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This Day in History: First Lady Jane Pierce's heartbreak

On this day in 1853, a train carrying President-elect Franklin Pierce and his family derails just outside Andover, Massachusetts. One person is instantly killed: Franklin’s young son, Benny.

His parents were devastated. The new President thought he was being punished for his ambition. His wife, Jane, concluded that God was clearing distractions from Franklin’s life so he could focus on his new job.

She never got over it.

Perhaps it would have helped if Jane had wanted a life in politics—but she didn’t. She hated her life in Washington and wanted Franklin to get out. He’d been a congressman when they got married. That job soon gave way to a term as Senator. Nevertheless, with two kids at home, she finally convinced Franklin to give up his political life in 1842.

To his credit, the man who was a rising star in D.C. returned home to the relatively simple life of a lawyer.

Jane and Franklin had already lost one baby soon after he was born. In 1843, their middle child also passed away. Jane and Franklin were left with only one son, Benny, and they doted on him.

Franklin had so far avoided politics out of deference to his wife. It helped the family, but he was getting antsy.

When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Franklin saw his chance. He sought a commission as brigadier general, but he didn’t tell Jane. “[A]lthough I have not yet broached the subject to my wife,” he wrote a friend, “my purpose is fixed.”

Franklin served, then came home a war hero.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, delegates from New Hampshire pushed Franklin as a dark-horse candidate when the Democratic Party held its nominating convention in 1852. When the convention became deadlocked, New Hampshire’s favorite son was nominated on the 49th ballot.

Franklin had been quietly encouraging the possibility and was pleased. Jane, on the other hand, fainted when she heard the news. She wasn’t happy about returning to Washington. It seems Benny wasn’t, either. “I hope he won’t be elected,” the 11-year-old boy wrote his mother, “for I should not like to be at Washington. And I know you would not be either.”

They didn’t get their wish. Franklin was elected in an electoral landslide: 254 electors to 42. The family prepared to move to Washington—until fate intervened.

On January 6, the small family wrapped up a visit with relatives in Andover and boarded a train. They were headed home, to Concord.

Suddenly, the train gave a huge jolt. Its single passenger car came off the track and rolled 20 feet down a hill. That car, the New York Times later described, “broke in pieces like a cigar box.” Benny was nearly decapitated.

“It had been a terrible and shattering experience to these worshipping parents,” one of Franklin’s biographers concludes, “to see their only boy horribly mangled before their eyes, an experience from which neither of them ever recovered.”

Benny’s death shook Jane to her core. Grief gripped her. She didn’t attend her husband’s inauguration, and she dressed in black mourning clothes. As for Franklin, he was racked with guilt. He thought he was being punished.

“How I shall be able to summon my manhood and gather up my energies for the duties before me,” he wrote, “it is hard for me to see.”

Nine years later, another President would lose his young son—Willie Lincoln was 11 years old when he died, just like Benny. Franklin was the one man who knew precisely what Lincoln was enduring. He wrote Lincoln, expressing sympathy for the loss of the President’s “cherished boy, who will nestle at your heart, until you meet him in that new life, when tears and toils and conflict will be unknown.”

Two Presidents. Two political parties. Yet one shared experience in heartbreak.

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