On this day in 1853, a train carrying President-elect Franklin Pierce, his wife Jane and their son Benjamin derailed and toppled off an embankment near Andover, MA. Franklin and Jane suffered minor injuries, but 11-year-old Bennie was killed in the accident.
The train had been carrying the New Hampshirite Pierces to Washington for the inauguration and the death of his last son would have him enter the White House on March 4 grief-stricken and nervously exhausted. Their first son, Franklin Pierce, Jr. died at birth and their second, Frank Robert Pierce, died when he was four years from epidemic typhus.
Jane would write letters to her son throughout her time in the White House. The excerpt from this heart-breaking letter housed with President Pierce’s papers in the New Hampshire Historical Society is one of many that she wrote.
“oh had you but been within reach of your dear father – in a moment changed my dear boy bright form into a lifeless one insensible to your parents’ agony – But you spirit yourself, my dear one – was not your redeeming savior ready to receive you? Your sweet little brother? Your dear Uncle Lawrence? – but you are beyond my knowledge at once – Ah, I trust in joy, but I would fain have kept you here – I know not how to go on without you – you were my comfort dear – far more than you thought.”
It’s impossible to imagine how President Pierce even coped with this tragedy or how it may have truly impacted his presidency, but two changes are apparent. First, he became the only U.S. president to choose to affirm the oath of office rather than swear. A 1985 New York Times letter to the editor by Thomas Vinciguerra states that President Pierce did this because he believed that the death of his son was punishment for his sins and did not use a Bible for the inauguration.
The second is that in 1856, President Pierce became the first president to have a decorated Christmas tree placed in the White House in an attempt to cheer up Jane who was still mourning the death of Bennie. The tradition has remained uninterrupted to this day.