Dolley Madison: Life in Washington City

Dolley Payne Madison c. 1794 around the time of her marriage to James Madison (source)

Dolley Payne Madison c. 1794 around the time of her marriage to James Madison (source)

When Dolley Payne Todd married James Madison on September 15, 1774, it was somewhat shocking. Not that she remarried, but that she didn’t wait at least a year after John Todd’s death. She also married outside the Quaker faith, which of course meant that she was read out of Meeting. But, Dolley was practical. She knew that as a woman in the 18th century, she had very few options unless she was married, and she had a son to think about. On the day of her wedding, she wrote to a friend that she knew her “little Payne” would have a “generous & tender protector.”

She may have been somewhat ambiguous about the relationship. After signing the letter “Dolley Payne Todd”, she went back after the wedding ceremony and signed underneath, “Dolley Madison! Alass!” Nevertheless, Dolley and James were well suited to each other. James was considerate and even-tempered, as was Dolley, and they had similar backgrounds. If returning to the type of life she lived in her girlhood bothered her, we don’t know. Dolley, Payne, and her sister Anna soon moved to Madison’s plantation in Virginia. As the oldest son in his family, the plantation became John’s after his father’s death, but his mother was still living, so Dolley didn’t immediately have to become a slave mistress.

When Dolley married James, she knew he was a political man, but it wasn’t clear whether or not he would continue his career in politics. Not because he didn’t want to, but because the country was in such turmoil. The government without parties that George Washington envisioned didn’t exist. Republicans such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison feared a monarchical government with actions such as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. On the other hand, the Federalists feared mob rule as in the bloody French revolution. Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson easily won the election of 1800, and selected James Madison as his Secretary of State. Dolley was headed to Washington.

When Dolley moved to Washington, what she found was, what appeared to be, a group of little villages connected by muddy roads which became almost impassable when it rained. The city had been planned and eventually would be beautiful, but it would take time. Most congressmen didn’t bring their families and lived in boarding houses which clustered around the capitol building. The Executive Mansion and the Supreme Court Buildings each had their own little group of buildings, the separation mirroring the separation of powers as described in the Constitution.

Unlike New York City and Philadelphia, Washington didn’t have an existing social structure. There weren’t many year-round families, but there were a few who had, in most cases, moved there for the purpose of business. Dolley wanted to bring together these families with congressmen and foreign diplomats. But it was going to be a delicate process, because of the new President’s stand on society.

Thomas Jefferson as President (source)

Thomas Jefferson as President (source)

Thomas Jefferson liked social functions, but he didn’t want to mix society with politics. He particularly wanted to avoid having women involved in politics. As the United States’ ambassador to France at the beginning of the French revolution, he blamed all of the excesses on the Queen. He also wrote home that all of the reforms would fail unless the men  controlled the “influence of women in the government.” He intended to do that in America.

Once in office, he immediately discontinued the weekly levees, opening the Executive mansion to the public only on July 4 and New Year’s Day. Instead he held small separate dinner parties for either Federalist or Republican congressmen and his cabinet members, and of course he excluded women.

Dolley had to tread lightly to avoid alienating Jefferson, but she set out to make the Madison home the center of Washington society. As soon as she moved in, she began to make calls on the other women in the city. Then she began to hold small parties where she invited a mix of people, men and women, Federalists and Republicans, locals and foreign diplomats. She combined elegant food with good conversation, but was careful not to be too extravagant. And, she remained non-partisan whenever possible. Margaret Bayard Smith, an author and prolific letter writer, said that Dolley extended to both parties “cordial attentions” and “undistinguished politeness.”

She was truly brilliant in the social realm, and Jefferson always liked her. But not everyone did. During the eight years before Madison became President, she was the subject of her share of gossip and slander. It was rumored that James “pimped out” Dolley and her sister, Anna, to foreign visitors, that she had an affair with Jefferson, and that she and James had no children because Dolley was too “hot.” I don’t know how “hot” she was, but of course it had nothing to do with their childlessness, and there was no truth to the other rumors. Even the fact that John Todd returned to Philadelphia when he became infected with yellow fever in 1793, to protect the family, got turned around on Dolley. It was said that she “banished” him to die alone.

This last rumor was particularly hurtful, and Dolley had other personal griefs to deal with during this time. Her mother died, then two nieces, followed by their mother, Dolley’s sister Mary. Also, Dolley was deprived of the person who was possibly her closest confidante;her sister Anna got married. Anna had lived with Dolley for her entire life. When Dolley married John Todd, Anna moved in with them, and had continued to live with Dolley and James.

