Last updated: March 19, 2021
First Lady of the United States
Place of Birth:
Date of Birth:
April 19, 1832
Place of Death:
South Pasadena, California
Date of Death:
March 13, 1918
Place of Burial:
Lake View Cemetery
A Farmer’s Daughter
Lucretia Rudolph was born on her father’s farm in Garrettsville, Ohio on April 19, 1832 – the oldest of four children to Zeb and Arabella Mason Rudolph. This land in Portage County had belonged to her paternal grandfather, John Rudolph, and a portion was divided amongst his sons, John and Zeb. Her father was a carpenter, in addition to farming his land. Lucretia was named after her maternal grandmother, Lucretia Greene, and was called “Crete” by her family and closest friends. She grew up surrounded by relatives, from both sides of the family, who lived nearby.
As the oldest, Lucretia learned the responsibilities and chores of farm life and of running a household. Her mother stressed the virtue of “self-government” – rising up to do what was expected, what was the right thing to do. Crete was described as a petite young lady with high cheekbones and forehead, dark hair and eyes, and very intelligent. She was also very shy, reserved, and serious (some said “cold”) due to growing up in a household that was not very affectionate. Somehow, she and her two brothers and sister knew they were loved, but she later recalled that her mother only kissed her infrequently; she never remembered being kissed by her father. Even though they were not openly emotional, Crete’s parents were kind, interested parents. And, religion and education were of utmost importance in the Rudolph household. Her parents felt that education was equally important for all their children: the girls as well as the boys.
Lucretia loved to read and felt that, “It would be of about as much use to stop breathing as to let books alone if they are anywhere in the region about me. I have to read. . .as I have to live.”
The Rudolphs sent their children to the local district school in Garrettsville. When Lucretia was 15 years old, they decided that she must continue her education in a school of higher standards. They packed up some of her belongings and drove her about 20 miles northeast to the Geauga Seminary, an academy for boys and girls at the crossroads of Chester Township, Ohio. It was her first time away from home. Lucretia boarded with other girls on the third floor of the main building. The education offered there was a typical, classical one with studies of Greek, Latin, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, geography, and music.
It was at the Seminary that Crete first crossed paths with James A. Garfield of Orange Township, Ohio – an “overgrown, uncombed, unwashed boy” who she thought was some sort of “strange genius,” for he was the smartest in their class. They remained classmates there until June 1850.
In the Fall of 1850, Lucretia was enrolled in the very first term of a new, co-educational college: the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in Hiram, Ohio. It was a non-denominational preparatory school established by the Disciples of Christ, the Rudolph family’s religion. Her father was on the board of trustees and a great supporter of the school. He even helped construct the first brick building and also built a new farmhouse on Hiram Hill for his family to be closer to the school. Eclectic students and faculty boarded and studied there. The Rudolphs were known to an entire generation of Hiram students as “Uncle Zeb” and “Aunt Arabella.” They opened their home and it was often the center of campus life.
The classical coursework was more difficult than that of the Geauga Seminary. In addition, Lucretia began studying French, sang in the Glee Club, and helped start a literary society that put on “lyceums” which involved debates and skits. She also edited a school magazine called The Eclectic Star, writing essays and drawing sketches for it. In the fall term of 1851, Crete was reunited with a former classmate: James A. Garfield. The two of them were infatuated with others: Lucretia had her dapper Albert Hall, and James, the pretty, flirtatious Mary Hubbell.
In the spring of 1853, the teacher of their Greek Class became ill. James Garfield, far ahead of the other students, was asked to take over the class. Both he and Lucretia had recently broken off their romances. Now, they began to take notice of one another. When it was time for the class picture, James took the photographer aside and asked that Miss Rudolph be seated next to him.
In November 1853, James wrote the first of what would become 1,200 letters that he and Lucretia would exchange during their relationship. He was traveling east with his mother to meet relatives when he encountered “a sight so magnificent that I have to share it with someone.” He described Niagara Falls in the very flowery, poetic manner of 19th Century writing. He also wrote about studying Greek and Latin classics and invited Lucretia to write back and share her opinions. This began their romantic relationship. In February 1854, they shared a private talk in the college’s Lower Chapel - and exchanged their first kiss. This was the beginning of a lengthy courtship, fraught with many ups and downs due to their different upbringings and temperaments.
After commencing from the Eclectic in June 1854, Lucretia was a teacher there, as well as teaching in the Ohio cities of Ravenna, Bryan, Chagrin Falls, and Cleveland - while James attended Williams College in Massachusetts to complete his degree. Her favorite experience was teaching reading to youngsters at the Brownell School in Cleveland. She enjoyed earning her own money, took painting, drawing, and piano classes, and attended the theater.
