One of the Greatest Love Stories Never Told-President William McKinley and First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley

cream, mandarin oranges, cranberries

Whipped Cream Cranberry Dessert


William McKinley was born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio. He was the seventh of nine children. When he was nine years old, he moved to Poland, Ohio where he went to school. He continued his schooling at Allegheny College and was teaching at a country school when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted as a private for the 23rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry. During the War he served as an aide to Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes promoted McKinley twice while in the army so by the end of the war he was a brevet major of volunteers.

He studied law and opened an office in Canton, Ohio.

Ida was born in Canton, Ohio in 1847, the elder daughter of a prominent and well-to-do family. Her father educated his daughters and sent them to finishing school and then to a European grand tour. Ida was beautiful and a leader of the younger set in Canton, but was not satisfied with what she called unimportant nonsense. She suggested to her father that she work in his bank. As a cashier, she caught the attention of Maj. William McKinley. They fell deeply in love and married. William practiced law and Ida devoted herself to her home and husband. A daughter, Katherine was born on Christmas Day, 1871; a second daughter was born April 1873. This time Ida was seriously ill and the baby died in August. Phlebitis and epileptic seizures destroyed Ida’s health and she became an invalid at the age of 29. Little Katie, age five died in 1876. 

Maj. McKinley decided to enter politics. Hayes played an integral part of his political successes after the war and his graduation from Albany Law School. At 34, he won a seat in Congress. His appealing personality, quick intelligence and staward character enabled him to rise rapidly. He was appointed to the Ways and Means Committee. During the fourteen years he served in the House, he became the leading Republican tariff expert. The following year he was elected Governor of Ohio, serving two terms.

At the 1896 Republican Convention, during the time of the depression of 1893, wealthy businessman, Marcus Alonzo Hanna ensured the nomination of his friend McKinley.

During his campaign, doubts were raised that Ida would not be able to fulfill the functions of the First Lady, but no one was aware of the indomitable will of Ida. To reduce the doubts of many voters, she held a sumptuous reception in honor of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversity. For six hours she stood courageously at her husband’s side, greeting guests. Hundred of well-wishers wandered through the old Mc Kinley home in Canton. “Flowers were everywhere and the tables were piled high with lobster salad, sweets of all kinds, claret and coffee.” Fears about Ida’s health and stamina were pacified.

The election of 1896 demonstrated a sharp division in society between urban and rural interests. William Jennings Bryan was able to form a coalition that acknowledged progressive groups and rural interests including the indebted farmers and those arguing against the gold standard. McKinley’s victory was significant in history because it highlighted the shift from American as an agrarian nation to one of urban interests. It also highlighted the changes that were occuring in American society at the turn of the 20th Century.

When McKinley became President, the depression had almost run its course and also the problems with silver. Deferring action on the money question, he called Congress into special session to enact the highest tariff in history.

Due to the friendly atmosphere of his administration, industrial combinations developed at a rapid rate. Newspapers tried to hint that Hanna, his wealthy supporter was leading the President around, but McKinley was not dominated by Hanna; he condemned the trusts as “dangerous conspiracies against public good.”

Not prosperity, but foreign policy dominated the McKinley administration. There was a stalemate between Spanish forces and revolutionaries in Cuba. Newspapers screamed that a quarter of the population was dead. Public indignation brought pressure upon the President for war. Unable to restrain Congress or the American people, he delivered his message of neutral intervention in April 1898. He turned the final decision over to Congress and Congress voted to declare war for the liberation of Cuba. In the 113 day Spanish-American War, the United Stated destroyed the Spanish fleet, seized Manila and the Philippines and occupied Puerto Rico. Later, when McKinley was “undecided what to do about Spanish possessions other than Cuba, he toured the country and detected an imperialist sentiment.” The taking over of the Philippines lead to the Philippines-American War which lasted through McKinley’s first administration and beyond.

When the McKinleys moved into the White House the social season progressed with many formal lengthly dinners. To preserve his wife’s fragile health, President McKinley tried to eliminate all unnecessary entertaining. Luncheons were eliminated. Instead, large formal dinner parties and enormous evening receptions were planned and executed. Ida sat in a blue velvet chair, dressed beautifully to receive guests at receptions. She held a fragrant bouquet to suggest that she could not shake hands because her hands trembled and were fragile. If a guest unknowingly extended a hand, Mrs. Hobart, the wife of the Vice-President would inquire, “Won’t you shake hands with me instead?” 

The President felt the White House belonged to the people and should be accessible so the public flocked there as often as possible. As more and more countries had diplomatic representations in Washington, the official guest list had grown considerably since the Civil War. The guests invited to each event were usually 100 and the dinners lasted three hours.

The President had been seated apart from Ida for one dinner party due to protocol but he was “anxious to the point of distraction” about her. Later he asked someone close to him, “Could it possibly offend anyone for me to have my wife sit beside me?” His love for his wife was among his strongest and finest qualities. If a seizure occured at dinner, the President would place his handkerchief over her face until the seizure subsided. “For Ida time stood still. As soon as she recovered, she resumed the conversation she had been in the midst of as the attack struck–in mid-sentence, as it were–seemingly unaware of the interruption.” Because the dinner table stretched from the East Room as far as the State Dining Room, many guests never knew about her seizures. Those guests that knew were discreet and newspapers silent on the subject of her “fainting spells.”

