Fifty-four year old widower President John Tyler marries 21-year-old Julia Gardiner on this day in 1844. It was his second marriage. At the time, Julia was the youngest first lady in history. Tyler had wooed Julia from the time she was 19, but it took a tragedy and a narrow escape from death for her to accept him.
Earlier that year, Tyler and an entourage, including wealthy New Yorker David Gardiner and his daughter Julia, had cruised the Potomac on board the new steam frigate U.S.S. Princeton. During the voyage, the Princeton fired off its new cannons in salute as it sailed past George Washington’s former home at Mt. Vernon. At the time, Tyler was below deck raising a toast. The cannon exploded on its third volley, killing Julia’s father and several others, including members of Tyler’s cabinet. Tyler rushed up to the top deck just in time to catch Julia as she fainted at the news of her father’s death. After the ship docked, Tyler whisked Julia off to safety in his arms. Thereafter, her admiration for him developed into love and, in 1844, they were married. Julia Gardiner Tyler reportedly insisted that “Hail to the Chief” be played at Tyler’s entrance to every official event, thus establishing a presidential tradition. One of her constant companions was a greyhound given to her by her husband.
Tyler’s first wife had been Letitia Christian, with whom he had eight children (one died in infancy). She died of a stroke in 1842. He and Julia had seven children together bringing his total to 15; Tyler holds the record for the most children sired (legitimately, at least) by a president. He was a devoted husband and doting father to his rather large brood of children from both marriages. The extended nature of his family, though, along with his penchant for overspending, left Tyler perpetually in debt. When he died of a stroke in 1862, he left Julia practically penniless. She died in 1889 in the same Richmond, Virginia, hotel room in which her husband had died 27 years earlier.