William Howard Taft: His Wife's Stroke, Described by Major Butt.

Here are the letters written by Major Butt.
Washington, D. C.
May 17, 1909. 1a

Dear Clara:

Mrs. Taft is seriously ill. What the result will be, even the attending surgeon does not seem to know. Mrs. Taft has done too much. The last of six dinners was given tonight. Every Senator and most of the important members of the House have been entertained during the past two months. In addition to this, she has planned and carried through two big garden parties and innumerable smaller affairs, besides inaugurating the driveway and realizing splendid success from the venture. To-day has been the one straw which has proved too heavy. I hope it has only injured the nerves and that the results will not be more far-reaching. I know what the day has been to me, and I shudder to think what the President is suffering.

When I went to the office this morning the President looked anxious, and when I asked him if there was anything I could do for him he said there was and asked me to make all arrangements for him to visit the Eye and Ear Hospital at two-fifteen, that Charlie was to be operated on for adenoids at one o'clock and he wished to be there as soon after the operation as possible. Both he and Mrs. Taft had an engagement to go to Mount Vernon on the Sylph at four o'clock to meet the Regents. They had invited the Wickersham household, including Sir Robert and Lady Radfield, and myself, to be of the party. This necessitated a change of appointments, and there was some lively phoning to the State Department to have some South American special commissioners presented at two instead of two-thirty. I then went to the White House and saw Mrs. Taft. She was looking pale, and evidently worried over the prospect of the operation at which she insisted upon being present. I suggested to her to let someone take her place, but she merely smiled at the suggestion.

At two o'clock I presented the commission, after which the President went to the Green Room to meet the Pierpont Morgans, Jr., with two English people -- bankers, I think. It was nearly three o'clock before we reached the Episcopal Hospital, and we found Mrs. Taft just ready to telephone to the White House to see what caused the delay. The operation was successful, but there was a good deal of blood, and the poor boy was hysterical when he came from under the ether. This I learned from Mrs. Taft later. The President remained about a half hour, and together we returned to the White House with only time enough to change clothing and start for the Navy Yard. We had not reached Alexandria when Secretary Wickersham turned to me and said:

"Mrs. Taft has fainted. See if there is any brandy aboard."

Captain Williams dug up some rye whisky hurriedly, and I ordered some cracked ice to have applied to the pulse and temples. She was deathly pale, and in a few minutes seemed to revive but did not speak. I arranged a lounge for her, and we laid her on it. In a minute or two she staggered from this, and I led her, or rather half carried her, into the saloon. Still thinking it a faint, we left her with Mrs. More, her sister, and Mrs. Wickersham. I took the responsibility to order the captain to turn back to Washington. I called the President, and he went deathly pale, and as he entered the room where she lay he closed the door.

The trip back seemed interminable, and after reaching the dock we had to wait for the automobile. I practically carried her in my arms to the car. The ride home in the limousine was terrific. No one could do anything, and she made no motion and did not seem to be more than half conscious. I lifted her out of the car on reaching the White House and put my arm about her waist so as to give her all the assistance possible. The President had one arm linked through one of hers, and so we entered. I had also taken the precaution to order the doctor to meet us at the White House, and so Delaney was there. The President looked like a great stricken animal. I have never seen greater suffering or pain shown on a man's face.

There was this ghastly dinner on for the evening. I knew that this had to be gone through, and so I told him that Mrs. More would take Mrs. Taft's place and urged upon him the necessity not to reveal Mrs. Taft's condition, but to state to everyone that Mrs. Taft was exhausted after the day in the hospital. Mrs. More agreed with I had not been expected at the dinner, but the President asked me to remain, which I had already decided to do. We kept her real condition a secret from those even in the house. I told the ushers that she was over the attack, and if anyone made inquiries to refer everyone to me.

I made light of the attack to the Wickershams, who called later, and when the dinner was announced, no one could have told of the tragedy in the hearts of those who knew, or feared, what the results might be. Mrs. More was brave and carried off the situation like a Spartan. Colonel Crosby did not suspect anything and did not think it worth while even to inquire after Mrs. Taft.

As the President entered the room with the blare of the music back of him, he smiled and passed among his guests in a most nonchalant way. But what a dinner! Every mouthful seemed to choke him, yet he never wavered in his duty, and I could not help thinking that he was fighting her battle, for it would humiliate her terribly to feel that people were commiserating with her. The guests seemed to enjoy themselves to a special degree, which made it all the more ghastly.

Senator Gore, the blind Senator from Oklahoma, was there. It fell to my lot to give him my arm and conduct him about. He and Mrs. Gore are seldom separated, and she went to dinner with him and prepared his food for him. He feels for what he wants with his fingers and most deftly uses his fingers to put meat and vegetables on his fork. It does not seem to be a bit unconventional the way he does it and his eyes are so bright in spite of their blindness that one wonders if after all he cannot see. His face is smooth and almost beautiful and his hearing is so acute that he seems to be able to listen to what one person is saying to him and also absorb a conversation several seats away at the same time. She is a nice-looking woman and devotes every second of her life to him.

