Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Harriet Lane Johnston by Ted Morrow from an original 1899 portrait by George Chickering Munzig.

Harriet Lane Johnston by Ted Morrow from an original 1899 portrait by George Chickering Munzig.
St. Albans School Archives (Gift of Talbot Taylor Speer)

On the cool, overcast day of May 9, 2017, a dozen nurses from the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center arrived by bus at Green Mount Cemetery, a leafy 19th-century oasis in center city Baltimore. They carried a generous bouquet of flowers to decorate the grave of Harriet Lane Johnston, niece of James Buchanan (1791–1868), Pennsylvania’s only U.S. president.

“Without Harriet Lane, we don’t know what the Children’s Center would look like today,” explained Dawn Kuzetsky, the center’s interim director. “She did a lot for the babies of this area.” When Johnston contributed the funds that built the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, now the Children’s Center, she stipulated that in reciprocation flowers were to be deposited at her grave site each year on her birthday. Nurses have been placing flowers at the base of the large, ornate cross marking her grave for more than a century. “It’s an honor for us that she specifically named nurses to come to her grave,” said Judith Rohde, the center’s retired director of nursing. “Her name is known around the country because of the children’s clinic.”

Johnston’s legacy extends well beyond the Children’s Center, the pioneering hospital in its field. As a charming and intelligent young woman, she served as “First Lady” for her uncle to rave reviews in the 1850s press. As an aging widow, she established not only the first pediatric hospital in the United States, but also bequeathed a collection of art to the nation that became the foundation for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This cosmopolitan woman lived an exceptional American life.

The Lane House at 14 North Main Street in Mercersburg was Harriet Lane's birthplace. Located in the Mercersburg Historic District, the house received a Pennsylvania Historical Marker and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Lane House at 14 North Main Street in Mercersburg was Harriet Lane’s birthplace. Located in the Mercersburg Historic District, the house received a Pennsylvania Historical Marker and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Courtesy Franklin County Visitors Bureau

The sixth of seven children of James Buchanan’s sister, Jane, and her merchant husband, Elliot Toll Lane, Harriet Rebecca Lane was born in Mercersburg, Franklin County, on May 9, 1830. When she was nine years old, her mother died. Her father passed away soon afterward, making the young girl and her siblings orphans.

James Buchanan was 50 years old in 1841. Serving in the U.S. Senate and considering a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844, he also became Harriet Lane’s guardian. He would nurture her throughout her youth and young adulthood, and she would respond by looking after the bachelor president in the White House and at his home in Lancaster. She called him “Nunc.”

Harriet tested Buchanan’s patience. As the youngest child in her family, she had become accustomed to getting her own way. Buchanan said that her grandmother had referred to her as “too out setting.” Mercersburg neighbors described her as “a tomboy, bright, mischievous, difficult to bridle, quick in temper, but affectionate and full of good spirits.” She spent several years in Lancaster boarding schools, moving in with her uncle at his Lancaster townhouse when school was not in session. Then Buchanan sent her to a school in Charles Town, Virginia, where he mailed her this advice: “It is one of the first desires of my heart that you should become an amiable and a good girl. Education and accomplishments are very important, but they sink into insignificance when compared with the proper government of the heart and temper.”

To make sure his niece got the message, Buchanan next enrolled her in the Academy of the Visitation Convent School in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. She read widely and kept current with national and international events. She excelled at history, astronomy and mythology, among other studies, and developed a passion for the piano. Buchanan observed with satisfaction that the convent also was instructing her in the Victorian virtues of self-control and concern for others. Harriet was not equally enamored of the school. She said she was “heartily sick of it” and looked forward to traveling with Buchanan when school ended in the summer of 1848.

After graduating with honors in 1849, Harriet moved in with her uncle at Wheatland, a country estate outside Lancaster that Buchanan had recently purchased following his term as secretary of state under President James K. Polk. Throughout the early 1850s, Harriet was in training at Wheatland for her eventual role at the White House.

