Leticia Christian was born on a Tidewater Virginia plantation on November 12, 1790, to Mary and Colonel Robert Christian. Although she was not formally educated, Letitia learned all the skills of managing a plantation, overseeing enslaved people, rearing a family, and presiding over a home that would be John Tyler’s refuge during an active political life. They were married on March 29, 1813—his 23rd birthday. Thereafter, whether he served in Congress or as governor of Virginia, she attended to domestic duties and preferred to stay out of the spotlight. Only once did she join him for the winter social season in Washington. Leticia gave birth to eight children; seven survived to adulthood.
By 1841, Leticia suffered a paralytic stroke that confined her to a chair. Despite this, Leticia was able to still carry out many of her duties when her husband ascended to the presidency following the untimely death of President William Henry Harrison.
In a Second Floor room at the White House, Letitia Tyler kept her quiet but pivotal role in family activities. She did not attempt to take part in the social affairs of the administration. Her daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler, assumed the position of White House hostess, met its demands with spirit and success, and enjoyed it.
Daughter of a well-known tragedian, Priscilla had gone on the stage herself at 17. Playing Desdemona to her father’s Othello in Richmond, Virginia, she won the instant interest of Robert Tyler, whom she married in 1839. Intelligent and beautiful, she charmed the president’s guests—from visiting celebrities like Charles Dickens to enthusiastic countrymen. Once she noted ruefully: “such hearty shakes as they gave my poor little hand too!” She enjoyed the expert advice of Dolley Madison, and the companionship of her young sister-in-law Elizabeth until she married William N. Waller in 1842. For this wedding, Letitia made her only public appearance at a White House social function.
The first president’s wife to die in the White House, Letitia Tyler ended her days peacefully on September 10, 1842, holding a damask rose in her hand after suffering a stroke. She was taken to Virginia for burial at the plantation of her birth, deeply mourned by her family.
Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of the Tyler family.
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