While the men were smoking I slipped through the doors leading to the west end of the corridor to inquire after Mrs. Taft. I had the doors everywhere leading to this part of the house closed, so as to prevent the music from reaching her. Delaney was there still. Just as I was going out the President entered, and I left him and the doctor together. From the smoking room we went out on the East Terrace, which Mrs. Taft had fitted up so beautifully for the warm nights. All the electric lights were shrouded in red paper, and the terrace was made like fairyland with palms and flowers. I know the beauty of the scene cut the President like a knife, for even I could but think of the pleasure she anticipated from this lovely tropical panorama she had taken such pains to prepare.

Delaney is there to-night. Just before leaving, the usher told me that the newspapers had heard something of her illness, and so the President prepared a statement for me to give out if I thought it well to do so later, announcing the fact that she had been exhausted by the nervous strain of the day and that a few days' rest would fit her again for her social duties.

As soon as I came to my room I read this statement to the Associated Press, and only just at this minute thought of my dear old friend Dick Oulahan, who is in charge of the New York Sun press service, and it is now twelve-fifteen. Dick says he fears it has missed his first edition, but I hope not. I almost dread to-morrow, but I hope for the best. If she gets through this attack with nothing more fatal than a temporary paralysis, she will be fortunate, and it will be a warning to her in the future. It makes me feel very reproachful. We have all been thinking for the President, and none of us ever seemed to have thought that she might be overtaxing herself. She always seemed so strong and self-reliant, however, that it was natural not to feel any anxiety about her.

This time to-morrow night we were to have been on the train for Petersburg and then to Charlotte, where there is to be a big celebration. Mrs. Taft has looked forward for weeks to this trip, and she has anticipated so much enjoyment in meeting Mrs. Stonewall Jackson, who was to be their hostess in Charlotte. Of course, she will not be able to go. He will go, however, if she is any better, for it would be a bitter disappointment to all interested if he should be forced to withdraw at this hour.

He knows what duty is in the face of sorrow. His mother died while he was on a trip around the world, and when he suggested backing down she insisted on his going and told him that even if it were certain that she would die, still he must put his family welfare above sentiment and sacrifice every emotion if his friends thought that this trip to the East and to Russia was essential for his campaign for the Presidential nomination. I have seen him suffer in the Philippines when a lesser man would have yielded to the advice of doctors and withdrawn from the tropics. He stands surrounded by sorrow now, but it will not swerve him from his duty as he sees it.

Good-night. May God grant a more hopeful outlook on the morrow.


Washington, D. C.
May 18, 1909. 1b

Dear Clara:

I am leaving in a few minutes for the train with the President. We do not leave the city until sometime after midnight, but we go on the train at ten. But I cannot leave until I relieve your curiosity, if not your anxiety, about our First Lady of the Land. Without drugs of any kind she has slept almost uninterruptedly for sixteen hours, showing what an exhausted state she must have been in yesterday when the attack came on.

The President, and I, and Clarence Edwards, went riding at five this afternoon, and his account of his fears and feelings last night was most pathetic and makes me think that I in no way exaggerated the case. Delaney tells me to-night that she has undoubtedly improved, and he hopes that she will fully recover. Her old will and determination asserted itself to-day, when she arose from the bed without warning and attempted to walk.

One more chapter of accidents, and then I am through. The President was thrown from his horse this afternoon, but luckily not hurt. I am sure he is bruised and that be will be very sore to-morrow, but it was lucky that he was not killed. We were riding near the water's edge on the unimproved part of Alexandria Island when his horse took fright from the water, which suddenly became disturbed by a gust of wind, and wheeled. He simply wheeled from under the President and the latter fell on his back. The horse might easily have stepped on him, but instead of this he became frightened at the President on the ground and leapt to one side. I dismounted at once, and by the time I reached the President he was shaking with laughter, so much so that he could hardly get up. He mounted the animal a moment later and finished the ride. Later he asked me what I had thought when I saw him going.

"My only thought was, Mr. President, that the devil was certainly sitting up overtime to see what next he could do to the Taft family."

At which he laughed again and said:

"It certainly does look as if he were giving an extra amount of attention to us, doesn't it?"

He went to his wife's room and asked me to wait. When he came out he said that it was all right, that he would be ready to go at ten o'clock. He thought her condition even more improved than it was this morning. We have been able to keep the serious side of her illness entirely from the press, and the fact that he has not broken his engagements has completely disarmed the sensationalists. We were to go to Old Point and Hampton on Saturday on the Dolphin. If she recovers sufficiently to walk, she will accompany us, as the doctor says a light sea trip can do her no harm and may be most beneficial. If anything happens on this trip I shall begin to believe in a hoodoo and will start searching for it. It is not necessary to warn you not to breathe a word of any of this to anyone, but an extra precautionary warning may not be amiss.