As she neared her 21st birthday, Harriet became an enthusiastic hostess with many admirers. Violet-eyed with reddish blonde hair, she stood at medium height and was described repeatedly as “full-figured.” She had so many suitors that Buchanan began referring to them in groups of three to make it simpler for him to remember them. Her opinion of her male admirers: “Beaux are pleasant but dreadfully troublesome.”

By then, the bond between uncle and niece was well established. She had survived her parents’ deaths, and through the years her siblings had also passed (the last would die in 1857). Buchanan became her only family, and she became Buchanan’s political consort and personal confidante. Buchanan thought of Harriet, one memoirist recalled, as “the only solace of his lonely life.”

Harriet Lane, c. 1860, was a popular White House hostess for her bachelor uncle James Buchanan. She was not the first nonspouse, however, to serve in this capacity. Widowed presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson had relatives who filled the position that is now known as first lady. Wikimedia Commons

Harriet Lane, c. 1860, was a popular White House hostess for her bachelor uncle James Buchanan. She was not the first nonspouse, however, to serve in this capacity. Widowed presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson had relatives who filled the position that is now known as first lady.
Wikimedia Commons

In 1853 Buchanan became President Franklin Pierce’s minister to Great Britain. Harriet joined him in London the following spring. She called the diplomatic mission “the realization of a beautiful dream.” The young beauty soon became the focus of social attention. Queen Victoria was so charmed by her grace and composure that she gave Harriet the title of “Honorary Ambassadress.” When Harriet accompanied Buchanan to Oxford University, where he and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, received honorary degrees, she received loud cheers of appreciation.

Though pleased to be a part of the pomp, Harriet maintained her independent views. In a letter to Lily Macalester, one of her best friends, she said a British lord delivering a speech at a literary club “talked too much, and said too little” and another lord “talked a great deal, and said nothing.” Comparing British and American orators, she reported that “our people are more prompt and eloquent.”

Harriet’s comfortable relationship with the queen and the many friends she made among the London elite prepared her for her next act in life. She and her uncle returned to the United States in 1855 and were thrust into a campaign for the presidency in the summer of 1856. The death of one of Harriet’s sisters and the standard mourning period forced both Harriet and Buchanan to avoid public appearances. But they could not escape the anxiety of the contest. “What an exciting campaign it has been!” Harriet wrote to Macalester on November 4, Election Day. “I have no fears of the result—I think ‘right must prevail.’ It makes me shudder to hear of the fraud & corruption used against us.”

Buchanan entered the White House in March 1857 with Harriet as his escort. Better prepared to act as the hostess of the White House than many of the older hostesses who had preceded her, she was, in fact, the first woman to be identified as  “the First Lady of the Land” in a contemporary periodical.

Recalling her first impressions of the White House many years later, Harriet said that, “at the time my dear uncle entered the Executive Mansion, Washington Society might be said to have been at its height. He was . . . fond of entertaining his friends and he had hosts of them at home and abroad.”

At age 27 Harriet brought a vitality to the White House that seemed all the more striking because her predecessor, the sad and drab Jane Pierce, had avoided social functions while in perpetual mourning for the deaths of all of her sons. Following the first Buchanan party at the White House, the Washington Evening Star commented, “In the centre of the oval room was Miss Lane, the President’s niece, who received visitors with an ease, grace and self-possession that indicated her to be no novice in such duties. Not a few impressionable young men performed an extensive round of ‘great circle sailing’ through the series of rooms, to get another look at her sweet face.”

By several accounts, Harriet Lane remained a flirtatious hostess. Numerous men courted her, though she seems to have resisted serious advances. In addition to her beauty, contemporaries commented on her physicality. As a young woman, she had done many of the things young boys did. As a mature woman, she liked to walk quickly over long distances. She also was a proficient swimmer and a vigorous dancer.

