Friday, January 12, 2007

January 12, 1880:

Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur Dies

Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur died this day in 1880. Still a young 42, and a prominent member of New York society in the Gilded Age, she took ill suddenly after the opera and lapsed into a coma, dying shortly afterward. Her husband, an attorney whom she married in 1859 and who until recently was customs collector for the Port of New York – a remunerative position if there ever was one – was away on business in Albany at the time.

Though greatly bereft, Chester Alan Arthur soldiered on that year, attending the Republican National Convention in Chicago as a supporter of Grant for a third term. That didn’t pan out, but Arthur ended up as the vice presidential nominee on the ticket, and he and James Garfield went on to victory in November. Arthur became 21st President of the United States after the lingering death of President Garfield in 1881.

Mrs. Arthur was one of only five women who have died before their husbands became president. Martha Jefferson, Rachel Jackson, Hannah Van Buren, and Alice Roosevelt (TR’s first wife) likewise were fated never to become first ladies. In Ellen Arthur’s case, with her penchant for entertaining, she probably would have been remembered as a most social first lady. Her biography is here.

She came from a prominent Virginia family. Her father was Capt. William Lewis Herndon of the US Navy, known the world over especially as an explorer of the Amazon Basin, leading an expedition there in 1851 on behalf of the US government (another achievement of the Fillmore administration, incidentally).

“Married and the father of one daughter, [Capt.] Herndon was slight, and at forty-three, balding; a red beard ran the fringe of his jaw from temple to temple,” wrote Gary Linder in Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (1998). “Though he looked like a professor or a banker more than a sea captain, he had been twenty-nine years at sea, in the Mexican War and the Second Seminole War, in the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean Sea. He knew sailing ships and steamers and had handled both in all weather. He was also an explorer, internationally known and greatly admired, who had seen things no other American and few white men had ever seen.”

Capt. Hendron also died famously, going down in September 1857 with his ship, the SS Central America, which floundered in a hurricane off Cape Hatteras and took with her more than 400 people and 21 tons of California gold to the bottom.

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