Tragic Events in the Lives of US Presidents and Their Families

Tragic Events in the Lives of US Presidents and Their Families

Most of us have been affected, at some point in our lives, by the loss of someone close to us. Being famous or holding a prominent position doesn’t make the pain any less severe – and through our nation’s history, a number of presidents have suffered such losses.

To compile a list of tragic events in the lives of U.S. presidents and their families, 24/7 drew on sources such as History, Britannica, PBS.org, NPR.org, the Miller Center (a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history), and various presidential websites.

Most of the tragedies in the lives of the nation’s first families involve the passing of young children – many before they learned to walk. Families of 19th-century presidents Thomas Jefferson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Abraham Lincoln all had numerous children, and all saw some of them die from conditions such as tuberculosis, typhus, and cholera. (Can you solve these real “Jeopardy!” clues about U.S. presidents?)

Franklin Pierce, the nation’s 14th president, lost all three of his boys. The last of them, Benjamin, was killed in a train accident on the way to his father’s inauguration with his parents.  

Some of the wives of presidents passed away before their husbands got to the White House. Martha Jefferson died in 1782, 19 years before Thomas Jefferson took office. Hannah Van Buren, the wife of the country’s eighth president, died from tuberculosis in 1819, 18 years before husband Martin Van Buren won the presidency. Theodore Roosevelt lost his first wife, Alice, in 1884, the same day his mother passed away, and 17 years before he ascended to the White House.

Fate dealt a cruel hand to the four presidents later felled by assassin’s bullets. Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy all lost children before or during their time as president. (Read the stories behind the deaths of 39 American presidents.)

Source: TonyBaggett / iStock via Getty Images

George Washington
> Family member(s): Mildred and Augustine Washington
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1740, 1743

The hero of the American Revolution and the nation’s first president suffered misfortune as a child. His sister, Mildred, died when she was 18 months old. Washington’s father, Augustine, passed away when he was 11 years old from a sudden illness.

Source: National Archives / Getty Images

Thomas Jefferson
> Family member(s): Martha Jefferson
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1782

Jefferson’s wife, Martha, died at age 33 following complications from childbirth. Four of the couple’s six children died before adulthood. (Jefferson also fathered children – probably six of them – with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman in his household; four survived into adulthood.)

Source: tonythemisfit / Flickr

James Monroe
> Family member(s): James Spence Monroe
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1800

James Spence Monroe, the son of the nation’s fifth president, was born in 1799 and died 16 months later in 1800. His two daughters, Maria and Eliza, grew up and married.

Source: cassowaryprods / Flickr

John Quincy Adams
> Family member(s): George Washington Adams and John Adams II
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1829, 1834

Alcoholism was a scourge in the Adams family, and it impacted the life of our nation’s sixth president. George Washington Adams and John Adams II, two of John Quincy Adams’ sons, both died from alcoholism. George apparently committed suicide by jumping overboard after becoming delusional while drunk on a ship.

Source: National Archives / Newsmakers

Martin Van Buren
> Family member(s): Winfield Scott and Hannah Van Buren
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1814, 1819

America’s only Dutch-speaking president suffered heartbreak when his son Winfield Scott died in infancy in 1814. Hannah Van Buren, the wife of the country’s eighth president, died from tuberculosis five years later.

Source: aiva / Flickr

William Henry Harrison
> Family member(s): Six children
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1817-1840

War hero William Henry Harrison was haunted by family tragedy. Of the 10 children born to William Henry and Anna Harrison, just four lived to see him become president. Only two lived past 40. Harrison’s children died in 1817, 1826, 1830, 1838, 1839, and 1840. Harrison himself died in 1841, just 31 days into his presidency – the shortest in American history.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Zachary Taylor
> Family member(s): Octavia and Margaret Pierce and Sarah Davis
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1820, 1835

Two of Taylor’s five daughters, Octavia and Margaret, died as young children in 1820 from fever. Another daughter, Sarah, who married future Confederacy president Jefferson Davis, died from cholera two months after her wedding in 1835.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Franklin Pierce
> Family member(s): Franklin Jr., Frank Robert, and Benjamin Pierce
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1836, 1843, 1853

Franklin Pierce Jr., son of the future president died in infancy. Another son, Frank Robert, died from typhus. A third, Benjamin, known as Benny, was killed at the age of 11 in a train accident while traveling with his parents on the way to his father’s inauguration.

Source: gldahl43 / Flickr

Abraham Lincoln
> Family member(s): Edward, Willie, Tad, and Mary Lincoln
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1850, 1862, 1871,1875

Edward, second son of future president Abraham Lincoln, died from tuberculosis at age 3. His health was poor from the time he was born. Willie, his third son, died 10 months later, aged 11, from typhoid fever. Tad, his fourth son, made it to 18 before dying of what may have been tuberculosis or pneumonia about six years after his father’s assassination. Mary, the former first lady, descended into madness after the deaths of her husband and fourth son.

