Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

September 12, 2012

Morris: The youngest First Lady

Ben Morris, MA, RPA
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — Now that we are in the middle of the "Silly Season" once again, where politicians tell us how wonderful they are and how despicable their opponents are, I thought I would tell you about the youngest "First Lady" in the history of the United States.

Her name was Francis Clara Folsom. She was 5' 7" tall with black hair and dark blue eyes, and an "hourglass" figure.

All of Miss Folsom's ancestors were from England. They settled in what would become Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Eventually, most migrated to western New York.

Francis was born July 21, 1864 in Buffalo, N.Y., to Oscar Folsom, a lawyer, and Emma Harmon.  

She was the only child of the Folsom s to survive infancy.

Her cousin was Peter Pirchlynn, chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Her first name was originally Frank. Later, she decided to change it to the more feminine version, Francis. She attended high school in Medina, N.Y., and Wells College in Aurora, N.Y.

When Francis was 11, her 38-year-old father was killed when his carriage overturned. Since he died without leaving a will, the court appointed (Stephen) Grover Cleveland, Oscar Folsom's law partner, executor of his estate.

Some assumed that Cleveland became the young girl's legal guardian but that was not the case. He did, however, take an avuncular interest in the young child, showering her with gifts and doting on her as she grew up.     

Francis grew up in the Presbyterian church and attended Central High School in Buffalo, N.Y., and Medina High School in Medina, N.Y.

Francis was an exceptionally bright student. When she applied to Wells College, she was allowed to skip her freshman year and entered as a sophomore. During her senior year she became engaged and when the engagement unraveled, she became depressed and dropped out.

However, she completed her education at Wells College through certification. Shortly after entering Wells College Grover Cleveland asked her mother for permission to correspond with her daughter. Shortly after graduation, Francis and her mother went abroad but returned to the States the following spring.

Cleveland proposed to Francis in a letter. She accepted but they kept their engagement a secret until just five days before the wedding. He was 49, she was 21. Their wedding was the first and last wedding to be held in the White House.

Cleveland was also the only president to be married in the White House.

The ceremony was attended only by a few relatives, close friends, the cabinet and their wives. The wedding took place in the Blue Room. Music was provided by John Philip Sousa and the Marine Band.

Grover Cleveland's brother, the Reverend William Cleveland, was co-official. The couple spent their honeymoon in the Cumberland Mountains in Western Maryland.

Her first term as First Lady ended when Cleveland, running as a Democrat, lost to Benjamin ("Little Ben") Harrison, a Republican from Indiana in 1888. The election was very close. Although Cleveland got more popular votes than Harrison, he fell short in the electoral college count.

After the election, the Clevelands moved to New York City.

Four years later they were back in the White House. The couple had three daughters and two sons. Their first daughter was named Ruth. Baby Ruth died of diphtheria in 1904. President Cleveland died in 1908. Supposedly, the "Baby Ruth" candy bar was named after the baby. Their second daughter, Esther, who was born in 1893, was the first child born in the White House.

In 1913, at the age of 49, Francis married a professor of archaeology and spent her last years as a respected member of the Princeton community. She and her second husband were married for 34 years.

Francis Cleveland died Oct. 29, 1947 in Baltimore. She was buried in Princeton next to President Grover Cleveland. She was 83.

Ben Morris, MA, RPA, is an archaeological and historical columnist for the Daily News. He can be reached at 812-932-0298 or at bjmorris1935@gmail.com.