintings so that she could donate the revenue to her favorite charitable causes.  As a young woman growing up in Georgia, Ellen was a bit of a tomboy, loved to hunt and was such a firearm aficionado that, as an adult, she always kept a loaded revolver under her pillow while she slept.

Ellen was also a proponent of equal rights for women and blacks, which was in direct opposition to her husband’s position on the matter.  Ellen Wilson also worked hard to take care of her family.  She planned the White House weddings of two of her daughters and kept a close watch on President Wilson’s health, which was precarious at best throughout his life and aggravated by the constant stress of the Presidency.

Nearly a year-and-a-half after the Wilsons moved into the White House, however, it was Ellen’s health which suffered.  In the summer of 1914, Ellen found herself unable to work as hard as she used to or take care of her husband as well as she wished.  Crippled by lethargy, Ellen was finally diagnosed by doctors as having Bright’s Disease — an illness that was almost always fatal in her time.  Just 54 years old, the First Lady died on August 6, 1914 in the White House.

Woodrow Wilson was devastated and inconsolable following Ellen’s death.  His own health took a downward path and to many aides, he talked of resigning.  To his closest aide, Colonel Edward M. House, Wilson went further, exclaiming that he hoped someone would assassinate him.

Yet a few short months later, Wilson met Edith Bolling Galt — a fellow widower fifteen years younger than the President who also happened to be a great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Pocahontas.  Edith and Wilson had met when Wilson’s cousin (a friend of Edith’s and the acting White House Hostess in the wake of Ellen’s death) invited Edith to the White House for tea and the President joined the two women.  Edith captivated President Wilson, who had been mired in depression in the six months since Ellen’s death.  Smart, funny, and completely uninterested in politics, Wilson was humored by the fact that Edith hadn’t even known his name when he ran for President two years earlier.

Wilson’s friends, aides, and daughters were pleased that the President seemed to be happy once more and encouraged the relationship with Edith, who was reluctant to proceed considering the fact that the Ellen Wilson’s tombstone had literally not been erected over her grave by the time Edith was being pursued by Woodrow.  Wilson, however, was madly in love.  In May 1915, less than two months after meeting Edith — and just 10 months since Ellen’s death — the President proposed to Edith.  

Some people close to Wilson — including Edith — felt that the President was moving too quickly and that the public might be turned off by Wilson’s vigorous courtship.  As rumors flew about their relationship, Wilson and Edith were virtually inseparable despite his schedule and workaholic tendencies.  Those who worried about the perception of the whirlwind romance had good reason.  President Wilson was criticized for disrespecting the legacy of his deceased wife, Edith was lambasted as a homewrecker, the couple was accused of beginning their affair during Ellen Wilson’s terminal illness, and it was even suggested that the President and Edith murdered Ellen.

Then there was the typo.

Newspapers had already been somewhat cruel and crude about the relationship.  One joke which ran in a Washington paper asked, “What did Mrs. Galt do when the President asked her to marry him?”  The answer: “She fell out of bed”.  After a date night at the theater, President Wilson opened up the morning edition of the Washington Post and found an appalling typographical error that set tongues wagging and led to the Post frantically trying to reclaim newspapers from newsstands before they were sold and read.  A report in the Post mentioned the President’s attendance at the theater and noted, “Rather than paying attention to the play, the President spent the evening entering Mrs. Galt.”  The Post, meaning to write that the President “spent the evening entertaining Mrs. Galt” desperately apologized to both Edith and the President, but it certainly didn’t help with the nasty rumors about the budding relationship. 

With Wilson facing a re-election campaign in 1916, many urged him to hold off on announcing any engagement or planning a wedding until after the election.  Wilson could not wait, though.  Edith had secretly accepted his proposal in June 1915, it was announced to the public in October, and they were married on December 18, 1915 at Edith’s home in Washington, D.C.  Following the wedding, many of the criticisms disappeared when it was clear how devoted the Wilsons were to one another.  In 1916, Wilson was re-elected after a narrow victory over Charles Evans Hughes, the former New York Governor who resigned from the Supreme Court to run for President.

Edith Wilson proved to be every bit as charitable as her immediate predecessor as First Lady and Woodrow’s wife.  World War I was raging across Europe and the United States attempted to remain neutral, but eventually was forced to enter the war and give a fresh infusion of battle energy and fighting power to the Allied forces.  Edith worked hard to set examples for regular Americans on how to ration meat, gas, wheat and other materials important to the war effort.  Edith also bought sheep that grazed the White House lawn and sold their wool to raise money for the Red Cross.

Much like Ellen, Edith also tried to look after President Wilson’s health, limit his long hours, and encourage (and sometimes demand) that he relax or find some sort of recreation outside of work.  The war ended with a truce in November 1918 and the President and Edith traveled to Paris the next month so that Wilson could personally negotiate the peace treaty.  Treated like a conquering hero, Wilson also began experiencing the symptoms that had previously led to a stroke.  Wilson returned to the United States in 1919 and embarked with Edith upon a cross-country whistlestop tour to gain support for the peace treaty and for U.S. entry into the League of Nations.

Finally, in the midst of fighting a losing battle for the League of Nations, Wilson’s body reached its limit and he suffered a physical collapse in Pueblo, Colorado that necessitated his immediate return to the White House.  Several days later the President suffered a massive stroke which paralyzed his left side and left him incapacitated for the rest of his life.  Edith Wilson not only was there to nurse him back to help, but she basically ran the Executive branch of the U.S. Government since there was no Constitutional precedent or exercise to relieve a disabled President.

As President Wilson slowly recovered some abilities (he would never be the same as he was before the stroke), Edith controlled access to Wilson.  Nobody saw him or visited his sickbed without permission from Edith and Wilson didn’t see any official papers or attend to business without Edith’s permission.  She carefully screened every document submitted to the President for his signature.  Wilson’s condition was so unknown to everyone besides Edith that some government leaders thought the President was actually dead.

For many, Edith Wilson seemed to be the acting President during Woodrow Wilson’s convalescence and wielded more Executive Power than any other individual in the last two years of Wilson’s Administration.  Edith said that she never made key decisions, only decisions about what to give the President or who to allow to see him.  “I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators,” Edith wrote in her autobiography, “and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President.  I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs.  The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”  Edith Wilson called her role a “stewardship”, but at the time, she was widely considered the executive in charge of what many called a “regency”. 

Due to her role during President Wilson’s incapacitation, Edith Wilson may have been the most powerful woman in American History.  In just five years, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson had come a long way from having the President spending the evening entering…oops, I mean, “entertaining” her at the theater.  After leaving the White House in 1921, the Wilsons moved to a home on S Street in Washington, D.C. where Edith continued to nurse the President through illness until he died on February 3, 1924.  Edith Wilson lived for 37 more years, attended John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and died on Woodrow Wilson’s 105th birthday, December 28, 1961.

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