Pierce, Jane Means (1806–1863)

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Pierce, Jane Means (1806–1863)

American first lady from 1853 to 1857 who never functioned in that capacity due to the loss of her third son in a train accident just weeks before her husband's inauguration. Name variations: Mrs. Franklin Pierce; Jeanie Pierce. Born Jane Means Appleton on March 12, 1806, in Hampton, New Hampshire; diedon December 2, 1863, in Andover, Massachusetts; daughter of Elizabeth (Means) Appleton and Rev. Jesse Appleton (president of Bowdoin College); married Franklin Pierce (president of the United States, 1853–1857), on November 19, 1834, in Amherst, New Hampshire; children: Franklin, Jr. (died three days after birth); Frank Robert (1840–1844); Benjamin (1841–1853).

On January 6, 1853, Jane and Franklin Pierce witnessed the death of their 11-year old son Benjamin, when a train in which the family was traveling suddenly derailed. For Jane Pierce, ill with consumption and anguished by the previous loss of two other sons, this was the final blow. When her husband was inaugurated as president two months later, she was too weak with grief to accompany him to Washington.

Shy and delicate, "Jeanie" Appleton was born in Hampton, New Hampshire, in 1806, the daughter of Elizabeth Means Appleton and Jesse Appleton, a Calvinist minister and president of Bowdoin College. Jane grew up in a deeply religious New England environment, under the watchful eye of her father. Well educated but frail, she was deprived of exercise and fresh air because the reverend felt that these were inappropriate for girls. He died when Jane was 13, and the family moved to Elizabeth's family home in Amherst, New Hampshire. It was there, in 1826, that Jane met Franklin Pierce, a young law student. Although his devotion to her was clear, she and her family strongly disapproved of his drinking and his political ambitions. The couple did not marry until 1834, when Jane was 28. Dressed in the traveling clothes and bonnet she had been wed in, she and Franklin left immediately for Washington, where he would be installed as a newly elected U.S. congressional representative.

Franklin soon advanced to the Senate, but Jane hated Washington and spent as little time there as possible. The climate aggravated her fragile health, and the lavish evening parties went against her religious beliefs. Jane's absence and disapproval did not diminish her husband's political aspirations, but the death of their three-dayold son and the arrival of two others, Frank in 1840 and Benjamin in 1841, did. Concerned for his wife, Franklin left the Senate in 1842, at the height of his career, and retired to Concord, New Hampshire. When son Frank died of typhus two years later, Jane's spirit was further shattered. Franklin turned down President James K. Polk's offer of an appointment as attorney general because of Jane's ill health. Despite her protests, however, a restless Franklin enlisted in the Mexican War, returning in 1848, a general and a local hero.

The next four years were possibly the happiest in Jane's life. Her husband was home and their third son, Benjamin, was thriving. When Franklin was chosen as the presidential candidate of the Northern Democrats in 1852, Jane was so distressed that she is said to have fainted at the news. Young Benjamin evidently shared his mother's disdain for politics. He reportedly said to her, "I hope he won't be elected, for I should not like to be at Washington and I know you would not either."

When Jane was finally able to join her husband in the White House after the death of Benjamin, she spent most of her time in her bedroom, writing letters to her deceased son. Formal entertaining was presided over by her aunt Abby Kent Means , or by Varina Howell Davis , second wife of the secretary of war. When Jane did appear, "her woebegone face, with its sunken dark eyes and skin like yellowed ivory, banished all animation in others." She became known as the "shadow in the White House."

While the slavery issue continued to polarize the nation, Franklin ended his political career by signing the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, opening the door for the election of James Buchanan in 1856. Leaving Washington, the Pierces toured Europe, but Jane longed for home. In later years, her depression increased and her health declined further. She died of tuberculosis at age 57, and was buried with her sons at Old North Cemetery in Concord, New Hampshire.


Healy, Diana Dixon. America's First Ladies: Private Lives of the Presidential Wives. NY: Atheneum, 1988.

Klapthor, Margaret Brown. The First Ladies. Washington, DC: The White House Historical Association, 1979.

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

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