Engraving of James Madison by David Edwin dated 1809-1817 (source)

Engraving of James Madison by David Edwin dated 1809-1817 (source)

Dolley poured all of her grief out privately in letters to family, but to the public she showed a smiling face. She kept her hurt feelings and griefs to herself, and made every effort to rise above it, avoid pettiness, and appear bipartisan. And it worked. By the time Jefferson’s two terms were coming to an end, the Madison home had become the primary place for political activity in Washington.

Dolley was a serious political partner to James from the beginning of their marriage. She often acted as a secretary for him, even after he became President if his official secretary was ill. So when it became clear that Jefferson was going to abide by the two term precedent set by Washington, it was time to go into campaigning mode.

While James may have been the obvious choice for the next President, it wasn’t a forgone conclusion. He had challengers from his own party as well as the Federalists. Of course it would have been unseemly for James to campaign, but Dolley had laid the groundwork. They had relationships with everyone that mattered in Washington and all James had to do was be present when she invited them over.

Dolley had honed her skills over the last eight years, in addition to building the social structure of the city, and it paid off. By the time of the election, any serious challengers from within the Republican party had dropped off and James defeated Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the Federalist challenger, by an electoral vote of 122 to 47. And Dolley’s contribution didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, Pinckney said that he had been beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison, and famously added, “I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.”

Dolley is widely recognized as the woman who defined what the role of a First Lady should be, but what I wasn’t aware of is that the work began eight long years before she reached the Executive Mansion. Also, her impact was about much more than society and campaigning. She understood that for the young nation to survive, the men in government had to work together, and often that is much easier to do when people can meet on neutral ground.

19th century lithograph of Montpelier (source)

19th century lithograph of Montpelier (source)

First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789 – 1961 by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor
The History Chicks podcast on Dolley Madison
CSPAN First Ladies Influence and Image

Further reading
Feather Schwartz Foster: Presidential History Blog has a number of excellent posts about Dolley.

Dolley Payne Todd: Life Before James Madison

Dolley c. 1800 (source)

Dolley c. 1800 (source)

Although Dolley Madison liked to refer to herself as a “Virginian, born and bred”, she was actually born in North Carolina. In 1765, her father, John Payne was admitted to the Cedar Creek meeting, the local Society of Friends, or Quaker, congregation. It was not a quick decision; he had been married to Mary Coles for three years, and marriages with non-Quakers were frowned upon. But, when he did join he pursued it with the zeal of a new convert. Six months later, John and Mary took their young son Walter and moved to the wilds of North Carolina with a number of other Quaker families to begin a new settlement.

John Payne and Mary Coles were from two of the oldest families in Virginia. According to Allgor, they had the three most important things for Virginia gentry, “lineage, land, and the ownership of enslaved peoples.” (At the time, it wasn’t a requirement that Quakers free their slaves. Also, a 1723 law in Virginia required approval of the governor and council to manumit slaves.)

John sold all of his land holdings in Virginia and purchased land in North Carolina. He was referred to as a merchant, but there is no record of what he sold. However, the move must not have been a successful one. In 1769, he sold his North Carolina land at a loss and moved his family back to Virginia, this time with another son, William Temple, and their first daughter Dolley, born on May 20, 1768.

Once again in the Cedar Creek meeting, they were surrounded by friends and extended family. For the next fifteen years, the family farmed and expanded. Five more children followed Dolley: Isaac, Lucy, Anne, Mary Coles, and John Coles. Quakers believed in educating girls as well as boys, and although we don’t know specifics about Dolley’s education her writing indicates that she was well-educated for the time.

After the Revolutionary War and changes in the laws of the new state, John manumitted his slaves. Without them it was impossible to farm at the level he had, so he decided to move the family to Philadelphia in 1783. By this time, Dolley was a vivacious fifteen with black hair, blue eyes, and a winning smile. She made quite an impression on the young men in the Society of Friends in Philadelphia and in nearby Haddonfield, New Jersey, one of the oldest Quaker communities in the country.

John Payne did well initially, too. He became an elder and began to preach in meetings. He was strict and exacting in his faith, but his business skills were not any better than they were in North Carolina. By 1789, his business went under and he was read out of the Pine Street Meeting. Whether this was simply because failure in business indicated a weak character to the other Friends, or because of some shady business deals, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, depressed, John took to his bed.

