There was little resemblance between the petulant invalid who came to the White House with William McKinley in March 1897 and vivacious young woman he had married 26 years before. Now her face was drawn and her eyes glazed with pain or dulled with sedative. Only one thing had remained the same: a love that had brightened early years of happiness and endured through more than two decades of illness.
Ida Saxton was born in Canton, Ohio, in 1847, elder daughter of a socially prominent and well-to-do family. Her father, a banker, indulged his two daughters. He educated them in local schools and a finishing school, and then sent them to Europe on the grand tour.
Being pretty, fashionable and a leader of the younger set in Canton did not satisfy Ida, so her broad-minded father suggested that she work in his bank. As a cashier she caught the attention of Major William McKinley. They fell deeply in love and married in January 1871. While her husband rose in his profession, Ida devoted her time to home. That first Christmas, a daughter, Katherine, was born; then another girl came in April 1873. The frail baby died within six months. Phlebitis and epileptic seizures shattered Ida’s health. Even before little Katie died in 1876, Mrs. McKinley was a confirmed invalid.
Although politically active, William McKinley was never far from her side. He arranged their life to suit her convenience. Ida spent most of her waking hours in a small Victorian rocking chair that she had had since childhood. She sat doing fancywork and crocheting bedroom slippers while she waited for her husband, who indulged her every whim.
Once at the White House, Ida received guests at formal receptions seated in a blue velvet chair. She held a fragrant bouquet to suggest that she would not shake hands. Contrary to protocol, she was seated beside the president at state dinners as he kept close watch for signs of an impending seizure. If necessary, he would cover her face with a handkerchief for a moment. The first lady and her devoted husband seemed oblivious to any social inadequacy. Guests were discreet and newspapers silent on the subject of her "fainting spells." Only in recent years have the facts of her health been revealed.
When President McKinley was shot by an assassin in September 1901, he thought primarily of her. He murmured to his secretary: "My wife - be careful…how you tell her - oh, be careful." After his death she lived in Canton, cared for by her younger sister, visiting her husband's grave almost daily. She died in 1907, and lies entombed beside the president and near their two little daughters in Canton's McKinley Memorial Mausoleum.