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This Day in History: (Almost) First Lady Ellen Arthur

On this day in 1880, the wife of a future President passes away. Ellen Arthur would have been one of our First Ladies, if only she’d lived a little longer.

Ellen “Nell” Lewis Herndon was a well-bred southern girl who just happened to spend many of her early years in Washington D.C. She sang in the choir at St. John’s Church, and she reportedly befriended Dolley Madison in her old age. Meanwhile, her father was often at sea.

William Lewis Herndon was a naval hero who went down with his ship, SS Central America, during an 1857 hurricane.

By then, Nell was 20 years old, and she’d been seeing Chester Arthur for about a year. They’d been introduced by her cousin, and Chester was immediately smitten.

“I know you are thinking of me now,” Chester would write. “I feel the pulse of your love answering to mine.” The two were married in a lavish wedding in October 1859.

The Civil War intervened, just as their lives together were starting.

Chester served as New York’s Quartermaster General and Inspector General, but family lore suggests he avoided outright combat because of Nell. She and her widowed mother were still southerners, sympathetic to the South. The situation created discomfort sometimes, but Chester sought to ease the tension by joking about his “little Rebel wife.”

Chester left the Army in 1863 and returned to his law practice. The couple had many ups and downs during those years. Chester was thriving financially, but as his career took off, he became more and more absent. He was keeping late nights and hanging out at bars after work.

Nell was having a tough time.

Parenthood brought more ups and downs. One of their three children died when he was just a toddler. The little boy’s death, Chester wrote, “came upon us so unexpectedly and suddenly. Nell is broken hearted. . . . You know how her heart was wrapped up in her dear boy.”

Matters came to a head in 1878. Nell’s mother passed away while overseas, which meant that Nell had to make a difficult Atlantic crossing to retrieve her mother’s remains. The two had been close, and Nell didn’t need to make this trip alone—yet she did. Arthur was too immersed in his political career.

The experience took a huge toll on Nell’s health. It would be felt in January 1880.

Late one evening, Nell was coming home from a concert. She was alone because Chester was in Albany, and she’d been left to wait for her carriage in freezing weather, with her feet clad only in slippers. Nell caught a cold, which quickly morphed into pneumonia.

Chester came home immediately, but Nell was deathly ill. She passed away soon after he arrived. She was only 42.

Chester took the loss hard. When he was elected to the vice presidency later that year, he commented: “Honors to me now are not what they once were.” Less than a year later, James Garfield was shot by an assassin, and Chester became President.

Nell wasn’t there to serve as First Lady, but her presence was felt anyway.

The new President had a memorial stained-glass window installed at St. John’s church, near the White House. He chose to use a bedroom with a view of the church, which enabled him to see his wife’s lit-up memorial window at night. Fresh flowers were always kept near Nell’s portrait in his bedroom, and her horse was brought to the White House so little Nellie Arthur could learn to ride on it.

Indeed, Nell’s daughter came to be much loved by the White House staff—and the country. When Nellie left at the end of her father’s term, one newspaper mourned the “one vacancy that cannot be filled.”

A daughter, following in her mother’s footsteps.

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