Mary Payne was a woman of strong character and determination, and Dolley adored her. When she realized she could no longer depend on John to support the family, she opened her home to boarders. In 1791, the fledgeling government moved the capital to Philadelphia and Mary catered to congressmen. She earned a reputation for running a “good house” and by the time John died in Oct of 1792, she had a thriving business.

In spite of his strict religious views, John wasn’t able to completely control his oldest daughter. One of the women in their meeting recalled years later that Dolley was inappropriate in her choice of caps, gowns, and “the shape of her shoes.” However, he did impose his will on her in the choice of a husband.

John Todd was a successful attorney and a Quaker. He was tall and handsome, and apparently had not given up when Dolley originally turned him down. They were married on January 7, 1790, and even though he may not have been her first choice, they appear to have had a happy marriage. But, this happiness didn’t last long.

John Payne Todd c. 1817 by Joseph Wood (source)

John Payne Todd c. 1817 by Joseph Wood (source)

Dolley’s first son, John Payne Todd, was born on February 29,1792. He was healthy and happy and joined by a baby brother, William Temple Todd, in the summer of 1793. Sadly a yellow fever epidemic also reached Philadelphia in the summer of 1793. The symptoms of the disease are terrifying and the cause wouldn’t be known for another 100 years. The entire city was in a panic. (It would kill almost 10 percent of the population before winter came, killing the mosquitoes.)

In August, although Dolley had just given birth, John Todd sent her and the boys out of the city for their protection. Mary Payne went with them to care for them, but John had to return to the city. He had his parents to care for as well as clients, many of whom had legal matters to attend to because of deaths in the family.

For the Todd family, October was the fateful month. John nursed both of his parents and his law clerk, but to no avail. They all three died and Dolley was frantic for John’s safety. He finally agreed to close his law firm and join her. When he did, he stayed in another part of the house to avoid bringing the infection to the family. (Not knowing yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes, they believed it was contagious.)

Ironically, after surviving his time in the city, John came down with the fever after spending the evening hunting in the marsh. In an effort to protect the family, he returned to the city. There he died on October 14, 1793, the same day the baby, William, died.

Dolley was bereft, but she was also out of money. Mary Payne had to write to Philadelphia to get money for William’s funeral and for the move home. Once they were back, she should have been fine, but there were complications. John had designated Dolley his executrix as well as leaving her “all his worldly goods.” Since John’s parents died before he did, she was also due his portion of their estate.

In a city with over 5000 deaths, the courts were overloaded, and even though John’s will was clear, his brother James, a bank clerk, wouldn’t hand over any of the money to Dolley. He wouldn’t even turn over copies of both of the wills or any of John’s other papers. When she pressed him, he suggested that she sell items from the house that were in her possession. She steadfastly refused to sell the library books! Finally, after numerous requests and demands, James settled out of court, but only after she got a lawyer.

Dolley was now a wealthy widow. At 25, she was tall, beautiful, and very eligible. Supposedly, men stood at the end of her street to get a glimpse of her. But this eligibility wouldn’t last. It wasn’t long before she caught the eye of, and was formally introduced to, in her words, the “great little Madison.”

Dolley Madison c. 1804 by Gilbert Stuart (source)

Dolley Madison c. 1804 by Gilbert Stuart (source)

A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor
The History Chicks podcast on Dolley Madison
CSPAN First Ladies Influence and Image

Nellie Bly Meets Julia Grant – In Her Own Words

This brief article appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in December 1888 in preparation for a full-length article by Nellie Bly in the January issue.

The following extract from an interview with Mrs. Gen. Grant by Nellie Bly , printed in the N.Y. WORLD, October 28th, will show our subscribers who Nellie Bly is:

“I was somewhat nervous about my visit to Mrs. Grant. I only knew of her as the wife of the famous general; the successful hostess for eight years in the White House; the woman who had, in making a tour of the world, been received as a queen in every civilized land.

Would anyone wonder, then, at my apprehension, when women of so much meaner light so often try to parry all attempts at approach? But I was wrong.”

“My son tells me,” Mrs. Grant said, with a pleasant laugh, after greetings had been exchanged and she had drawn me by the hand to a chair and seated herself on a lounge, most cordially near, “that Nellie Bly is a little scamp”—

“Oh, no, no,” I broke in, but holding her finger up playfully, she continued:

“That, not being content with exposing the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum—yes, and benefiting it wondrously—and exposing Phelps, the great Albany lobbyist, she needs must go to Central Park and allow herself to be ‘mashed,’ and then tell all about it in THE WORLD , so that now none of the men dare wink at a girl while out driving, lest she be Nellie Bly .”

