The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site has opened the “Death in the White House” which explores how the Hoosier president and his family endured private grief in the “people’s house.” (Photo/courtesy BHPS)

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

March 26, 2024

When his wife, Caroline, finally succumbed to the tuberculosis that took her strength and her breath, President Benjamin Harrison quietly held her hand for a few moments, before rising suddenly and going into his private room to cry alone.

Harrison was in the final year of his first – and, as it turned out, only – term as president and, again, found himself at the intersection of the public and private that is part of life in the White House. During his presidency, he had already buried a Cabinet secretary and the Secretary of Navy’s wife and daughter. Also, he would have known that his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, had died at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. only a month after his inauguration as the ninth president.

Undoubtedly, Caroline’s death was a greater heartbreak. Harrison would have to endure his private grief, while helping his children and grandchildren through their sadness and leading the nation in saying good-bye to the first lady.

How personal pain mixes with the customs and expectations of the presidency is showcased in a new exhibit, “Death in the White House,” which opened on Friday at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis. The exhibit, displayed on the third floor of the Harrison home, not only provides the details of Caroline’s death but ruminates on the customs of mourning and funerals from the Victorian era that are still practiced today.

“I think it’s that commonality that they’re public figures, but they’re people and have their personal lives,” Jennifer Capps, vice president of curatorship and exhibition at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, said. “I think this gives an insight into how touched (Benjamin Harrison) was by his family, how connected he (was) to his family and how important they were to him as well.”


Seamstress records history

The “Death in the White House” exhibit is a companion to the “Life in the White House” exhibit, which opened in January and gives a vivid account of the extended Harrison family’s daily life in the nation’s executive mansion.


Linking the two exhibits is the personal diary of Josephine Kneip, the Harrisons’ seamstress, who chronicled the family’s public and private life. Kneip worked for the Harrisons in Indianapolis and moved with them to Washington, D.C., after Harrison was elected president in 1888. While there, she not only kept the first family’s clothes cleaned and stitched, but she also filled the role of administrative assistant, helping Caroline perform her duties as first lady.

Written in a mix of English and her native German, Kneip’s diary provides a fascinating peek inside the Harrison family’s routines, rituals, joys and sorrows. She was so close to the family that she cared and comforted Caroline in her final months and was in the room when the first lady died in the early morning hours of Oct. 25, 1892.

From Kneip comes the account of Harrison sitting by his wife’s bedside, holding her hand before becoming brokenhearted and leaving her room to grieve by himself. Harrison “stayed near his dearest all day with a brave heart,” Kneip wrote. Then, just prior to Caroline’s death at 1:40 a.m., “the president held Mrs. Harrison’s hand and said, ‘Till death do us part.’ Oh, it certainly was hard to see or witness.”

Harrison and Caroline had married in 1853, when they were just 20 and 21, respectively. They moved from Ohio to settle in Indiana and start a family. When Harrison took command of the 70th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, he and his wife kept a running correspondence.

Capps highlighted one exchange with Harrison writing to Caroline, trying to limit the number of household pets.

“I think I will be very happy in the years to come if you don’t want too many canaries and too many cats,” Harrison wrote. However, as his regiment marched south and got closer to the fighting in Georgia, the future president relented, writing, “You can have as many birds and as many cats as you want.”

Kneip’s diary recapped Caroline’s visible struggle to stay close to Harrison as she was dying. The first lady, Kneip related, kept wanting her wedding ring, which likely had been taken off her finger because the tuberculosis was causing her hands to swell. Eventually, the ring had to be cut so she could slip it on.

In Caroline’s final days, Kneip writes the ring was removed with soap and water then placed in the safe next to the first lady’s anniversary ring that Harrison had sent her during the Civil War. Both rings were placed on Caroline’s hand for the funeral service.

“So you can get that very personal side of what is happening with the Harrison family there as well,” Capps said, “which, I think, makes them more relatable to those who are learning about them and learning the history of the presidency and the first lady as well.”


‘Specter of mortality’ loomed

 Of the 45 U.S. presidents, eight died in office along with three first ladies. Caroline was the second first lady to die in the White House.

Caroline had long battled sinus and bronchial issues, Capps said, but in March 1892, she started suffering hemorrhages in her lungs. Believing fresh air would be therapeutic, Harrison rented a three-bedroom cottage on Loon Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. Fresh cut greenery was draped across the windows and over the doorway in the hopes the fragrance from the sap would enhance her recovery.

With her health failing, Caroline was taken back to the White House where, on Oct. 20, she and Harrison celebrated their 39th wedding anniversary. Kneip wrote in her diary that the vice president’s wife sent a bouquet of red roses and the Daughters of the American Revolution sent a metal basket full of lilies.

After her death, Caroline’s coffin was placed in the East Room for the family service, followed by a public service, Capps said. Everything was draped in black, including the bunting on the windows, picture frames and mirrors, as was the custom of the time.

Caroline was then taken back to Indianapolis by train and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.

Capps noted the Harrisons endured several personal losses during their four years in the White House. “I feel like they had a little bit of an unfair share of tragedy during his administration,” she said.

Caroline’s sister, Elizabeth, passed away shortly after the Harrisons had moved into the White House, and her father died about a month after Caroline.

Also, in February 1890, the Washington, D.C., home of Benjamin Franklin Tracy, secretary of the Navy, caught fire, claiming the lives of his wife and his youngest daughter. Harrison arrived at the scene while the house was still in flames and, according to newspaper reports, he assisted in resuscitating Tracy. Less than a year later, in January 1891, Harrison’s secretary of the treasury, William Windom, suffered a heart attack and died during the New York Board of Trade and Commerce annual banquet.

Capps sees the new exhibit as providing not only a history lesson but also a window into some of the private moments in the Hoosier president’s public life.

“We’ve looked at the president and first lady a lot, so I’m familiar with her stories,” Capps said. “I think that this time and looking at these particular topics, again, just going back to Josephine’s firsthand account of what’s happening in the White House is such a wonderful insight to that life in the White House.”


If you go

The “Death in the White” exhibit opened March 22 and continues through Dec. 30, 2024, at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, 1230 N. Delaware St., Indianapolis. The purchase of a daily ticket provides access to both the special exhibits along with a 75-minute tour of the national historic landmark.

For more information on the home and to purchase tickets, visit the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site website.

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

Related Posts