Tyler, Letitia (1790–1842)

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Tyler, Letitia (1790–1842)

American first lady (1841–42), who, crippled by a stroke in 1838, had a brief tenure in the White House, secluded in an upstairs room. Born Letitia Christian on November 12, 1790, in New Kent County, Virginia; died on September 10, 1842, in Washington, D.C. (the first wife of a president to die while her husband was in office); third daughter and one of nine children of Robert Christian (a planter) and Mary (Brown) Christian; became first wife of John Tyler (president of the United States), on March 29, 1813, in New Kent County, Virginia; children—nine, seven of whom survived infancy: Mary Tyler (b. 1815); Robert Tyler (b. 1816, who would later earn distinction as an Alabama newspaper editor and political figure); John Tyler (b. 1819); Letitia Tyler Semple (b. 1821); Elizabeth Tyler (b. 1823); Alice Tyler (b.1827); Tazewell Tyler (b. 1830). All three sons served the Confederacy during the Civil War, as did a son-in-law and several grandchildren. John Tyler also married Julia Gardiner Tyler .

After John Tyler became vice president under William Harrison ("Old Tippecanoe and Tyler Too") in the Whig campaign of 1840, he made plans to carry out the duties of his office from his home in Williamsburg, Virginia, so he could be near his ailing wife Letitia. But he received news of Harrison's sudden death after only a month in office, and had no choice but to move his family into the White House.

Little is known of Letitia Tyler except that she was devoted to her husband and children and appeared to find fulfillment in a life of simple domesticity. Described as a sweet-tempered Southern belle, she was born in 1790 and raised on a prosperous Virginia plantation with eight brothers and sisters. Her first encounter with John Tyler, at a neighborhood party, began a courtship that lasted for nearly five years. Although he wooed her with a shower of love letters and poetry, she is said to have allowed him only one kiss—on the hand—just three weeks shy of their wedding day. The pair married on March 29, 1813, after John had established his law practice.

Letitia gave birth to nine children over the course of the marriage, losing two in infancy. She was a dedicated mother, "content to sit gently by her child's cradle, reading, knitting or sewing." Although most of the tasks of the large household were carried out by family slaves, Letitia handled all the financial matters and attended to her beloved garden. As her husband's political career advanced, first in the Senate and then as governor of Virginia, Letitia remained in the background, appearing socially only when necessary. A crippling stroke in 1838, when she was 48, confined her to a wheelchair.

Semple, Letitia Tyler (1821–1907)

White House hostess. Name variations: Letty Tyler. Born Letitia Tyler in 1821; died in 1907; fourth of nine children of John Tyler (president of the United States) and Letitia Tyler (1790–1842); married James Semple, in 1839; no children.

Little is known about the life of Letitia Tyler Semple, the fourth of nine children of John Tyler and his first wife Letitia Tyler . During 1841 and 1842, she stood in for her invalid mother as White House hostess, along with her sister-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler . Letitia had married James Semple in 1839, but had no children. Following her father's remarriage, she was resentful of her stepmother Julia Gardiner Tyler (who was only one year her senior) and did not reconcile with her father for many years. She died in 1907 at the age of 89.

Letitia lived the last few years of her life in seclusion in the White House, appearing publicly only once, at the wedding of her daughter Elizabeth Tyler in January 1842. Social duties were assumed by her daughter-in-law, Priscilla Cooper Tyler , and her daughter Letitia Tyler Semple . She succumbed to complications of her stroke in September 1842, the first wife of a president to die during her husband's term of office. She was buried at her childhood home of Cedar Grove, Virginia.


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

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

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

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Tyler, Letitia (1790–1842)

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