Mike Pride: Jane Pierce still awaits a capable biographer

Last modified: Sunday, July 21, 2013
Two words sum up the chief traits of Jane Pierce, wife of Franklin: frailty and tragedy, emphasis on the latter.

The Pierces’ first son lived just three days. Their second died of typhus at the age of 4. The death of Benny, the last of the three, was sudden, shocking and cruel.

Franklin, to Jane’s chagrin, had recently won election and was three months from inauguration as the nation’s 14th president. On Jan. 6, 1853, the Pierces took a train home from the funeral of Jane’s wealthy uncle, Amos Lawrence, in Andover, Mass. Two miles into the journey to Concord, the train lurched off the tracks.

Franklin held onto Jane with one arm but just missed grabbing 11-year-old Benny with the other. As their car hurtled down a 15-foot embankment, the boy flew from one end of it to the other. The car landed on its top.

Although Franklin was injured in the accident, he ran to look for Benny and found him in the rubble. A door or seat had broken away the top of the skull from the forehead back, exposing his brain. Before someone covered the fatal wound, Jane also caught a glimpse of it.

Already a chronically ill and unhappy woman, Jane fell into inconsolable and near-catatonic grief. She took to composing letters to Benny and carrying around his Bible.

During the election campaign she had prayed for her husband’s defeat. After he won, the Pierces decided on a surrogate, Abigail Means, the wife of Jane’s late uncle Robert, to act in her stead as first lady.

This coolness to her husband’s political career was long-standing. She had loathed Washington society during his days as a congressman and a senator. She had also resented it when, in 1847, he went to fight the war in Mexico. He came home a brigadier general.

Benny’s death was only the first blow of a morose start for the Pierce presidency. The grieving Jane asked Abigail Fillmore, the outgoing first lady, to stand in for her at the inauguration. Fillmore did so, became feverish the next day and died of pneumonia.

Less than three weeks later Franklin Pierce’s vice president, Alabamian William R. King, died of tuberculosis.

In the new biography Jane Means Appleton Pierce: U.S. First Lady (1853-1857): Her Family, Life, and Times, author Ann Covell does not examine why two people as ill-matched as Jane and Franklin married in the first place. Youthful infatuation is part of the answer, but when they married, Franklin was a rising political star and Jane’s sickly, reclusive tendencies had already emerged.

This failure is consistent with the rest of Covell’s biography, which is thin and inept in every way. She tells rather than shows, giving readers shallow, wooden pictures of characters and events. She botches basic facts, missing by a year the date of Jane Pierce’s death and then, perhaps for consistency’s sake, doing the same by Franklin.

She dismisses the Pierces’ letters as mostly “general family tittle-tattle” and seldom quotes from them. When she does, she sometimes leaps from a single quotation to an iffy conclusion. At one point she speculates that Jane Pierce suffered from anorexia nervosa as a boarding-school pupil in Keene. At another she attributes the stomach ailment of a relative of Jane’s to a tight corset.

For all Covell’s sloppiness and mediocre writing, the biggest fault of her book is the frequent absence of her main subject from the narrative. Including notes, the text of the book is just 118 pages long, but despite cameos in early chapters, Jane Appleton is not born until page 67.

By then we have met, sort of, her ancestors, her parents, her uncles and aunts, her siblings and the future president.

The book’s subtitle may lead readers to expect a focus on Jane Pierce’s White House days. Alas, no such thing. The chapter titled “The Presidential Years” runs eight pages. Three of those pages recap the issues of Franklin Pierce’s presidency.

Unlucky in life, Jane Pierce remains unlucky in death. The task of bringing her to life may be a tall one, but she still awaits a capable biographer.