She was first lady of fashion. Newspapers and magazines regularly wrote about what Harriet Lane had worn to the latest White House event. She preferred an unusually low neckline, her bosom defined by a strip of lace called a bertha, which soon became the standard high fashion throughout the country.

She enjoyed the attention she received from Washington society and missed it in summer, when many politicians departed to escape Washington’s heat. “Washington has been shockingly dull this summer—a few foreigners were the only persons left in town,” she wrote to Lily Macalester in September 1857. But she added, “I have a nice little beau, always ready at my command. He lives close by, & you can imagine how charmingly convenient it is.”

James Buchanan, a lifetime politician, became the 15th President of the United States, serving in the stormy years prior to the American Civil War.

James Buchanan, a lifetime politician, became the 15th President of the United States, serving in the stormy years prior to the American Civil War.
National Archives

Hailed by newspapers as “Our Democratic Queen,” Harriet proved herself indispensable to the president. When a Japanese delegation visited Washington in 1860, the hostess charmed the foreigners. When Edward, Prince of Wales, visited later that year, Harriet danced and played king-pins with him. When the Prince de Joinville came to Washington during the 1860-61 social season, he and Harriet became close friends.

But she was more than a pretty face behind the White House punch bowl and an engaging companion for visiting royalty. Power, wealth and fashion characterized her social circle, as they had in London, but she and her friends also emphasized intellectual achievement and public service. She wanted to bring to Washington the cultural standards she had observed overseas. She invited artists and musicians to the White House. As early as 1857, she supported a movement to establish a national art gallery.

Harriet and her uncle regularly discussed current events. There are indications that he listened to her when he scorned advice from others. Harriet shared many of her uncle’s conservative Democratic views but had divergent opinions on slavery. Buchanan personally disliked slavery but believed that the Constitution gave individual states the right to determine the issue and that the federal government should not intervene. Harriet believed that slaves should be gradually freed until abolition was achieved.

Near the end of Buchanan’s presidency, as friction between the North and the South increased and seven states seceded from the Union, Harriet continued to function as a composed White House hostess. Virginia Clay, wife of Clement Claiborne Clay, one of Alabama’s U.S. senators, said that Harriet “served to keep the surface of society in Washington serene and smiling, though the fires of a volcano raged in the under-political world, and the vibrations of Congressional strife spread to the furthermost ends of the country the knowledge that the Government was tottering.”

Harriet’s serenity and levity on social occasions also helped relieve the sense of imminent disaster that increasingly weighed on the president, who was nearing his 70th birthday. Mary Clemmer Ames, in her 1874 book Ten Years in Washington wrote, “At White House receptions, and on all state occasions, the sight of this golden beauty, standing beside the grand and gray old man, made a unique and delightful contrast, which thousands flocked to see.”

Increasingly virulent political attacks on Buchanan sometimes implicated Harriet. Both were falsely accused of appropriating public works of art that actually had been personal gifts. Buchanan believed such assaults were not spontaneous but part of a systematic campaign to make him appear responsible for the impending war. He and Harriet thought this all their lives and worked to counteract the idea.

Buchanan and his niece left Washington with distinctly different feelings. As he turned over his office to Abraham Lincoln in March 1861, Buchanan reportedly told the first Republican president, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man.” But Harriet told a friend, “I receive so many evidences of kindness and good feeling and so many regrets at my leaving that it makes me feel very sad.”

Buchanan and Harriet returned to Wheatland, where he busied himself with defenses of his presidency. Republicans charged that he had not done enough to prevent the Confederate states from seceding and starting the war. Some critics suggested that his administration left firearms and finances in the South with which the rebellious states were able to more forcefully wage war. Buchanan denied it all. Harriet assisted in her uncle’s defense, meanwhile enjoying life as an upper-class Victorian woman. She often traveled to New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore to see friends. In summer, Buchanan and Harriet vacationed together at the resort at Bedford Springs in Bedford County.

