Arthur, Ellen Herndon (1837–1880)

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Arthur, Ellen Herndon (1837–1880)

American philanthropist who died before her husband Chester Arthur took office as president. Born Ellen Lewis Herndon on August 30, 1837, in Culpeper, Virginia; died January 12, 1880, in New York, New York; only child of Frances Elizabeth (Hansbrough) Herndon and William Lewis Herndon (an explorer of the Amazon); married Chester Alan Arthur, on October 25, 1859, in New York, New York; children: William Lewis Herndon (b. 1860, lived only three years); Chester Alan, Jr. (b. 1864); Ellen Arthur (b. 1871).

When Chester Alan Arthur assumed the presidency after the assassination of James Garfield in 1881, he was still mourning the death of his wife Ellen a year earlier. Many grieved with him. A gifted singer, Ellen had lent her talent to countless charities, and her philanthropic efforts were well known and admired.

Ellen Herndon Arthur grew up in an aristocratic Virginia family and was educated in private schools and by tutors. Her father, William Lewis Herndon, was an explorer and naval hero. In 1857, he went down with his ship, the Central American. After his death, Ellen and her mother Frances Hansbrough Herndon took up residence in a New York City townhouse that was given to them as part of a tribute to her father (a monument was also erected at Annapolis Naval Academy). In New York, she met and fell in love with Chester Arthur, then a young lawyer. Two months after her 20th birthday, they were married and made their home with Ellen's mother. A son, William, was born in 1860.

At the onset of the Civil War, Arthur was appointed to the governor's military staff and by 1862 was named brigadier general and quartermaster of New York. With a promising political future in the Republican Party, Arthur moved his family to a new home on Lexington Avenue.

But the following year brought turmoil. When a Democrat took over as governor, Arthur's commission was revoked, and he was forced to return to his law practice. The family was further shaken by the death of three-year-old William from a brain ailment. Ellen managed her grief by keeping busy with her music and charity work. Possessing a beautiful contralto voice, she sang at church and joined the Mendelssohn Glee Club. Before long, she was much in demand as a soloist at charitable events. Two more children, Chester Alan, Jr., and Ellen, were born, and she greatly enjoyed spoiling them.

With an appointment under President Ulysses Grant as collector of the Port of New York, Chester Arthur's political career got back on track, but there is some indication that Ellen resented the time her husband spent away from home with his political cronies. Rumors circulated about a separation. In January 1880, Ellen caught cold waiting for her carriage in the bitter winter air after a benefit concert. By the time Arthur could return from a trip to Albany, pneumonia had set in and she was unconscious. Ellen died three days later, January 12, at the age of 42. Later, when questioned about the separation rumors, Arthur is said to have replied, "I may be President of the United States, but my personal life is my own damned business."

It is reported that during his presidency, Arthur placed a fresh bouquet beside Ellen's photograph each day. He also dedicated a stained-glass window to her in St. John's Church in Washington. With his daughter too young to take on any of the duties of first lady, the president enlisted his younger sister, Mary Arthur McElroy , to act as official hostess. Chester Arthur never remarried.


Melick, Arden David. Wives of the Presidents. Maple-wood, NJ: Hammond, 1977.

Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

McElroy, Mary Arthur (?–1916)

White House hostess. Born Mary Arthur; died in 1916; daughter of William Arthur (a Baptist cleric); grew up in Fairfield, Vermont; sister of Chester Alan Arthur; schooled at Emma Willard 's Seminary; married John Edward McElroy (an insurance man), in 1861.

After the death of President Chester Arthur's wife Ellen , Mary Arthur McElroy became the official White House host. Traveling from Albany to Washington during the social season, she supervised the running of the White House and entertained, often bringing her two daughters with her. At the end of his term, Arthur and his children moved into her home, and he died there in 1886. Mary continued to raise her brother's children. She died in 1916.