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The Lost Love Of A Bachelor President
The strongest traits in his own character led James Buchanan to tragedy in his love for Ann Coleman—and changed history, 40 years later
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
Ann’s letter, reflecting upon Buchanan’s integrity, hit him in his most sensitive spot; it hurt his pride and self-respect and created a dilemma which these very elements of his character made it impossible to resolve. To quicken his attentions after this accusation would only suggest additional proof of the charge; to fail to do so would have precisely the same effect. Buchanan was angry, frustrated, and confused, yet he curbed his temper and turned for a solution to what was always his ultimate sanctuary—resignation and faith in the morrow. He answered Ann’s note politely but offered no explanation.
Matters still might have been happily resolved had not another incident occurred. This we may present in the words of a niece of the lady who unwittingly precipitated the crisis:
“Some time after the engagement had been announced, Mr. Buchanan was obliged to go out of town on a business trip. He returned in a few days and casually dropped in to see … Mrs. William Jenkins, with whose husband he was on terms of intimate friendship. With her was staying her sister, Miss Grace Hubley … a pretty and charming young lady. From this innocent call the whole trouble arose. A young lady told Miss Coleman of it and thereby excited her jealousy. She was indignant that he should visit anyone before coming to her. On the spur of the moment she penned an angry note and released him from his engagement.
“The note was handed to him while he was in the Court House. Persons who saw him receive it remarked afterward that they noticed him turn pale when he read it. Mr. Buchanan was a proud man. The large fortune of his lady was to him only another barrier to his trying to persuade her to reconsider her rejection of himself.”
The final crisis developed during the week beginning Monday, November 29. For several days thereafter Ann was so low-spirited that her mother persuaded her to go to Philadelphia, hoping that this would ease her distressed spirits. She left Lancaster on Saturday, December 4, in company with her younger sister, Sarah, to visit with their sister Margaret, wife of Judge Hemphill. A special attraction was the series of plays then being performed at the Philadelphia Theater.
After Ann left for Philadelphia, Buchanan immersed himself in business. On Monday, December 6, he succeeded in getting a settlement out of court of part of the Columbia Bridge Company case. He was at the prothonotary’s office for a considerable part of the day, entering the decisions of the arbitrators, getting signatures of the principal parties to the agreement, and winding up the details. It was a great triumph for him, which doubtless compensated his pride somewhat for the cruelly disheartening upset of his marriage plans.
Early Thursday morning, December 9, the thunderbolt struck. A special messenger from Philadelphia brought the shocking news that Ann Coleman had died suddenly at her sister’s home shortly after midnight. What happened may be related as Judge Thomas Kittera of Philadelphia, who knew the Colemans, recorded it in his diary on that fatal Thursday which was to change the course of James Buchanan’s life, and with it possibly the course of American history.
“At noon yesterday,” wrote Kittera, “I met this young lady on the street, in the vigour of health, and but a few hours after, her friends were mourning her death. She had been engaged to be married, and some unpleasant misunderstanding occurring, the match was broken off. This circumstance was preying on her mind. In the afternoon she was laboring under a fit of hysterics; in the evening she was so little indisposed that her sister visited the theatre.
“After night she was attacked with strong hysterical convulsions, which induced the family to send for physicians, who thought this would soon go off, as it did; but her pulse gradually weakened until midnight, when she died. Dr. Chapman, who spoke with Dr. Physick, says it is the first instance he ever knew of hysteria producing death. To affectionate parents sixty miles off, what dreadful intelligence. To a younger sister whose evening was spent in mirth and folly, what a lesson of wisdom does it teach. Beloved and admired by all who knew her, in the prime of life, with all the advantages of education, beauty, and wealth, in a moment she has been cut off.”
Judge Kittera might well have added, what crushing intelligence to her late fiancé! The news swept through Lancaster like a soul-chilling wind. One gentleman wrote of it as “the most affecting circumstance that has ever taken place here since I have been an inhabitant.”
There immediately arose the hint of suicide, though no one could produce any positive evidence of it. The hideous part was that no one apparently did know exactly what had happened, and it is entirely probable that James Buchanan lived out his whole life haunted by doubts and self-accusations on this very point. From Dr. Chapman’s own records, and the agreement of most of the later stories on this one particular, it seems certain that Ann Coleman died of an overdose of laudanum, though no one could be sure whether it was taken by instruction, by accident or by intent.