Ida Saxton was the oldest of three children born to Catherine DeWalt and James Asbaugh Saxton, a wealthy businessman in Canton, Ohio. The Saxtons strongly believed in equal education and employment opportunities for women, and Ida attended boarding schools in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. In the summer and fall of 1869, Ida and her sister Mary visited Europe on a tour sponsored by their father. Afterward, the future first lady worked as a clerk and a cashier in the Saxton-owned bank to develop a means to support herself without having to rely on a husband.
Ida met her future husband at a summer picnic in 1868, but she first became romantically involved with a former Confederate Army major named John Wright. Foreshadowing the tragedies that would strike in the years to come, Ida was shocked to learn that Wright had died while she was away on her European tour. She found comfort after returning to the States in the arms of McKinley, another former Civil War officer who was seemingly headed for big things as the county prosecuting attorney. She married her “Major” before 1,000 guests at Canton’s First Presbyterian Church on January 25, 1871.
Ida’s life changed dramatically following a series of traumatic events early in the marriage. A few months after her mother passed in 1873, she endured the death of her infant daughter. Two years later, the surviving McKinley daughter died of typhoid fever. Previously known as a lively, energetic young woman, Ida became plagued by headaches, convulsions and seizures. She was diagnosed with phlebitis — vein inflammation — and the little-understood disorder of epilepsy, and spent much of her remaining adult years seeking treatment from physicians.
Ida’s condition became a concern during the contentious 1896 presidential election, when opponents spread rumors about her background and health. In response, the Republican Party printed the first known campaign biography of a candidate’s wife. The 61-page “Sketch of the Life of Mrs. William McKinley” noted her proud roots and pointed out how her personal tragedies had made her a stronger person. The McKinley camp also took advantage of Ida’s limitations by having the candidate deliver speeches from home and playing up its folksy “front porch campaign.”
Despite her personal obstacles, Ida found ways to contribute as first lady. She knitted and donated more than 3,500 slippers to charities, knowing those items proved helpful for fundraising drives. She was also strongly in favor of women’s suffrage and demonstrated her support of African-American rights by visiting the Tuskegee Institute with her husband. In addition, Ida achieved two small but notable firsts for the position: Her trip to Mexico in 1901 made her the first incumbent first lady to visit a foreign country, and she became the first to appear on film when a movie camera recorded President McKinley’s speech at that year’s Pan-American Exposition.