“Why, that’s a shame,” I replied, and we both laughed, I fear not altogether in pity of the men.

Nellie Bly’ s first article will appear in the January issue of GODEY’S. Be sure your subscription is sent in on time, to get this issue.

“Who is Nellie Bly?” Godey’s Lady’s Book, December, 1888
Transcription: Accessible Archives

Photo source: Julia Grant, Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Photo source: Nellie Bly, H. J. Myers, photographer (Library of Congress)

Not Quite First Lady – Rachel Jackson

Rachel Jackson c. 1830 by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (source)

Rachel Jackson c. 1830 by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (source)

The Presidential campaign of 1828 was brutal. Andrew Jackson felt that the election of 1824 had been stolen from him (he won the popular vote) and John Quincy Adams was defending his position as incumbent. Although it was considered undignified for the candidate to campaign, their supporters pulled out all the stops even attacking the wives. Louisa Catherine Adams was considered by many a foreigner who brought unwelcome influence to Washington, (she was born and raised in England, although her parents were Americans), but the worst criticism was reserved for Rachel Jackson. Called a whore, a bigamist, and an unsophisticated westerner (my goodness she smoked a pipe!), many considered her unqualified to inhabit the White House.

When Rachel Donelson was 12 years old, her family left Virginia to travel to the frontier of Tennessee. The trip was arduous and the situation with the Indians unsettled, but eventually they established themselves as one of the most prominent families in the area. They built a palisade which surrounded the family home and several cabins where boarders lived. This is where Rachel and Andrew met and fell in love. Rachel was a beautiful young woman and Andrew was tall and handsome with an instinct to protect women. Rachel may have seemed like she needed protecting – from her husband, her first husband.

A few years earlier, when the situation with the Indians was very dangerous, the family briefly moved to Kentucky. There Rachel met and married Lewis Robards. The Donelsons and Robards were of similar social standing and circumstances. Lewis was from a large family who welcomed and liked Rachel. It seemed like a good match. And it was for a while, but the vivacious and friendly nature of Rachel that attracted Lewis became a problem. She was raised with seven brothers and quite innocently enjoyed the company of men, but Lewis was of a jealous nature. By 1788, the situation had become unbearable and Rachel’s brother came to get her, bringing her home to her family in Tennessee. It is unsure whether Rachel intended the move to be permanent or not, but later in the year Lewis followed her to Nashville and moved in with her and her family.

Andrew Jackson c. 1824 by Thomas Sully (source)

Andrew Jackson c. 1824 by Thomas Sully (source)

It was during this time that Andrew Jackson moved to Nashville. Rachel and Andrew were attracted to each other, but there is no evidence that their relationship was inappropriate. However, Lewis couldn’t accept this; he forbid her to talk to Jackson and interrogated her about the few interactions they had. Finally, during the summer of 1789, Lewis made the mistake of telling other men that Jackson was too intimate with his wife. Lewis was not well-liked, but Jackson and the Donelson family were. Word got back to Jackson and he confronted Lewis and threatened to cut off his ears.

Rather than challenge Jackson to a duel, which he undoubtedly would have accepted, Lewis had a warrant issued against him. While traveling to see the magistrate, under armed guard, the looks that Jackson gave Lewis terrified him so much that he ran off. Of course the fact that the guards allowed Jackson to carry a knife and to chase after Lewis, may have had something to do with the fact that Lewis didn’t show up at the magistrate’s office. Without a complainant, the charges were dismissed. This was the last straw for Lewis, he left Tennessee and returned to Kentucky swearing to have nothing more to do with Rachel and her family.

By this time, Rachel and Andrew knew that they were in love and wanted to marry. While attitudes toward marriage and divorce were more relaxed in the west, including self-marriage and self-divorce determined by the families rather than a bureaucrat from across the mountains, the Donelsons liked to abide by the legal niceties when possible. This was particularly important with regard to property rights. Rachel’s father had died in 1885 and although his will had yet to be settled, anything that came to Rachel would legally belong to Lewis Robards.

Women had no legal right to divorce (at least none that would be acceptable to a southern judge), so the hope was that Lewis meant what he said and would file. In the meantime, the only option Rachel and Andrew had to live as husband and wife was to elope to an area beyond American Law. The closest place whether Andrew could hope to earn a living was Natchez (now in Mississippi) which was then still Spanish territory.  In the summer of 1789, Andrew began to establish connections there.

