Ellen Arthur Biography

U.S. First Lady (1837–1880)
Ellen Arthur was the wife of Chester A. Arthur, but died just before he became vice president in 1881, and before James Garfield's assassination would have made her first lady.


Born in Virginia in 1837, Ellen Lewis Herndon was the daughter of Amazon explorer William Lewis Herndon. She married Chester A. Arthur in 1859, but would not live to see her husband's vice presidency or presidency. Ellen died on January 12, 1880, and her husband won election as vice president with running mate James Garfield later that year. When President Garfield was assassinated in 1881, Arthur became president. His sister, Mary Arthur McElroy, served as White House hostess during his time in office. Though Ellen Arthur did not live to serve as first lady, she has been honorably credited with the role.

Early Life

Born Ellen Lewis Herndon on August 30, 1837, in Culpeper, Virginia, Ellen Arthur was the wife of American President Chester A. Arthur. Though she did not live long enough to see the White House, Ellen has been honorably credited as a U.S. first lady.

Known as "Nell," Ellen was the only child of Elizabeth and William Lewis Herndon, an explorer and naval officer. She moved with her family in 1842 to Washington, D.C., where her father helped found the Naval Observatory. She soon distinguished herself as a singer in the choir at St. John's Episcopal Church. In the 1850s, Ellen moved to New York City, where her father was commissioned to run a merchant ship.

Marriage to Chester A. Arthur

By 1857, Ellen had become engaged to a young lawyer named Chester A. Arthur. The couple's joy was marred, however, by the death of Ellen's father that same year; William Herndon died at sea when the ship he was traveling on sank during a storm. The couple married two years later, at a church in New York City.

Ellen Arthur gave birth to the couple's first son, William, in 1860. Sadly, the boy died as a toddler. In 1865, the Arthurs welcomed a second son, Chester. Their daughter, Ellen, was born six years later. Around this time, Chester A. Arthur was appointed collector of the Port of New York by President Ulysses S. Grant. The Arthurs enjoyed an affluent life in New York City during this period.

Untimely Death

After attending a concert one evening in early January 1880, Ellen Arthur waited outside in cold for a carriage. Soon after, she came down with a cold. Over the next few days, her cold developed into pneumonia. She died on January 12, 1880, at the age of 42, in New York City. Chester A. Arthur was devastated by his wife's death. In his grief, he sought to preserve her room in their home exactly as it was when Ellen was alive.

Later that year, Chester A. Arthur won the vice presidency. He became president after President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. Once in the White House, Chester Arthur hung a portrait of his late wife. He often left flowers by the painting in honor of her memory. Arthur never remarried and only allowed his sister, Mary McElroy, to help out with some of his White House functions.

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