The McKinley hospitality was definately generous. Even though the same food was often served, it was served in abundance. During the first winter, an all time record was achieved: the McKinleys served a dinner consisting of seventy-one courses. The banquet was in honor of President and Mrs. Sanford B. Dole of the Republic of Hawaii. Eighty to one hundred guests attended. Fortunately for the staff, the dinner broke up early, “American fashion” someone remarked.

The McKinleys were on the portly side especially the President. They both liked large meals three times a day, but plain food. For breakfast they ate large quantities of eggs, hot breads, steak or chops, fish in season, fruit and coffee. To conserve Ida’s strength, she took most of her meals in the family quarters and only appeared at large formal affairs when her presence was expected.

In 1900, McKinley campaigned against William Jennings Bryant, again and won. When President McKinley was re-elected, “Ida seemed to gather a fresh reserve of strength.” She helped plan a huge centennial celebration to commemorate December 12, 1800, when the John Adams family became the first occupants of the White House. This was almost the only party Ida helped plan.

Although guests would never know, President McKinley fulfilled many of the functions the First Lady normally filled. “While conducting a war abroad and trying to solve economic problems at home, he was also planning state dinners, organizing the floral arrangements and tenderly nursing his wife.”

Many years before, when the McKinleys lived in Washington while he served in the House of Representatives, his devotion to his invalid wife became a Washington legend. He was never far from her side. He arranged their life to suit her convenience. She spent most of the day in a small Victorian rocking chair doing fancy work and crocheting bedroom slippers while she waited for him to come home. While he was the Governor of Ohio, they lived in a hotel as Ohio didn’t have an executive mansion. “It was said that the windows of the Governor’s office were directly across from the windows of their hotel suite so the Governor could reassure himself about his wife’s condition by merely looking out his window.” Every afternoon at 3:00 p.m., he waived his handkerchief out of the window to her and she waved back with her own white handkerchief.

His devotion and personal dignity made him an ideal and acceptable representative of propriety and good taste in conduct expected at the turn of the Century. The people felt they had a President they could understand and appreciate. The President enjoyed this love and affection and opened the mansion and grounds to everyone. He also felt safe strolling around the city as he pleased. He enjoyed the people that would just come up to shake his hand. He said, “Everyone in the line has a smile and a cheery word. They bring no problems with them, only good will. I feel better after that contact.”

The President’s focus was on the people, his wife and the nation’s business, but he enjoyed a little relaxation such as frequent walks, horseback rides and drives with Ida. Summer evenings, they sat in rocking chairs on the south portico looking out across the lawn toward the Washington monument. Both of them enjoyed the conservatories. Ida often went with her nieces and friends to pick red roses, her favorite flower and carnations to take back for the President’s lapel. 

The President had a lovely habit when he had to decline to do a favor for a visitor. He removed the carnation from his own lapel and pinned it to the caller’s lapel with the request that he give it to his wife with the President’s best wishes.

It is interesting to note that the White House at this time was physically falling apart. The paint was chipping, the wallpaper was peeling, rugs were worn. The staff had to reinforce the floors with bricks in the celler whenever a large public reception was held. Ike Hoover, a White House usher remarked that the “White House ran inself during the McKinley administration.” The President was too busy to worry about these kinds of details and Ida was not well enough to consider it. Colonel Bingham, the Presidentail aide said, “I took a look at the radiators…and found waste paper, remains of lunches, cigars, cigarettes and other trash at least a foot deep between the radiators and the window sills.”

Despite Ida’s poor health, the McKinleys enjoyed traveling and the President rarely made a trip without her. After his re-election, they took a trip around the country with 43 guests. They stopped in Buffalo in September 1901 to attend the Pan-American Exposition. On the second day of their visit, the President was greeting the public at the Temple of Music. Leon Frank Czolgosz waited in line with a pistol concealed by a handkerchief. He fired twice at the President, the first bullet grazing his shoulder and the second going through several vital organs before lodging in his back. Always concerned for Ida, he murmured to his secretary:”My wife-be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her-oh, be careful.” He went through surgery and was feeling stronger and was able to have his first meal but his condition took a turn for the worse. He died of gangrene September 14, 1901.

The President was buried at his home in Canton, Ohio. Ida lost most of her will to live and became quite ill. Her sister cared for her for her six remaining years on earth. Almost every day, she visited her husband’s grave. She died in 1907 and is buried beside her beloved husband and their two little girls in Canton’s McKinley Memorial Mausoleum.

This time period was the height of the Victorian Era. Many desserts were served: cakes, ices, ice cream and jellies. By 1897, Jell-O had been invented so the recipes reflected the change.                                                                 

                                                Whipped Cream and Cranberry Dessert

1-8 1/4- ounce cans crushed pineapple, drained

1-3-ounce package raspberry gelatin

1-16-ounce cans jellied cranberry sauce—(don’t use whole cranberry sauce because little slivers of skin from the berries break off and the cranberries dont have a good texture, either.)

1-11-ounce cans mandarin oranges, drained

1/2  pint heavy whipping cream, whipped

enough syrup from pineapple to add to water to make 1 cup. Boil water. Take off stove and add gelatin. Stir, scraping the bottom of the saucepan until gelatin is dissolved and no sugar residue remains. Whisk in cranberry sauce until smooth. Chill until partially set. Fold in oranges, pineapple and whipped cream. Pour into a mold or dessert glasses. Cover with waxed paper and foil. Refrigerate overnight. Top with whipped cream for presentation.

If you are using a mold, surround the plate with green and red grapes for the holidays.

This entry was posted in Affordable Cooking, Entertaining, History and Food, The Victorian Era and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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