In the summer of 1864, Harriet resumed a friendship with Henry Elliott Johnston (1831–84), a prominent Baltimore banker whom she had first met while vacationing at Bedford Springs when she was 19 and he was 18. Harriet decided Johnston was her man. Having served virtually as Buchanan’s right arm for most of her adult life, she worried about her uncle’s reaction, but he readily gave his blessing. On January 11, 1866, she became Harriet Lane Johnston.

The Rev. Edward Buchanan, Harriet’s uncle and the president’s brother, conducted the small wedding ceremony at Wheatland. James Buchanan had some advice for his niece: “You must forget ‘the pride, pomp and circumstance’ of public life in which you have been raised. In truth it no longer exists . . . you have chosen [a husband] wisely. Conform your thoughts, desires and affections [to] the change and become as distinguished for your social and domestic virtues as you have been in the glitter and the show of public life.”

 

Harriet’s beloved sons, James Buchanan Johnston and Henry Elliot Johnston II, died young, inspiring her to bequeath substantial funds for the establishment of a children’s hospital and a school for boys.

Harriet’s beloved sons, James Buchanan Johnston and Henry Elliot Johnston II, died young, inspiring her to bequeath substantial funds for the establishment of a children’s hospital and a school for boys.
St. Albans School Archives

The Johnstons had two sons. The first, born in November 1866, they named James Buchanan Johnston. The second, Henry Elliott Johnston II, was born in March 1870. As her uncle had urged, Harriet dedicated herself to her husband and sons. She spent most of her time with them in Baltimore.

In the spring of 1868, however, she had returned alone to Wheatland to help nurse Buchanan through his last days. This must have been hard for a woman who knew her uncle better than many daughters know their fathers. “The great difficulty is to get Uncle to take medicine of any kind,” she wrote to her cousin, Lois Buchanan. “We all pray for him. After all Drs. can do but little.” Buchanan died at 77 that June.

During the 1870s, Harriet continued to play a mainly domestic role at the family’s Baltimore townhouse most of the year. She spent the summers with her sons at Wheatland, which Buchanan had willed to her.

The aging woman who had lost her parents and all of her siblings watched her husband and sons die during the 1880s. Both sons contracted what was believed to be rheumatic fever that weakened their hearts. In 1881 James Buchanan Johnston died at age 14. A year and a half later, Henry died at age 12. In early 1884 Henry Elliott Johnston died at 53 of pneumonia as a complication of surgery.

Harriet was 54 and alone in the world. She spent the summer of 1884 grieving in Manchester, Massachusetts. When she returned to Baltimore, she entered a permanent mourning period; for the rest of her life she wore dark dresses and wrote on black-bordered stationery.

These final family tragedies could have ruined the rest of Harriet’s life. Instead, she spent her time defending her uncle’s presidency and engaging in various philanthropies. She sold Wheatland, moved from Baltimore to a Washington home near the White House, and set about doing good works with her substantial inheritances from Johnston and Buchanan.

In memory of her uncle, Harriet left funds for the building of this granite pyramid to mark the location of James Buchanan’s birth near Cove Gap in what is today Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park. Photo by Kyle R. Weaver

In memory of her uncle, Harriet left funds for the building of this granite pyramid to mark the location of James Buchanan’s birth near Cove Gap in what is today Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park.
Photo by Kyle R. Weaver

From shortly after her uncle’s death, she toiled tirelessly to counteract the increasingly negative image of the Buchanan presidency. She instructed Buchanan executor Hiram Swarr to do all he could to keep Buchanan’s papers out of Republican hands to safeguard the reputation of his administration. “It is the most sacred obligation upon me,” she wrote, “as having been so near & dear to him — as he was to me — & his fame now a most cherished object of my life.” She eventually financed the publication of George Ticknor Curtis’ Life of James Buchanan (Harper & Brothers, 1883), which was favorable to the Buchanan presidency, and The Works of James Buchanan (J.B. Lippincott, 1908–11), a 12-volume set of the president’s letters and speeches.

