Garfield, Lucretia (1832–1918)

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Garfield, Lucretia (1832–1918)

American first lady whose work to restore the White House with historical accuracy was cut short by her husband's assassination. Name variations: (nickname) Crete. Born Lucretia Rudolph on April 19, 1832, in Garretsville, Ohio; died on March 13, 1918, in South Pasadena, California; daughter of Arabella Green (Mason) Rudolph and Zebulon Rudolph (a founder of Hiram College); attended Geauga Seminary and Hiram College; married James Abram Garfield (1831–1881, later president of the United States), on November 11, 1858, in Hiram, Ohio; children: Eliza (1860–1863); Harry Augustus Garfield (1863–1942, president of Williams College and fuel administrator during World War I); James Rudolph Garfield (1865–1950, secretary of the Interior under Theodore Roosevelt); Mary Garfield (1867–1947); Irvin McDowell Garfield (1870–1951); Abram Garfield (1872–1958); Edward (1874–1876).

Lucretia Garfield's 200 days as first lady were beset by tragedy. Three months after her arrival in the White House, she was stricken with malaria and what was then called nervous exhaustion. On July 2, 1881, while recuperating at her summer home in Elberon, New Jersey, she received the news that her husband had been gunned down at the Washington train depot by a disappointed office seeker, Charles J. Guiteau. Still weak from her own ordeal, she rushed to Garfield's bedside, where she and her children kept vigil until he died of his wounds on September 19, 1881.

It was at Hiram College, founded by Lucretia's parents and other member of the Disciples of Christ Church, that Lucretia, known as Crete, began a long and troubled courtship with the handsome and dashing James Garfield. Early in the relationship, he transferred to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he was enormously popular, especially with women. He had doubts about continuing his dutiful relationship with Lucretia, whom he found intelligent and capable, but dull. He was also troubled by her progressive views on women's rights and some of

her "notions concerning the relation between the sexes." The couple finally married in 1858, but doubts persisted right up to the ceremony. Lucretia, now 26 and earning her own money as a teacher, worried about losing her autonomy in "submission to that destiny which will make me the wife of one who marries me." James worried about his lack of passion for his new wife.

During the early years of the marriage, Lucretia kept her teaching job and lived largely on her own. Garfield was away most of the time, serving in the Union army and campaigning for election to the state legislature. After four years, the couple had spent only about five months together, and rumors circulated about another woman; Lucretia and James both agreed that their marriage was in trouble. It was at this time, however, that the relationship began to find direction, possibly due to the death of their first daughter in 1863. James resolved that he would not travel again without his wife, and gradually the two established a nurturing companionship, dividing their time between houses in Ohio and Washington. Another son died in 1876, but five children prospered. On her 42nd birthday, James thanked Lucretia for "being born and being his wife," and from then on they referred to their early relationship as the "years of darkness."

Lucretia was a private person and did not socialize easily. For a time, James Garfield became somewhat isolated as well. Forays into the Washington social scene were not always successful. One guest remarked after dining with the Garfields and some of their friends: "Very good people I am sure they are, but a plainer, stiffer set of village people I never met."

At the 1880 convention, in an effort to break the bitter deadlock between the Stalwarts backing Grant's third-term bid and the reform forces, the Republicans named Garfield as their candidate for president. Lucretia took pride in his eventual win and found the inauguration "the greatest spectacle she had ever seen." Her short tenure as first lady revolved around plans to restore the White House to historical accuracy. She undertook long hours of research in the Library of Congress, leaving little time for entertaining. Her work, which was greatly admired in Washington circles, was cut short by her illness in May 1881.

Lucretia survived her husband by 36 years. A widow's pension of $5,000 and a special subscription fund created by Cyrus W. Field, which raised $300,000, allowed her to live comfortably with her children in Mentor, Ohio. Devoted to her husband's memory, she meticulously supervised the preservation of his papers and left the letters revealing the troubled years of her marriage intact. It was not until 40 years after her own death that her family finally allowed them to be placed in the presidential collection.


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Melick, Arden David. Wives of the Presidents. Maplewood, NJ: Hammond, Inc., 1977.

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

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts