At 48 years old, retired senator Franklin Pierce won the U.S. general election of 1852 by a landslide. The glad-handling lawyer from New Hampshire was the youngest elected commander-in-chief in history at the time, but, two months before his inauguration (it used to be in March), the nation’s 14th president-elect suffered a tragedy that sent his family into a permanent depression. Franklin and his wife, Jane, watched their son die.
This was not the first time that the couple experienced death in the immediate family. (Or death in general—after five years in the U.S. Senate, Pierce served as a brigadier general in the Mexican-American War.) Franklin and Jane had three sons, two of which died of typhoid—in 1836 and 1843, respectively—before either reached their first birthday. However their third child, Benny, made it well past infancy. He was 11-and-a-half years old when he watched his Democrat father slay on election day in November, 1852.
Those happy days didn’t last. In December Jane’s uncle Amos Lawrence died of a stroke, and, according to Michael F. Holt’s biography, he was “especially fond of the Pierces’ eleven-year-old son Benjamin.” So the three attended Uncle Amos’s funeral near Andover, Massachusetts.
After the funeral the family took a train from Andover to Concord, New Hampshire, to return home on January 6, 1853, just two months before Pierce’s inauguration in Washington. Just a mile outside of Andover station, the rear axle broke in their passenger car, which caused the car to derail and rattle down a 15-foot embankment. Below is a present-day screenshot of what is believed to be the accident’s approximate location. You can see the embankment on the left side of the tracks:
(click the image to zoom in/out; use “bird’s eye” setting)
Pierce, sitting next to Jane, grabbed onto his wife to protect her, both of them banging against the walls of the train car and collecting bruises on the way down the embankment. Benny was seated alone on the bench behind his parents. The president-elect tried to reach behind his seat for Benny, but he couldn’t get to him. The passenger car landed on its roof. That’s when Franklin and Jane saw that Benny “had the back of his head sheared off and died instantly,” writes Holt.
Jane stayed in Andover and did not attend her decapitated child’s funeral in Concord. She also skipped Pierce’s inauguration on March 4. In a letter to her dead son on January 23rd, Jane shared how forever the “ride in those rail cars [will be] agonizing to my soul,” and the letter clearly exhibited how she was in no condition to rub elbows with the D.C. crowd.
(click on Jane’s letter to read the transcript)
Pierce wasn’t taking things much better. The 14th commander-in-chief famously affirmed his presidency during his inauguration, refusing to be sworn in on the bible because he believed Benny’s death was a sick punishment from his maker. Pierce historian Shannon Berry says Pierce believed his son’s killing was a “sign from god he was not meant to be in politics.” The president had his inaugural ball, a longtime tradition, cancelled.
And tragedy followed Pierce throughout his failed administration. On April 18, 1853, six weeks following the inauguration, Pierce’s vice president William R. King died of tuberculosis. The office of vice president remained vacant through Pierce’s term.
Jane made it to D.C. almost three weeks after the inauguration, but she disconnected herself from the political scene. Her aunt, Abby Means, acted as her surrogate White House hostess for state affairs and parties. (Jane didn’t start appearing at White House dinners until the end of 1854.)
With no vice president, a reclusive wife and a bad case of clinical depression, Pierce was pushed around by a contentious 33rd U.S. Congress over slavery issues. Pierce was bullied into signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act (i.e. Kansas and Nebraska can decide on their own if they’re slave or non-slave states). This was “the biggest tragedy of his presidency,” according to Berry, because it pretty much negated the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which recognized going forward any states below the southern Missouri line as slave states while those above would be free states.
Supporters turned their backs on the war hero and grieving father, and, in the election of 1856, the Democratic Party nominated James Buchanan as their presidential candidate. When asked about his future, the failed Pierce joked, “There is nothing left to do but get drunk.”
He and his wife retired to their liquor cabinet as civilians in New England, where Jane died in 1863 of tuberculosis and Franklin died six years later of cirrhosis. (He loved brandy.)
In 2009, C-SPAN conducted a survey among 65 scholars who ranked Franklin Pierce as the next-to-next-to-worst president in American history.