A number of presidents and their families have suffered the unthinkable during their time in the White House…the loss of a child. The Adams, Lincoln, Coolidge, and Kennedy families all suffered the loss of a child while in office; the Pierce family lost their last surviving child while en route to Washington to attend Franklin Pierce’s inauguration. John Adams’ grown son Charles died of alcoholism in 1800, shortly after the president lost his reelection bid. Thomas Jefferson’s grown daughter Mary died in 1804, three months after giving birth to her third child. Franklin Pierce lost all three of his sons at an early age. Eleven-year-old Benny, his only surviving child, was killed in a train accident in January 1853, two months before Pierce’s inauguration. Abraham Lincoln lost his son William “Willie” in 1862 in the middle of the Civil War. John F Kennedy lost his son, Patrick two days after he was born on August 7, 1963.
While it is always horrible when a child dies, whether the parents are famous or not, I find the death of Calvin Coolidge’s son to be among the saddest. While the deaths of these other presidents’ children are sad, little could have been done to change those losses. Calvin Coolidge had two sons, John (the oldest) and Calvin Jr. The boys spent the school year at boarding school, but they spent breaks from boarding school at the White House after he became president in 1923. The oldest son, John was born on September 7, 1906, and Calvin Jr was born on April 13, 1908.
On June 30, 1924, John and Calvin Jr were playing tennis on the courts at the White House. It was a hot summer day…the 91° heat was sweltering. The boys felt that it was too hot for socks, and during the game, Calvin Jr got a blood blister on one of his toes. Within a few days, Calvin Jr was not feeling well. He was diagnosed with blood poisoning…specifically a staphylococcus infection that, at the time, was usually treated with mercury. I’m no doctor, and many advances in the prevention and treatment of infections have been made over the years. One of the best ways to prevent a staphylococcus infection is proper hygiene…proper, frequent handwashing, and hygiene…or in this case, washing the toe several times a day. The feet are often a breeding ground for bacteria, because they are constantly in a hot, sweaty shoe.
By July 2, Calvin Jr was limping, running a fever, and had swollen glands in his groin. The blister on his third toe darkened, swelled to the size of a thumbnail, and red lines streaked his legs. This was in the days before antibiotics, and Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was still four years off. In the words of the attending presidential physician, Calvin Jr was “in trouble.” As Calvin Jr battled sepsis for a week, his father battled despair and really pure panic. It was the kind of agony that only a parent who has lost a child can really understand. Calvin Sr tried to trust that his son was getting “all that medical science” could offer and tried to keep up hope that “he may be better in a few days,” but Calvin Jr passed away at Walter Reed Army General Hospital on July 7, 1924.
President Coolidge and his wife, Grace, were at Calvin Jr’s bedside when he passed, and according to observers, the president’s face resembled “the bleak desolation of cold November rain beating on gray Vermont granite.” Their hearts were broken, and the President often wept, looking out his window where Calvin Jr once played tennis. It was his thought that if he hadn’t been president, his son would have been with them still. He said, “We do not know what would have happened to him under other circumstances, but if I had not been President, he would not have raised a blister on his toe, which resulted in blood poisoning, playing lawn tennis on the South Grounds.”
Starting to live life again after such a horrific loss is never easy, and many people really never make that return to life. Trying to grieve the loss of a child in such a public setting would be excruciating, and I can’t imagine being forced to live that way. Nevertheless, while much of the wind went out of their sails, the Coolidge family did go forward, as their son would have wanted them to. It’s what a family does. John married and had two daughters…Cynthia and Lydia. The daughters gave President two grandsons and a granddaughter. I think Calvin Jr would be pleased to know that they went forward to live a good life.