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Ida McKinley was the wife of 25th U.S. president William McKinley. She served as first lady from 1897 until McKinley's assassination in 1901.
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Born in Canton, Ohio, in 1847, the pretty and vivacious Ida McKinley married her love, William "Bill" McKinley, and they were very devoted to each other, but she was deeply affected by the deaths in quick succession of her mother and two daughters. She descended into debilitating illness throughout her years as first lady. When her husband was shot in 1901, she held his hand until he died, and then went into seclusion until she died six years later.
The arc of Ida McKinley's life is a sad one. Born to a prominent family in Canton, Ohio, on June 8, 1847, Ida was the elder of Katherine and James Saxton's two pretty daughters. James was successful in banking and real estate, so Ida grew up in comfort and was educated at an exclusive private school, and sent to a finishing school topped off with a grand tour of Europe.
When she returned, the standard social whirl for a fashionable young girl wasn't enough for the intelligent Ida. So her father let her work in his bank as a cashier. That's where she met William McKinley for the second time—the first had been at a church picnic two years before—and this time it was love. So the rising young lawyer and the beautiful young woman with sky-blue eyes and abundant auburn hair were married on January 25, 1871.
The loving couple had their first daughter in their first year of marriage; Katherine, called "Katie," was born on Christmas Day. But this auspicious start for the couple was not to last. As William's political career rose, Ida was buffeted by tragedy: Her mother died, followed by her second daughter in infancy, followed by Katie from typhoid fever.
In addition to falling into a depression from all this grief, Ida developed epileptic seizures. But she still traveled with her husband, and in fact seemed to need to be by his side as much as possible. And he was devoted to her throughout his life.
She appeared at events and wore beautiful gowns but stood back from the public, holding a bouquet so that she didn't have to shake hands and reveal her tremors. When rumors of her illness began to surface, a public-relations machine went into action. A biography for her, to accompany her husband's, was crafted, and her image (as potential first lady) appeared on campaign buttons, a historic first.
At social events, Ida sat next to her husband, rather than across from him. President McKinley earned a reputation as an exemplary husband, gently covering her face with a handkerchief just before her seizures so her contorted features would be hidden from public view, and then discreetly removing it afterward without mention.
Ida was often heavily medicated, and Jennie Hobart, the wife of McKinley's vice president, Garret Hobart, often took care of her or assumed her responsibilities. She also spent a copious amount of time in a childhood rocking chair crocheting slippers for everyone.
But despite her invalid status and being publicly mute on political issues, visitors described the first lady as topically aware and able to offer analysis of political events, as well as conveying warmth and good humor.
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The wives of U.S. presidents are often important American figures in their own right. Although they have no official responsibilities, first ladies are a highly visible part of U.S. government. The role of the first lady has evolved over the centuries, from hostess of the White House to advocates for public policy. Learn about the different causes first ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama have championed over the years, from literacy to addiction to health care reform.
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