Approximate location of Natchez Trace between Nashville, TN and Natchez, MS (source)

Approximate location of Natchez Trace between Nashville, TN and Natchez, MS (source)

That fall, they heard rumors that Lewis was angry and preparing to come get Rachel and force her to return to Kentucky with him. He was within his legal rights to do so and Rachel and Andrew made a decision. In December of 1789, they boarded a flat boat and headed down the river. There is no documentary evidence that they married in Natchez, but there is evidence that they presented themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Jackson. They made connections with family friends and entertained, making no effort to hide who they were. Neither purchased land; presumably they rented with the intent of returning to Nashville when they could.

By July 1790, Lewis had not returned to Nashville and Rachel and Andrew decided to go home. The journey up Natchez Trace with an armed party was uneventful with one exception. One of their traveling companions knew Lewis Robards and later reported to him that Rachel and Andrew were living as husband and wife. This testimony was the tangible evidence he had been waiting for and he made a petition to the Virginia legislature for an action of divorce. This gave Lewis permission to sue Rachel for divorce in Kentucky supreme court. (Kentucky was still part of Virginia at the time.)

There were other requirements that had to be met: notice in the Kentucky Gazette, filing a writ in Kentucky, and taking depositions from witnesses. But, Lewis put off doing these things. Maybe because of anger toward Rachel or because of lingering hopes of receiving her inheritance, nevertheless, the divorce wasn’t finalized until three years later in September of 1793. The charge was adultery, but neither Rachel nor Andrew appeared in court. After all, they weren’t going to fight something they had been hoping for all along.

Rachel and Andrew had been living in Nashville as husband and wife since 1790, so they quietly married (remarried?) on January 17, 1794. They enjoyed their lives together and the events of the previous years receded into memory until the election of 1828.

In spite of the ugliness of the campaign, Jackson won the election by a landslide. Briefly, Rachel considered not going to Washington with Andrew, but they decided that that would be admitting they were wrong, which they didn’t believe. So Rachel prepared to become First Lady of the land. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. On December 22, 1828, Rachel Donelson Jackson died, leaving Andrew a deeply sad and embittered man. He would always blame those who attacked Rachel for her death. Two days later, Rachel was buried in the white satin gown she had planned to wear to the inaugural ball.

The tomb of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (source)

The tomb of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (source)

A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson by Patricia Brady
C-SPAN: First Ladies Influence and Image – Rachel Jackson

Florence Harding – Wild Child

Young Florence Harding

In 1920, when Warren G. Harding was running for President of the United States, he had secrets to hide, many secrets; and they all had female names. In fact, one of his mistresses is the only person, that we know of, to successfully blackmail a presidential nominee. But, he wasn’t the only one with a past that they wanted to keep hidden. His wife Florence had a few indiscretions of her own.

Florence Kling Harding was supposed to be a boy, at least in the mind of her father. When Amos Kling and his wife, Louisa, were expecting their first child, he told everyone around town in Marion, Ohio, that the child would be a boy. Aside from just wanting a boy, Amos owned a successful hardware store which required much of his time; a son could work along side him and eventually take over the business. So on August 15, 1860 when Florence Mabel, Flossie, was born, although Amos resented the fact that she wasn’t a boy, he had a practical solution. He would raise her as if she were a boy.

From the time Flossie could walk, Amos took her with him to the store. It became an environment that she would always be comfortable in, the sights, smells, sounds, and the company of men. As she grew, Amos trained her in the running of the store and his other businesses as they came about. By the time Flossie was a teenager, Amos had expanded into banking, real estate, and land/tenant management. He had also become a very wealthy man.

Florence with her horse Billy in Marion, OH

Florence with her horse Billy in Marion, OH

Florence’s education was extensive, including subjects not always studied by women such as math, rhetoric, logic, Greek, and Latin. She was also very active physically, running and playing with the neighborhood boys. Her favorite outdoor activity was horseback riding. Many of her Marian neighbors commented that she was the best horsewoman they had ever seen. (I suspect she was better than many of the men as well.)

All of this continued in spite of the fact that Florence had two younger brothers. Amos never switched his training to the boys. He was a tyrant in the home and it seems that Louisa and the two boys were more submissive, and thus less like Amos in personality than Florence. She was just as competitive and driven as he was and perhaps that’s why he seemed to favor her, but as is the case with many strong-willed children of overbearing parents, there came a time when Florence rebelled against Amos’ demands.