Source: ooocha / Flickr

Andrew Johnson
> Family member(s): Charles, Robert, and Andrew Johnson Jr.
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1863, 1869, 1879

The first president to be impeached suffered a series of family tragedies. Johnson’s son Charles died in 1863 from injuries sustained after he was thrown from a horse while serving in the Union Army as an assistant surgeon. Son Robert killed himself after a long battle with alcoholism; his brother Andrew Jr., known as Frank, was also an alcoholic, and died from tuberculosis.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Rutherford B. Hayes
> Family member(s): Joseph, George, Manning Hayes
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1863, 1866, 1874

Three of the eight children that the nation’s 19th president fathered died – his fourth, fifth, and seventh sons – all died at the age of 1.

Source: iip-photo-archive / Flickr

James A. Garfield
> Family member(s): Eliza Arabella, Edward “Neddie” Garfield
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1863, 1874

James A. Garfield and his wife Lucretia had seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Eliza Arabella, the first child, died from diphtheria. Edward, known as “Neddie,” passed away from whooping cough. More tragedy was to follow: Garfield became the second president to be assassinated while in office (after Lincoln), serving only six months as president.

Source: iip-photo-archive / Flickr

Grover Cleveland
> Family member(s): Ruth Cleveland
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1904

Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office, lost his eldest daughter Ruth, who contracted diphtheria and died at the age of 12.

Source: politicalgraveyard / Flickr

William McKinley
> Family member(s): Ida and Katherine McKinley
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1875

Ida, the infant daughter of future president William McKinley, died at just 4 months old. Her mother, also named Ida, believed the loss was some sort of punishment and worried that something bad would happen to her other daughter Katie. Indeed, Katie contracted typhoid fever and passed also in 1875, confirming Ida’s worst fears. McKinley himself would fall victim to an assassin’s bullet in 1901, the third president to be slain.

Source: Hulton Archive / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Theodore Roosevelt
> Family member(s): Mitte, Alice Lee Roosevelt and Quentin
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1884, 1918

Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt, mother of future president Theodore Roosevelt, died from typhoid fever in 1884. Hours later, his first wife, Alice, of from a kidney ailment. Quentin, Roosevelt’s fourth son, was killed in aerial combat in World War I.

Source: Library of Congress / Archive Photos via Getty Images

Calvin Coolidge
> Family member(s): Calvin Coolidge Jr.
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1924

Calvin Coolidge Jr. died from sepsis caused by an infection in his toe after playing tennis. His father, whom many thought was cool and aloof, was consumed by anguish and the loss diminished his presidency, which he had assumed following the sudden death of Warren G. Harding in 1923. He chose not to seek another term in office in 1928.

Source: FPG / Archive Photos via Getty Images

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
> Family member(s): Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr.
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1909

The second son and namesake of the nation’s future 33rd president died from a heart ailment after just seven months of life. Another son, born in 1914, was given the same name.

Source: Express Newspapers / Hulton Royals Collection via Getty Images

Dwight D. Eisenhower
> Family member(s): Doud Dwight Eisenhower
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1921

The commander of the Western Allied forces in World War II and the 34th president lost his son Doud in 1921 at the age of 3 from scarlet fever. The child died in his arms. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, would send flowers and notes to each other on the child’s birthday for years afterward.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

John F. Kennedy
> Family member(s): Patrick and John F. Kennedy Jr.
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1963, 1999

The month before Kennedy, the youngest man elected as president of the United States, was assassinated, he and his wife, Jacqueline, lost their fourth child, Patrick, two days after his birth. The child suffered from a lung condition called hyaline membrane disease. Thirty-six years after the assassination of his father, John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed in a plane crash.

Source: Keystone / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Richard M. Nixon
> Family member(s): Arthur and Harold Nixon
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1925, 1933

Richard M. Nixon, the only president who has ever resigned from office, lost his brother Arthur to tubercular encephalitis (age 7), and his brother Harold from tuberculosis (age 24).

Source: John Moore / Getty Images News via Getty Images

George H.W. Bush
> Family member(s): Pauline “Robin” Bush
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1953

Pauline Robinson Bush, called Robin, the oldest daughter of the president George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, and the second of their five children, died of leukemia at age 3.

Source: Alex Wong / Getty Images News via Getty Images

Barack Obama
> Family member(s): Barack Obama Sr.
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1982

Barack Obama Sr., who had held jobs in the banking and finance industries in Kenya, died from injuries sustained in a car accident in Kenya.

Source: iip-photo-archive / Flickr

Donald J. Trump
> Family member(s): Fred Trump Jr.
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1981

Fred Trump Jr. was the older brother of businessman and future president Donald J. Trump. He died from a heart attack at age 42 after battling alcoholism much of his life. His brother’s alcoholism is one of the reasons why Donald Trump does not drink liquor.

Source: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News via Getty Images

Joe Biden
> Family member(s): Neilia, Naomi, and Beau Biden
> Year(s) of tragedy: 1972, 2015

Shortly after he was elected as a U.S. senator from Delaware in 1972, Joe Biden suffered tragedy when a car accident killed his wife, Neilia, and 13-month-old daughter, Naomi. More sorrow was to follow when brain cancer killed his adult son Beau in 2015 while Biden was vice-president.

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