Chester Alan Arthur's beloved "Nell" died of pneumonia on January 12, 1880. That November, when he was elected vice president, he was still mourning her bitterly. In his own words: "Honors to me now are not what they once were."
Ellen Herndon's family connections among distinguished Virginians had shaped her life. She was born in 1837 at Culpeper Court House, the only child of a naval commander. When her father was assigned to help establish the Naval Observatory, they moved to Washington, D. C. Ellen's beautiful contralto voice attracted attention. She joined the choir at St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square.
In 1856 a cousin introduced her to "Chet" Arthur, who was establishing a law practice in New York City. They were engaged in 1857. In a birthday letter that year, he wrote of "the soft, moonlight nights of June, a year ago ... happy, happy days at Saratoga--the golden, fleeting hours at Lake George." He wished he could hear her singing.
That same year, 1857, Ellens father died a hero's death at sea, going down with his ship in a gale off Cape Hatteras. The marriage did not take place until October 1859; and a son named for Commander Herndon died when only two. But another boy was born in 1864, and a girl, named for her mother, in 1871. Arthur's career was bringing the family an increasing prosperity. They decorated their home in the latest fashion and entertained prominent friends with elegance. At Christmas, there were jewels from Tiffany for Nell and the finest toys for the children.
Her sudden death came when she was only 42. Just two days before she had attended a benefit concert without him in New York City, and caught cold that night while waiting for her carriage. She was already unconscious when he reached her side.
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