Florence also showed a talent for music. She spent hours practicing the piano, one time for eight hours, until her fingers bled. Music for the sake of art didn’t mean anything to Amos, but he was a firm believer that a woman should be able to provide for herself if necessary. For this reason, he allowed Florence to enroll at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, so that she would have a means to support herself by giving piano lessons. Her ambition, however, was to become a concert pianist.

Amos Kling

Amos Kling

Cincinnati was the country’s center of culture in the west and it opened up a new world to Florence. A world that she reveled in, a world with new people and experiences, but more importantly, a world of independence. After only a year, Amos called Florence home. Whether it was to take care of things at home while her mother was ill, as he said, or because he wanted to reign in his newly liberated daughter, I don’t know. But whatever the reason, he released a tiger that he couldn’t put back in the cage.

Amos tried to impose his own standards on Florence once again and their arguments were long and loud, sometimes lasting all night and heard in the street outside their home. More than once he locked her out of the house when she didn’t return before curfew. Sometimes she crawled into the window of her best friend Carrie Phillips, but other times who knows. Amos particularly disliked the fact that she was *gasp* hanging around the new roller rink in town.

Roller skating was a new fad that was sweeping the country. It gave young men and women a chance to socialize and listen to music, and if a few proprieties were breached well, you had to keep your balance, right? In fact the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1885 passed on a minister’s warning that roller skating rinks “corrupt the morals of all who associate with them.” As might be expected, it wasn’t long before Florence became interested in a young man, Henry De Wolfe, Pete to his friends. Amos was livid, which of course made Pete that much more attractive.

Couple roller skatingFor young women who feel trapped at home, there is one way of escape which has often been used, although it can sometimes have dire consequences. Florence had never expressed a desire to marry or have children and a family like her mother. She had been greatly inspired by Clara Baur, the unmarried founder of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music who was a proponent of careers for women. But at the end of 1879, she found herself in trouble. Trouble that could provide a way out of her father’s house.

Kathleen Lawler, Florence’s long-time assistant said that Florence became pregnant to get away from Amos. Florence herself didn’t admit it, but in her diary early in 1880, she makes a cryptic statement: “Vice often comes in at the door of necessity, not at the door of inclination.”

Pete was fun-loving and handsome, and he drank to excess. Just a year older than Florence, they grew up across the street from each other. Pete’s father, Simon, was one of the few men in town who wasn’t afraid of Amos Kling and there was no love lost between the two, so when Pete and Florence took up with each other people held their breath waiting for the explosion which was sure to occur. Neither family approved, but Simon was a different kind of man than Amos and when Pete told him that he had gotten Florence pregnant, Simon told him to take her up to “Columbus, and get married as soon as possible.” So in March 1880, Florence and Pete eloped to Columbus to get married. But, they didn’t.

Carl Anthony, Florence’s biographer, states in his book that there is no record of a marriage between a Kling and a DeWolfe for 10 years before or after 1880 in Franklin County (Columbus), Marion County, or in Crawford County, where they soon set up housekeeping. Florence may or may not have wanted it that way, but Amos had to believe that they were married to prevent him trying to force her back home. And it worked. Not only did Amos leave Florence to her “marriage”, he cut her off and refused to talk to her.

Life with Pete was difficult. They tried to run a roller skating rink, but failed, and Pete didn’t adjust well to the responsibility of a family. He would be gone for days at a time and finally, before their son Marshall was two years old, he deserted them. Florence had no choice except to return to Marion. A friend’s father was kind enough to allow her to stay at their house as she began to teach piano lessons, until she finally was able to raise enough to get a small apartment of her own.

Kling home in Marion, Ohio

Kling home in Marion, Ohio

Even though Florence’s marriage was from all appearances a common law marriage, she did finally get a divorce from Pete in 1886. At that time there was some communication between Amos and Florence and he offered to provide for Marshall. The conditions were that Marshall would live in the Kling home and take the Kling name. Florence agreed.

Amos may have hated losing control of Florence, and hated the choices she made, but he had given her the tools to make them. She was now on her own, independent, free of responsibility for anyone but herself, and she set out to start over. She also set her sights on the dashing young publisher of The Marion Star, Warren G. Harding.

Young Warren Harding

Warren Harding

First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama by Betty Caroli
Florence Harding: The First Lady, The Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller Jr.
The Library Company of Philadelphia: “Roller Skating Fun