Letitia Tyler (1790-1842) was an American first lady (1841-1842) and the first wife of John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States. Two years before her husband assumed the presidency, Letitia suffered a debilitating stroke. As a result, she spent her entire tenure as first lady in a semi-invalid state, attending only one public function. She passed away in September 1842, the first first lady to die in the White House. Two years later, her widowed husband married the young socialite Julia Gardiner.
Letitia Christian of was one seven children born to Mary Eaton Browne and Colonel Robert Christian, a prominent Virginia Federalist. However, with no extant letters of her life before marriage, there are few verified details of her early years. She was raised in wealth on the Cedar Grove plantation outside of Richmond, learning household management, sewing, music and other skills particular to her class and gender. Although considered a beautiful and gracious young woman, she was an introverted type who preferred the company of family and select friends.
John Tyler grew up on an estate approximately a dozen miles from Letitia’s home, and the two met at a private party in the area circa 1808. Then a law student, the future president courted his shy neighbor as he followed his father into politics with his election to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1811. Although they were devoted to one another, surviving correspondence indicates that the conservative Letitia displayed little outward affection toward her fiancée. They married on March 29, 1813, Tyler’s 23rd birthday, at the Christians’ Cedar Grove plantation.
The death of Letitia’s parents shortly after the wedding left the young couple with a considerable inheritance, although diminishing finances became a problem as their family eventually swelled to include seven children. True to her reclusive nature, Letitia chose to remain at home and run the plantation after her husband was elected a U.S. Congressman in 1816. However, she was an active hostess when Tyler served as Virginia governor from 1825-27, and took part in the Washington, D.C. 1828-29 winter social season after he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
When Tyler took over the presidency following the death of William Henry Harrison in April 1841, he had to wait several weeks until Letitia joined him in Washington, D.C. She bequeathed social duties to her daughter-in-law Priscilla, but otherwise handled her usual tasks of household management from the bedroom suite. Her lone publicized appearance outside of private quarters came in early 1842, when daughter Elizabeth married in the East Room of the White House. And while the first lady had no overt political leanings, she was known to have made charitable contributions to the capital’s needy.
Letitia’s deteriorating health was likely exacerbated by the rocky early months of her husband’s administration, his opposition to a pair of bank bills resulting in an angry mob outside of the White House and his expulsion from the Whig Party. The first lady suffered a second stroke in 1842, and with her condition worsening, she desperately sent word to her children to come to her bedside. Following her death on September 10, even the anti-Tyler Washington “Intelligencer” extolled her virtues as a loving wife and friend of the poor. She was buried at the cemetery of her old Cedar Grove estate.