Wife & Mother
The Garfields’ somewhat rocky courtship lasted until 1858 when, during a buggy ride that spring, the couple decided to “try a life in union.” They were 26 years old. James felt it was the right thing to do, even though he was not really prepared to be a husband and father. A simple wedding was planned for November 11, 1858 at Lucretia’s father’s home in Hiram. It was suggested to the bride-to-be by her brother Joe that she send one of her handwritten invitations to the groom, just to be sure that he showed up! Lucretia wore a modest white gown with lace around the neck. Several girls from the Eclectic were bridesmaids and served refreshments at the wedding supper following the ceremony. A guest stated that “the bride and her maids were a galaxy of beauty."
There was no honeymoon. The newlyweds moved into Mrs. Northrop’s boarding house on the Hiram Hill to begin their life together. It seems that the forces drawing these two together proved to be stronger than the differences pulling them apart.
Their first child, named Eliza Arabella after her grandmothers and nicknamed “Little Trot,” was born there on July 3, 1860. She resembled Lucretia, with chestnut-colored hair and dark eyes.
However, even the birth of their first child did not keep James at home. He had many responsibilities and obligations: teaching at the Eclectic and becoming its principal (president); meeting in Columbus with the legislature as an Ohio State Senator; preaching in the Disciples of Christ churches in northeastern Ohio; studying to be a lawyer. And then the American Civil War broke out in April 1861. James volunteered to serve in the Union Army, while Lucretia and Trot had to move back in with her parents. He was absent for many reasons and their marriage suffered. Crete was “trying to be the best little wife and mother possible,” but had to admit that she could not be as warmly responsive as her husband wished. Later, they both referred to this time as “the dark years.” They discovered that during the first five years of marriage, they had only been together 20 weeks.
The Garfields purchased their first home during the Civil War. Lucretia went to work enlarging the Hiram house with her father’s assistance and making it comfortable for James’ return from the Army. Their second child, a son, was born here on October 11, 1863. He was named Harry Augustus after two close family friends. Unfortunately, Trot died from diphtheria just several weeks later on December 1st. The loss of their precious girl profoundly affected both parents. The war had also opened James’ eyes and heart and made him appreciate home and family. Crete found a new closeness with her husband.
Several children followed: James Rudolph (“Jimmie”), born October 17, 1865 in Hiram; Mary (“Mollie”), born January 16, 1867 in Washington, DC; Irvin McDowell (“Old Dutch Brig”), born August 3, 1870 in Hiram; Abram (“Nabor”), born November 21, 1872 in Washington; and Edward (“Neddie”), born December 26, 1874 in Washington – the first time Lucretia was assisted in labor by taking chloroform. The next morning, the other children were delighted and surprised at the arrival of the new boy, but “Mollie burst into tears because he was not a girl.” The large Garfield family endured another loss in November 1876 when little Neddie died of whooping cough before his second birthday. His lighter eyes and hair had made him resemble his father.
Lucretia, busier than ever with childcare and chores, had to manage two households – in Hiram during the summer and fall, and in Washington, DC during sessions of Congress the remainder of the year. James had been elected to Congress during the war and took his seat in December 1863. The family joined him in Washington, first in rented places and then at their own home at 13th and I Streets beginning in 1869, becoming a very close-knit unit. Both parents assisted in their children’s education, encouraging reading and a love of literature, providing piano lessons and nurturing their talent in art, exposing them to Greek, Latin, and French, and supplementing classroom studies with trips to the Smithsonian, carriage rides to the Soldiers’ Home, and games of croquet and bagatelle.
Lucretia dedicated herself to creating a pleasant home and to raising their children. However, there were times when she struggled with her inner self about being educated, “yet obliged to spend the largest time the victim of young barbarians.” Those four sons could be a handful! “They do torment the life out of me sometimes,” Lucretia shared in letters to her husband.
She had a keen intellect, an interest in science and current events, and a natural ability in art, languages, and interior decoration. Lucretia was pragmatic and adept at handling construction projects, personally overseeing many of the additions, renovations, and redecorating projects in the Garfield homes throughout the years. She was particularly inspired by the Aethestic Movement, seeing it on full display at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, which Lucretia attended over several weeks – gathering ideas for furniture, china dishes, wallpapers, fireplace tiles, and accessories that she incorporated into her home.
Read more about Lucretia as first lady, mother and grandmother, and how she changed her family farm into what visitors to James A. Garfield National Historic Site see today.