Ida McKinley was born into a prominent Canton, Ohio family on June 8, 1847. Her father, James Saxton, was founder and president of the Stark County Bank. He also became a trustee of the Canton Union School. After completing her education at the Brooke Hall Female Seminary in Pennsylvania, Ida returned home to Ohio and worked at her father’s bank. For a woman of her stature, this was controversial. Ida’s father wanted her to learn something of the banking business and to be able to support herself. Saxton stated, “I have seen enough girls left stranded by sudden losses of means and I don’t intend that this shall ever happen to my daughter.”
While traveling in Europe, Ida received news that her fiancé, John Wright, had died. She mourned his passing and felt reluctant to return to the States. However, when she did return she started seeing Major William McKinley about town. After a courtship that involved McKinley giving her jewelry made of California gold, Ida married McKinley and quickly became pregnant with her first child. This daughter would die of cholera when she was only four months and two weeks old. Their second daughter died not long after of scarlet fever. For the rest of her life, Ida would keep their photographs close and be drawn to young children.
After working as a lawyer in Canton, William McKinley was elected to Congress. His friendship with political power broker, Mark Hanna, helped facilitate a rapid rise in influence. McKinley quickly became governor of Ohio. After a successful run in that position, McKinley became president in 1896 and was elected again in 1900.
Ida is largely remembered as being a sickly first lady who was often seen on the arms of her husband. However, a recent biography on her, Ida McKinley: The Turn-of-the-Century First Lady through War, Assassination, and Secret Disability complicates that view. Ida did suffer from epileptic seizures and the McKinley administration worked hard to keep those secret from the media. However, Ida was also passionate about theater and pioneered the tradition of bringing actors to the White House. She also challenged Carrie Nation in the Temperance Movement by serving alcohol at presidential functions. In short, Ida was a woman who was not afraid to challenge the public’s expectations. During the Spanish American War, Theodore Roosevelt turned to her when he grew restless waiting in San Antonio and wanted help in advocating her husband to move his troops to Tampa.
After her husband’s assassination, Ida sank into a deep period of mourning. Edith Roosevelt spoke about the deep sympathy she felt for her. Only the children of her nieces could reach through the dark cloud that hung over Ida. After attending her funeral, Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Kermit about the event: “Poor soul, it was a mercy for her to go, and she had long been wishing it. I was very much touched this year when she sent Archie a pair of slippers which she had knit, and a little photograph of President McKinley.”
Source: Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. Ida McKinley: The Turn-of-the Century First Lady through War, Assassination, and Secret Disability. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2013.
Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kermit Roosevelt, June 1, 1907. Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.