Presidential Mothers: Harrison, McKinley come from large families

Published 1:12 pm Saturday, March 11, 2023

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By Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

Elizabeth Ramsey Irwin Harrison was born on July 18, 1810, in Mercerburg, Franklin County, Pa. Her parents were Mary Ramsey Irwin and Archibald Irwin.

In 1831, when Elizabeth was 21, she married John Scott Harrison, the representative from Ohio in the United States House. John Scott was the son of William Henry Harrison, the man who was the President of the United States for a short period of time.

During the 29 years the Harrisons were married, they had many children.  The number varies in different sources.  One says the Harrisons were the parents of nine sons and five daughters; another says they were the parents of 10 children. So we can only safely say that Elizabeth and John Scott Harrison had a big family even though the exact number seems to be a question.

Some of the children died as infants so the number may vary because some of the researchers may not have counted the children that died as infants.  Other researchers actually listed each child with the date of birth, death, and name.

Little is known about Elizabeth Irwin Harrison except that she was a busy mother. Benjamin Harrison was one of her older children. He was born in 1833, two years after his parents were married. Mrs. Harrison died when she was 40.  She died in 1850, and was buried in Congress Green Cemetery in North Bend, Ohio. She died 39 years before her son became the 23rd President. It is sad that the dear lady, who was the mother of so many children, did not live to see her son achieve the highest office in our country.

President Benjamin Harrison died on March 13, 1901, and was buried in Indianapolis, Ind., about 100 miles from the grave of his mother in North Bend, Ohio.

Grover Cleveland served a second term after Benjamin Harrison. Since he served one term before Benjamin Harrison and there was an article about his mother included in this series before the one about Elizabeth Harrison another one will not be included.

Nancy Allison McKinley, who was born on April 22, 1809, was of Scotch-German decent. Her parents were Abner Allison and Ann Campbell Allison.  On Jan. 5, 1829, Nancy married William McKinley, whose ancestors came from England.

Nancy McKinley was described as a robust lady.  That must have been a correct description because she not only was she the mother of nine children, but she is also described as being active in her community. She was the person who was there to help when a new baby was born at the home of a neighbor; she was one who would help the sick friend; and she was the person who would keep a visiting preacher or would clean the church.  She also did much of that without the help of her husband, who was gone a great deal of the time on business trips. She must have been a capable lady to care for her family and to be so active in her community.  It is said that she did it all without complaining.

Nancy McKinley always did what she thought was best for her children.  She was said to be a devoted and stern mother.  When asked if she raised her son to be president, she said that she did not believe that she raised the boy to be president, but she tried to bring him up to be a good man.  That would be a lofty goal for any mother and Mrs. McKinley seemed to have been successful because William McKinley did seem to be a good man.  He gained the approval of many of the American people before he was struck down in such an untimely manner by an assassin.

The kind way that Mr. McKinley treated his wife, who was almost an invalid, won the hearts of many people.  Mrs. McKinley had seizures. When McKinley was president, he always insisted that his wife be seated beside him at White House dinners.  If she had a seizure, he simply covered her face with a large napkin until the seizure subsided, and, then, he removed the napkin and continued as if nothing had happened.   

Through the years, the McKinleys lived in places where Mr. McKinley could come out of his office, look up at a distant window, see his wife, and wave. He did that every day at three o’clock each afternoon no matter what he was doing.  If he was in a meeting, he stopped briefly and carried out that little ritual. The respect that the 25th President showed for his wife and others endeared him to many people.

The son of William and Nancy Allison McKinley was inaugurated as President of the United States in 1897 when his mother was 88.  Nancy McKinley attended the inauguration of her son, but she only lived nine months after he became president.   Nancy was a patriotic lady so she was no doubt very proud that the son that she raised to be a good man had become President.  What greater honor could a mother receive?

Nancy Allison McKinley is buried at the West Lawn Cemetery in Canton, Ohio, the same town where her son is buried but not in the same place. President McKinley is not buried at West Lawn but in the huge McKinley Memorial.