Lucretia Garfield (1832-1918) was an American first lady (March 4–September 19, 1881), and the wife of James A. Garfield, 20th president of the United States. Although she served as first lady for only a few months because of her husband’s assassination, she was independent-minded, well-educated and a talented speaker, and her approach toward her role as first lady presaged that of her 20th-century counterparts.
Lucretia Rudolph was the oldest child of Arabella Mason and Zebulon Rudolph, a farmer and leader of the Disciples of Christ sect in Hiram, Ohio. She was well educated for a girl of the time, attending Geauga Seminary and the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) at the same time as her future husband. Bright and ambitious, “Crete” was an editor and illustrator of the “Eclectic Star” school magazine and helped organize a literary society. She also demonstrated her famous independent streak, notably via an essay in which she argued for equal pay for women.
A mutual interest developed when Garfield taught Greek to Lucretia’s class at the Eclectic Institute, and they corresponded as he completed his education at Williams College in Massachusetts. Garfield admired her intellect, but he was also troubled by Lucretia’s dispassionate nature. Even after they were married in November 1858, Garfield expressed misgivings about their future and left for long stretches to serve the Union Army and then his burgeoning political career. It took the surprise death of their daughter Eliza in 1863 for them to closely examine their relationship, with Lucretia inspiring his rededication by noting they had spent only 20 weeks together through five years of marriage.
Ambivalent about Garfield’s nomination by a divided Republican Party in 1880, Lucretia nonetheless dutifully played the part of supportive wife and mother for the “front-porch campaign” that brought the press to their home in Mentor, Ohio. After the victory in the general election, she conducted an investigation into the families of potential cabinet assignees that influenced her husband’s decisions: Wisconsin Congressman Thaddeus Pound was given the thumbs-down because of his wife’s earlier indiscretions, but she approved of Maine Senator James Blaine, who had married his pregnant girlfriend years before and remained a devoted husband. Blaine eventually became Garfield’s secretary of state.
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At the start of the Garfield administration, Lucretia flashed her old independent streak by refusing to bow to pressure from temperance advocates to keep alcohol out of the White House. She also took an interest in the history of the mansion, and began lobbying Congress for funds to make internal repairs. However, all personal projects from the office ended when she was diagnosed with malaria in May of 1881. She was not yet fully recovered when the president was shot on July 2, and she spent her remaining two-plus months as first lady in an unsuccessful attempt to nurse him back to health.
Celebrated for the graceful manner in which she handled Garfield’s death and funeral, the president’s widow was bequeathed some $360,000 via public fundraising and as such lived the rest of her life in comfort. She allocated some of the money toward expansion of the family home in Mentor, adding a wing for use as Garfield’s presidential library and overseeing the design and construction of a well and water tower. Lucretia also helped with the design of a winter house in South Pasadena, California, where she became a regular at the annual Tournament of the Roses Parade. She remained active into her 80s as a volunteer for the Red Cross until her death on March 14, 1918.