First Hand Account

I’m Mary Arthur McElroy and my older brother became the 21st President of the United States.  

I was born in Greenwich, New York; the youngest of nine children of William and Malvina Arthur.  My father emigrated from County Antrim, Ireland to Durham, Canada in 1818 after graduating from Belfast College.  My mother was born in Vermont and my grandfather fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.  My parents were married in 1821 and moved from town-to-town in Vermont, Canada and New York.  My father was a Free Will Baptist minister and a very strong and outspoken abolitionist which at times made him unpopular and resulted in our constant need to relocate.

My brother, Chester Alan Arthur, was born October 5, 1829.  Our family recorded his birth in our Bible when my parents were living in Fairfield, Vermont.  When Chester was nominated for the Vice Presidency a nasty lawyer was hired by his opponents to circulate rumors that he was born in Ireland. He later switched the story to say he was born in Canada.  Of course we know the truth and Chester didn’t think the accusation was worthy of a response.  Yet the story keeps popping up in many places even today.

Chet was no slacker!  He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Union College in 1848 went on to teach school, and was admitted to the New York bar in 1854.  He was a partner in the firm of Erastus Culver, a fellow abolitionist and family friend.  His firm upheld the rights of the enslaved blacks.  New York did not allow slaves and in Lemmon v. New York the firm defended the rights of blacks who entered the state to be considered automatically freed.   Chet also was the lead attorney who represented Elizabeth Jennings Graham and the verdict in that case led to the desegregation of the New York City streetcar lines.  During the Civil War he was given the rank of Brigadier General and later Quartermaster General responsible for the efficient housing and outfitting of the troops.

Chester’s beautiful wife, Ellen Herndon, the daughter of a Virginia naval officer, died suddenly in 1880; he was devastated and never remarried.  When Chester assumed the Presidency he asked me to care for their daughter, Nell, and to act as “Mistress of the White House.”  Their son, Chester, Jr. was a freshman at Princeton University.   I never held a formal position but people accepted me and found me a popular hostess at social functions.

When President James Garfield was shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881 he lingered for many weeks before dying.  My brother, shocked by the death of Garfield, was sworn into office September 20, 1881 at his home on Lexington Avenue in New York City. 

While in office he supported Senator Pendleton’s legislation to allow selection of government employees based on merit rather than political cronyism.  By doing so and supporting civil service reform my brother lost support of his party.  He also worked to modernize the Navy, uphold civil rights, make polygamy a federal crime, improve the government’s relationship with Native Americans, and promote the new National Park system by visiting Yellowstone.  During this time his health was poor, which he kept from the public.  I was quite concerned as his kidney ailment was becoming more and more apparent.  In 1885 he lost the support of his party and failed to be nominated as a presidential candidate.  He retired to his home in New York City and died in 1886 at the age of 57 years.

In 1903, I was so proud to learn that Robert Todd Lincoln, my brother’s Secretary of War, traveled to Fairfield, Vermont to dedicate a granite monument at the parsonage site where my brother lived in his early years.  For years that site had been called his birthplace but he was actually born elsewhere in Fairfield, while the parsonage was under construction.  The family moved into the new parsonage a few days after Chester’s birth.   It’s my hope that people will eventually understand that my brother was a good president who worked to do what was good for our country.