She left substantial funds in her will for the creation of a tall gray granite pyramid at the location of Buchanan’s birth near Cove Gap, Franklin County, at what is now Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park. Her will also underwrote the James Buchanan Monument Fund designed to create a memorial to her uncle in Washington, DC. The impressive bronze sculpture of a seated Buchanan, long delayed by politicians seeking to diminish the president’s significance, finally was dedicated at Meridian Hill Park in 1930.

Harriet also advanced three major philanthropic projects. Grieved that her sons had not lived to receive the education she and her husband had planned, she provided in her will for the establishment of a school for young men in Washington. The school also was inspired by the Johnstons’ tours of Austria, where they had heard the Vienna Boys Choir. When Harriet learned of plans to erect a National Cathedral in Washington in 1893, she determined to support the training and education of a boys’ choir there. At first named the Lane-Johnston Choir School for Boys of the Washington Cathedral, it eventually became St. Albans School. After the founding of the affiliated National Cathedral School for Girls, a dormitory was named in Harriet’s honor.

From an early age, Harriet had appreciated European culture. Throughout her life she favored art and music over politics. At a White House social function, an admirer of Harriet’s hands said they “might have swayed the rod of empire.” She replied, “or wake to ecstasy the living lyre.” Following her husband’s death and increasingly during the 1890s Harriet traveled to Europe and toured art galleries. Over the years, she acquired a significant collection of American paintings and some less important English and European works. In 1903 she bequeathed this collection to a “national gallery of art.”’ Her bequest revived the Smithsonian Institution’s interest in establishing such a gallery, which is today the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Dawn Luzetsky and Judith Rohde, nursing directors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Children's Center, place flowers at Harriet Lane Johnston’s grave in Baltimore's Green Mount Cemetery. Photo by Jack Brubaker

Dawn Luzetsky and Judith Rohde, nursing directors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Children’s Center, place flowers at Harriet Lane Johnston’s grave in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery.
Photo by Jack Brubaker

After the Johnston boys fell ill, their parents discovered that there was no hospital in Baltimore to care for children with chronic diseases. They decided to create such an institution. The Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children of Baltimore City was incorporated in 1883, the year before Henry Johnston died. Harriet decided to give most of the couple’s estate to the establishment of this home. The Harriet Lane Home took decades to become a reality; it opened in 1912, nine years after Harriet’s death, as a part of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the first pediatrics unit in the United States. The children’s clinic has helped eliminate scarlet fever and measles and has advanced understanding of many other childhood diseases. Over the past century, the clinic has treated thousands of children, and dozens of nurses have participated in the annual transport of flowers to Harriet’s grave each May. Carol Martin, the Children’s Center’s coordinator for nursing education, put Harriet’s legacy in perspective last spring: “The children’s clinic, of course, has a national reputation,” she observed. “And then there’s the Harriet Lane Handbook [continually updated and available online]. Any physician in pediatrics across the country has used this handbook in their practice.”

Harriet remained socially active through her last years, appearing at a White House event hosted by Edith Roosevelt in 1901 and attending the London coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. She died of cancer at the age of 73 at a summer resort in Rhode Island in 1903.

The cross at Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery memorializing Henry and Harriet Lane Johnston is flanked by small markers for each of their children. Standing there on that rising ground, gazing at those gravestones, a visitor marvels at the courage and perseverance it took for Harriet Lane Johnston to accomplish all that she did in her lifetime, much of it after everyone she loved best in the world had died.

 

Jack Brubaker writes The Scribbler, a weekly Lancaster Newspapers (LNP) column exploring Lancaster County’s history and culture, and was formerly an investigative reporter for LNP. The author of Massacre of the Conestogas and Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake, he is currently working on a book about two east Tennessee families and reconciliation after the Civil War.