Good-night. As ever,

Washington, D. C.
May 27, 1909. 1c

Dear Clara:

If you are going to let my letters distress you, I will cease to write them, but it is a great relief to tell you all I know and to unburden myself to you.

I understand perfectly how the illness of Mrs. Taft, and the tragedy it seems to lug into his administration, would affect any woman of high sensibilities. I am glad to say that she is better. As we went riding day before yesterday, she came to the window with Mrs. More and watched us start off. It almost brought tears to my eyes to see her thus. She tried to smile, but it was only a ghost of her old smile. On our return the President would not dismount until she had come to the window, and he threw her a kiss as he got off the saddle.

I would not have thought the President could be as attentive to anyone as he is to her. He seems to be thinking of her every second and looks for chances to do little things for her. It is rather unlike him in a way. The little things of life do not seem to fill up his mind. I know that he is very much unnerved over her illness, yet Mrs. More says that he never permits himself to appear serious for a minute when he is in her room. He laughs all the time and tries to amuse her. When by himself he sits for a long time, often simply looking into the distance.

We had left the nurse in charge of Mrs. Taft, and I had arranged for a box at the Belasco Theater to witness The Revelers....

Washington, D. C.
June 1, 1909. 1d

Dear Clara:

Mrs. Taft was not well enough to go to Pittsburgh; in fact, she only comes into the corridor of the White House when she can do so without running any danger of seeing anyone.

Washington, D. C.
June 8, 1909. 1e

Dear Aunt Kitty:

The shadow over the White House has cast its gloom over me these past few weeks, for I think I have felt more sympathy for the troubles over there than I have admitted even to myself. I think I have been helpful to them also. I have worked unceasingly for the President, and it has been labor at times to keep him up to doing things.

Yesterday, while we were going over the links at Chevy Chase, he seemed to be so full of joy and interest in his game. I caught his eye and it seemed as if there was a world of misery in his mind. His great optimism has kept him up, but now I have seen signs that he realizes at last the tragedy which has entered his administration. He has got to keep up, and he has to think of everything but himself, but I am sure his great soul is wrapped in darkness over this continued illness of Mrs. Taft. After all, may not this very sorrow supply the one thing lacking in that soul? His optimism seems to be too great at times to surround him completely. Too great optimism may shut one off from the world just as too great selfishness or too much cynicism. Even this affliction, coming at this time, may be only the Great Hand molding him for greater good.

But to-night, good-night.


6/18/09 -- Mrs. Taft had quote a bad attack while I was absent, but the doctor says it was not part of this trouble at all, but was like an attack of biliousness. 1f
6/22/09 -- Mrs. Taft had actually been for a motor ride. She seemed a little nervous, Mrs. More said, but once out of the White house she seemed to enjoy it. [Mrs. More was Mrs. Taft's sister Eleanor, who was a frequent hostess of the White House during Mrs. Taft's illness. (p. 175).] 1g
6/22/09 [different letter from above] -- I know you will be glad to hear that Mrs. Taft is better , really better, though she is still unstrung in nerves and seems to be in constant fear all the time that she may at any moment become paralyzed, there is so much of it in the family. It is largely morbidness now. 1g
Beverly, Mass.
August 10[, 1909] 1h

My Dear Clara:

The President's face lighted up with the keenest enjoyment when I told him that Mrs. Taft was in the motor outside. He hurried out and gave her a kiss -- several of them, the papers say -- which could be heard by everyone present. Mrs. Taft was looking better than I had expected to see her; in fact, she looks almost normal except for a certain pallor, which I do not like. The President gives at least the half of each day to her and never permits anything to distract him from this duty. He plays golf every morning, either at Essex or at Myopia, and returns to lunch at two o'clock. The rest of the day is hers. He sits with her and talks and tries to make her forget her illness, and in the afternoon they motor. He always seems to want me to go with them, and I make no engagements which will conflict with what he desires. I feel that at this time I am some help to him, for I carry my share of the conversation and try to interest her in the many little details which he would not think to give to her. Very often Mrs. More and Bob accompany us, but most frequently there are only the four of us-the President, Mrs. Taft, Mrs. More, and myself.

8/15/09 -- [Mrs. More, who had been acting as White House hostess during Mrs. Taft's illness, returns home.] 1i [By November 17, Mrs. Tom Laughlin was serving as White House hostess.] 1j
Beverly, Mass.
August 18, 1909. 1k

My Dear Mr. President [to Theodore Roosevelt]:

Mrs. Taft is not at all well, and I fear it will be many months before she recovers. This state of health in his wife has been a source of constant anxiety to the President, but his optimistic nature shines out healthfully through all his troubles. I do not believe it is possible for her to resume her duties at the White House next winter, though the President does not see her condition as it appears to the rest of us. His optimism in this tragic matter, as in everything, shines out like the sun, and I dread the awakening for him.

9/3/09 -- Mrs. Taft is improving very rapidly now, and the President is very optimistic that she will be able to resume her duties in the winter, but I fear she will not be able to do so. 1l
11/17/09 -- Mrs. Taft is not going to take part in any of the social affairs this afternoon. The doctors have told the President that if she attempts to do so they will not be responsible for her condition at the end of it. What they fear is a relapse, and every effort is being made to keep her in comparative seclusion. She has improved greatly. I was never so struck with her improvement as last night. 1m
1/2/10 -- [At the New Year's Day reception at the White House, attended by about 5500 people,] Mrs. Taft received with the President for three quarters of an hour then retired. 1n
6/9/10 -- The President got me to see if Mrs. Taft was strong enough to receive the Prince and Princess in the upper corridor, and she said she was. 1o
1/28/11 -- The President enjoyed himself at the cotillion. ... Mrs. Taft was not well enough to go; in fact, the President discourages her from going to these entertainments without him. 1p
4/20/11 -- I presented by name sixteen hundred and fifty Daughters [of the American Revolution] and the President and Mrs. Taft shook hands with every one. Two hours later Mrs. Taft gave a dinner of twenty-four and a dance after that, which lasted until nearly four this morning. 1q
4/23/11 -- Mrs. Taft gave her last dinner and musicale last evening. 1r
5/6/11 -- The garden party was one of the best ever given by Mrs. Taft. 1s
5/14/11 -- I thought, as I watched her [Mrs. Taft] while the President was speaking, how truly pretty she was and how well she was looking. She always looks happy when listening to the President. 1t
5/14/11 -- It was nearly one o'clock when the President moved we go to bed. ... [But I] felt called upon to remain up until I should locate Mr. Stimson or else fail to do so and go to bed.

That is what kept me up. I failed to locate the new secretary [of war? Hilles?] and had just turned in when I heard the President come into the hall and call loudly for his brother Harry. I first thought he might be ill himself, his voice sounded so full of alarm. It never occurred to me that Mrs. Taft was ill. I opened my door and listened, and when I heard Mr. Harry Taft join the President and both go into his room, I thought it was one of those midnight conferences which often come when the President is sleepless and has something on his mind. I was awakened early by Mr. Harry Taft, who came in to tell me that Mrs. Taft was ill and that all plans must be changed at once, and asked me to get hold of Hilles and come to the President as soon as possible. 1u

5/14/11 -- While here [Harrisburg, PA] I called up New York and talked with Howard Taft [sic] who told me that Mrs. Taft was about the same. 1v
5/16/11 -- To-night I am dining at the White House, and at eight-thirty I go the [sic] Jewish Temple with the President and later to the Meyers' to a musicale. I think some people think it very funny of the President to go out when his wife is ill, but those who criticize him do not know him. He is perfectly natural and sees no reason to remain in the house with closed blinds when there is illness. He is a poor reader and never spends an evening with his books unless there is something of specific nature he wants to get out of them. If he is left alone, he soon gets tired and goes to sleep. And after a hard day's work and serious thought he needs some mental recreation, or else he would go to pieces. If he permitted these troubles to crush him, he would be unable to do the work he has at hand. He must go on as he is doing. 1w
12/12/11 -- Mrs. Taft came down with the President and made the rounds with him, shaking hands with each guest and making a very pleasant impression on them. 1x
Cited Sources
  1. Butt, Archibald W. Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Military Aide. Garden City, NY: Doubleday (1930). Volume 1: pages 1-432. Volume 2: pages 433-862.
    a  pp.86-91  b  pp.91-93  c  p.99  d  p.108  e  pp.101-102  f  p.123  g  p.129  h  p.173  i  p.175  j  p.209  k  p.179  l  p.193  m  pp.210-211  n  p.247  o  p.376  p  p.585  q  p.615  r  p.620  s  p.642  t  p.650  u  pp.651-652  v  p.653  w  pp.656-657  x  p.787

    Comment: Butt, an Army officer, was military aide first to President Theodore Roosevelt and then to President William Taft. On April 14, 1912, Butt was at sea aboard the Titanic returning from a European vacation that Taft had insisted he take. President Taft later said: "When I heard that part of the ship's company had gone down, I gave up hope for the rescue of Major Butt, unless by accident. I knew that he would certainly remain on the ship's deck until every duty had been performed and every sacrifice made that properly fell on one charged, as he would feel himself charged, with responsibility for the rescue of others." Taft was correct. Butt did not survive the sinking.

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